Dr Rajesh Goel, Dermatologist

Plagued by sensitive skin?  What causes it and what can help?

If you have sensitive skin, you’re certainly not alone. Surveys have shown that 62% of women and 52% of men in the UK said they had sensitive skin when asked. But what does that really mean?

It’s classified medically as “a syndrome with sensations of stinging, burning, pain, itching, and tingling sensations in response to stimuli that otherwise should not produce such sensations and they are not due to an existing skin disease.”

People usually say its their face that’s affected but it can affect all body areas. It has generally been considered as a cosmetic problem – even psychosomatic – but in recent times it has been shown to be a condition with nerve and skin involvement.

For many people the skin is usually normal although there may be there may be varying degrees of redness. Symptoms may appear spontaneously, but they are usually triggered by cosmetics or physical stimuli such as sunlight, temperature, or wind. Stress or hormonal influences such as during menstruation may also play a role.

In most people the symptoms appear within 1 hour after exposure to triggers and can last from a few minutes to hours. Diagnosis can be made using tests such as a ‘stinging test’ but it is usually diagnosed during a consultation and from the questionnaires filled-in by patients.


The causes

The causes of sensitive skin are poorly understood and, until recently, theories have revolved around damaged or impaired barrier function of the skin. The skin’s own natural microbiome (the microorganisms that live of the surface of the skin) may play a role in this, affecting the immune system and the inflammatory response it regulates.

The nervous system also plays a role. The stinging and itching symptoms experienced by people who have sensitive skin can only be explained by a defect in the sensory perceptions in the skin. This may help explain why rosacea sufferers complain of sensitive skin as the condition is known to be a combination of vascular and inflammatory factors in the facial skin.

Stress is well known to aggravate symptoms of sensitive skin and is often reported as a triggering factor, however, it is usually accompanied by other factors.


What you can do

Combining all the known possible factors that cause sensitive skin, it makes sense to minimise the triggers to control the symptoms.

The best ways to do this include:

  1. Regularly moisturising. A regular application of a moisturising cream will help restore the impaired skin barrier. The moisturiser acts as an artificial barrier, keeping moisture in and helping enhancing the natural barrier. (Tip: this is especially important for people with eczema.)


  1. Gently cleansing. Balancing the need for skin cleansing and avoiding any further damage to the skin barrier is crucial in the care of sensitive skin. Using a gentle, moisturising face wash (and moisturisating afterwards) will help to protect sensitive skin. Try to avoid harsh scrubs and products that contain drying alcohols such as those used in some anti-acne products.


  1. Low level light therapy. Low level laser light or LED therapies have been shown to improve the symptoms noted with sensitive skin. It is possible that the light helps with immune dysregulation and reducing local inflammation thereby improving the neural sensory abnormalities producing the symptoms.Always make sure your practitioner is qualified to use the laser devices. When it comes to LED treatments carried out by a professional may be more efficient than the home-use devices.


There is no clear solution to the problem of sensitive skin but for people who are most affected by this syndrome, following a routine of moisturising, gentle cleansing and maybe use of equipment delivering low level light therapy may help to manage this skin condition.

Find products designed for sensitive skin here .

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