Is Your Skin Sensitive or Sensitized?

Bright red and burning skin might be cluing you into a bigger problem.

What’s your skin type? It seems like a simple question with a simple answer—you’ve either been blessed with normal skin, put up with an oily sheen 24/7, need to slather your dry face with heavy creams before bed, or have adverse reactions to the slightest change in your skin-care routine.

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Portrait of woman showing her pimples on isolated white background

Turns out, more than 60 percent of women say their skin is sensitive, but most of them don’t actually have chronic sensitive skin, says New York City dermatologist Michelle Henry, M.D. “Many women are experiencing what we call sensitized skin,” she says. “That’s when something in the environment changes the skin’s normal function. The results are a stinging sensation, burning, and physical markers like redness.”

Sound like your skin? Luckily, there are simple ways to get it back to normal.

What Causes Sensitized Skin and How Do You Treat It?

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You’ve Overloaded On Skin-Care Products

Today’s potent, multistep skin-care regimens are the leading cause of sensitized skin. “Many of my patients come in with inflamed skin and then pull out their huge bag of skin-care products,” says dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D. “They may have a complex routine with 10 to 15 steps that are based on Korean skin care, but a Korean regimen tends to be light and hydrating, unlike the acids and exfoliating products used in the U.S.”

The most likely culprits are harsh cleansers that strip the skin (more on those to come) and acne or wrinkle fighters with high levels of benzoyl peroxide or alpha hydroxy acids. The combination of these active ingredients often leads to more breakouts, redness, and burning.

If your skin has become sensitized, dial down your routine to two steps: a gentle cleanser and a moisturizer, says Sandy Skotnicki, M.D., a dermatologist and the author of Beyond Soap. (Your morning moisturizer should include SPF 30.) When your flare-up heals, add in a retinol every other night to keep skin clear and promote collagen production, Dr. Bhanusali says. Once you can tolerate that, start to use an antioxidant serum in the morning after you cleanse.  Space out additional steps by a few weeks to see how the skin reacts, Dr. Bhanusali says.

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