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The secret to finding skincare for sensitive skin

The beauty aisle doesn't have to be a nightmare.

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With an endless supply of beauty brands and products to choose from, what should be a fun jaunt through the skincare aisle can be an overwhelming experience. This is especially true for those with sensitive skin, as the fear of a product leaving breakouts behind or causing an allergic reaction always lingers. Knowing what ingredients to look for, what formulas to avoid, and how to incorporate new products into your skincare routine is key.

To help make sifting through the slew of products in the skincare aisle a little easier for this specific skin type, we spoke with board-certified dermatologists Dr. Stefani Kappel of Newport Beach, California, and Dr. Emmanuel Loucas of New York City.

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How to tell if you have sensitive skin

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People with sensitive skin experience irritation from product ingredients and allergies and may also have other skin conditions.

Sensitive skin is described as skin that's prone to irritation and doesn’t tolerate certain ingredients in skincare products well. While skin sensitivities can occur in anyone, some people have predisposing factors that make them more susceptible, such as a history of eczema, says Dr. Loucas. Other inflammatory skin conditions, including acne, rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis can also lead to sensitive skin. "The normal skin barrier is disrupted by these conditions, causing breaks in the skin that make it more likely to react to various skincare products and environmental pollutants," Dr. Loucas says.

Finally, external factors can also lead to skin sensitivity. In particular, overzealous use of products can disrupt the skin barrier, which is the outermost layer of skin that protects it from environmental pollutants, cold weather conditions, allergens, and microorganisms like yeast, bacteria, and viruses.

How to create a sensitive skincare routine

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Keep things simple with products that contain as few ingredients as possible.

Oftentimes, sensitive skin types are only able to tolerate gentle, hypoallergenic skincare products, and any deviation from this routine results in irritation that can manifest itself as itching, burning, stinging, tingling, and even pain, says Dr. Loucas. When it comes to creating an effective regimen for sensitive skin, less is more. Generally speaking, all you need is a gentle face wash that cleanses without stripping essential moisture, a hydrating eye cream to protect this most delicate skin, and a moisturizer to reinforce and strengthen the skin barrier to keep out irritants in the first place, says Dr. Kappel.

For some people with sensitive skin, cleansing twice a day can still cause irritation. If this is the case, Dr. Loucas recommends skipping the morning cleanse in favor of a simple rinse with water and save the cleanser for your nighttime regimen to remove the day's pollutants, dirt, oil, and impurities.

What to look for on product labels if you have sensitive skin

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Once you find products that work for you, it's best not to change things up too much.

A rule of thumb when shopping for sensitive skin: The fewer ingredients a product has, the better. Though it may be tempting to put the latest Instagram skincare product to the test, your skincare philosophy should focus on minimalistic products with gentle, hydrating formulas. Sensitive skin-friendly ingredients include glycerin, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid, as these are less likely to cause irritation. If you have sensitive and acne-prone skin, look for skincare and makeup products that are non-comedogenic—this means they won't clog your pores, and thus, are less likely to break you out.

What to avoid if you have sensitive skin

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Products containing "fragrance" could be problematic for people with sensitive skin.

In general, you should also avoid products with the word "fragrance" on the label—this is an umbrella term for ingredients that add an aroma or mask unpleasant scents of other ingredients. Though the term is approved by the FDA, companies are not required to list exactly what “fragrance” consists of. It could mean the product contains hundreds of chemicals, which can make it difficult to pinpoint what's causing a reaction in your skin. Always opt for unscented, fragrance-free products if your skin is sensitive.

Exfoliating is a skincare step that many love because it gets rid of dead skin cells to reveal new, fresh cells and a softer surface. But those with temperamental skin may experience irritation when exfoliating, as their skin is unable to replenish new skin cells as quickly as exfoliating removes the dead ones (think of it like having to let your bangs grow out of their awkward phase before giving them a good trim). Skip chemical exfoliants containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) if you have sensitive skin and instead opt for a physical exfoliator once a week at most, such as a gentle cleansing brush or a mild scrub that contains gentle ingredients like rice powder over harsher ones that contain microbeads.

How to incorporate products into your routine if you have sensitive skin

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If you're not sure how a product may react, apply just a small amount to your wrist or side of your face and wait.

When it comes to adding new products into your skincare routine, it's important to be methodical in your approach. That is, do it slowly and in small amounts. "I often recommend trying to get a sample of the product if possible to avoid costly purchases that can’t be used," says Dr. Loucas. "I also suggest applying a small amount of the product onto a small area on the side of your face every other day for the first week or so. If no irritation occurs, then you may continue using the product."

Also, introduce only one new product into your routine at a time. If your skin reacts, you know it’s the new product that’s the likely culprit. Also, it often takes the skin time to get acclimated to a new product, so overwhelming the skin's ability to adapt may increase the risk of sensitivity, says Dr. Kappel.

What should you do if your skin is constantly inflamed?

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If your sensitive skin persists, see a dermatologist who can perform a patch test to determine what ingredients you should avoid on labels.

If your irritated skin is persistent, seek out a dermatologist to perform an in-office patch test. "[These can] detect a delayed type of hypersensitivity or contact dermatitis in a patient," says Dr. Kappel. "During a patch test, a grid is placed on the patient's back with several of the most common contact allergens. The patient cannot shower or get it wet for two days. After this, they come back in to see the dermatologist at 24 and 48 hours to detect which boxes on the grid are reactive."

Having these results can be helpful for people to identify what allergens caused a reaction in their skin so they know what ingredients to avoid in their products, be it soaps, preservatives, or latex.

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