The secret to finding skincare for sensitive skin

The days of being overwhelmed in the beauty aisle are over.


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Creating a skincare routine that feels good for your skin can up your confidence as much as it improves your complexion. The only caveat is that it can take some trial and error to find products that are great fits—which is especially a challenge if you have sensitive skin. The first step: Learn about your skin’s needs, and find the ingredients and products that are suited for your desired outcome.

To better help you navigate the skincare and makeup aisles and learn how to incorporate your new finds into your routines, we spoke to Dr. Elyse Love, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

How to identify sensitive skin

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“Sensitive skin” is a term to describe people whose skin reacts with tingling and burning to most products and may have skin allergies.

“Sensitive skin” is a blanket term to describe people whose skin experiences adverse reactions to products. The culprits can vary or be a combination of factors, including a compromised skin barrier (the outermost layer of the skin), a skin allergy, or a skin condition like rosacea or eczema. Someone with sensitive skin may experience tingling, burning, redness, or a rash to most skincare products, according to Love. To manage sensitive skin and its causes, you'll want to create a routine with the help of a dermatologist and stick to it.

How can you create a skincare routine with sensitive skin?

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With sensitive skin its best to keep your regimens as simple as possible.

When it comes to creating skincare and makeup routines, the general rule of thumb is to keep your regimens as simple as possible. When layering multiple skincare products, it can be difficult to determine which one is causing irritation to the skin or if it’s the combination of the products that's causing irritation. In addition, “it's best to stick with products that are formulated 'for sensitive skin,' many of which will have multiple ingredients to soften the delivery of any irritating ingredients,” Love says.

Although it's tempting to try the latest TikTok and Instagram beauty trends, you want to limit how often you change up your routine. If you’re determined to have a routine that contains a smattering of products, whether it’s to address various skincare concerns or to create endless makeup looks, it may be helpful to find multipurpose products instead of using several different ones. That way, once you determine your skin tolerates the product, it kills at least two birds with one stone. For example, you can find a cleanser that also works well as a makeup remover or have your bronzer double as an eyeshadow.

What to look for when shopping with sensitive skin

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Ingredients like colloidal oatmeal, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides typically work well with sensitive skin

If you’re shopping in the beauty aisle and see products labeled as “hypoallergenic” or “designed for sensitive skin,” this indicates that they should be formulated with minimal fragrance additives (which are often irritating) as well as soothing ingredients, Love says. Those may include colloidal oatmeal, aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, or ceramides, all of which work well with sensitive skin, as they help to calm irritation and moisturize and protect the skin barrier.

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There’s no guarantee that products with these labels are safe for sensitive skin, so you should do some digging by looking at the ingredients on the packaging or the brand’s website. If a product is free of common irritating ingredients (more on those coming) or includes soothing ones, it’s probably a safe bet. You may also see a “non-comedogenic” label, which means that the product does not contain pore-clogging oils. That label is more relevant to acne-prone skin that produces more oil than dry or normal skin types, and you can have sensitive and acne-prone skin, so it's a good term to look for if you fall in that camp.

What to avoid when shopping for sensitive skin

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Generally ingredients fragrance, alcohols, and parabens should be avoided by those with sensitive skin

Just as you want to look for certain ingredients in your skincare and makeup, you also want to avoid some that are known to cause irritation. Love says that the most popular irritants in skincare are retinol and glycolic acid, both of which chemically exfoliate the skin. These ingredients are great for keeping the skin smooth and reducing acne or wrinkles, but they're strong enough to cause irritation on even non-sensitive skin and can take time to adjust to. Even though some people with sensitive skin may be able to tolerate these ingredients by implementing them into their routines slowly, it’s wise to stay clear of them and instead opt for a gentler ingredient, like salicylic acid, if you seek exfoliation or acne control.

Another rule of thumb: Try to avoid products that contain a lot of fragrance or alcohol, as these can also cause irritation and dry out the skin. The best way to figure out how much of an ingredient is in a product is to look at the ingredients list on the back of the packaging: The higher up the ingredient is on the list, the more concentrated it is in the product. If you see fragrance or alcohol listed within the first few ingredients, consider skipping.

If you struggle to identify what ingredients to avoid or look for in your products, consult a dermatologist, who can cater advice to your specific skin, or even perform skin sensitivity patch testing to determine if certain ingredients should be avoided.

How to incorporate new products into your skincare and makeup routine

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Patch testing is the best way to test new products before incorporating them into your routine.

After researching and buying products that work for your skin, it’s time to incorporate them into your routine. And yes, this may take some time, too. Sensitive skin tends to be very reactive, but the responses are typically delayed with skincare products because skin cells turn over about every 28 days. This means that you likely won't see the benefits (or drawbacks) of the product until a month into using it. Keeping this in mind, you want to add no more than one new product to a routine per month to be sure that you can tolerate it before adding in a second new one. Otherwise, you may overwhelm your skin and see a reaction, either from one product (though it’ll be difficult to tell which one) or from the combination.

A patch test is a great way to introduce new products into your routine without inciting a rash or outbreak on sensitive areas like the face. Love suggests applying a thin layer of the product to the underside of your wrist daily for two weeks to see if your skin forms a reaction. She notes that the skin on your face is more sensitive than your wrist, but this is still a good preliminary test to see if your skin can tolerate the new product.

Beyond the patch test, products with soothing ingredients, like colloidal oatmeal or aloe vera, can be added to your regimen once or twice daily to bolster your skin barrier to better handle potential irritation. Products with ingredients known to require building up a tolerance, like acids and retinol, should be added into your routine slowly. Begin using the product only once a week and increase to twice or three times a week, depending on the instructions on the label and if your skin is handling it well. With skincare products like serums, spot treatments, or acne treatments that typically have a high concentration of potent ingredients, it’s important to follow the use instructions on the label and not exceed the suggested daily or weekly use. Keep track of when your products expire and how long you’re supposed to use them past the opening to ensure you’re not using expired products on your face. Using them past the expiration date may or may not cause irritation, per se, but it may make the ingredients less effective.

Shopping for skincare and makeup products doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It may take some practice, but learning to understand what certain labels and ingredients mean and claim to do for your skin can make all the difference. Take your time when buying and trying new products and consult a professional to help you better understand your skin's needs and concerns if you’re still trying to find quality items that make you look and feel your best.

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