What is Sensitive Skin?
It may seem sometimes like “sensitive skin” is just a marketing term, because it’s applied to such a broad range of skin problems. From a dermatologists perspective, sensitive skin is usually a symptom, not a diagnosis. So what is sensitive skin, really?
To begin with, there are two types of sensitive skin. There is a genetic predisposition to sensitive skin in people of Northern European descent, where the skin reacts more strongly to sunlight and irritants. This is partially because this type of skin has a naturally thinner top layer, and because the reduced amount of pigment in this type of skin shows redness and irritation more easily. The other type of sensitive skin is called “sensitized” skin, where the skin becomes sensitive and reactive due to lifestyle and environmental factors. Over half of the world’s population will experience sensitized skin at some point in their lives.
Sensitive skin is caused by a natural or acquired thinning of the outer layer of the skin. When the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the skin) or the acid mantle (our skin’s natural oily external film) become disrupted, a few things happen:
External products penetrate the skin more deeply
For people with thin, sensitive skin, allergens, detergents, fragrances, and other products penetrate the outer layers of the skin more deeply. The skin’s natural barriers are weakened, so it is more vulnerable.
Internal immune reactions
In many cases, when these products and ingredients deeply penetrate the skin, it triggers an inflammatory response from the immune system. With our exterior protective layers damaged, the immune system can react to these products and ingredients as a potential threat, and cause a reaction.
The stratum corneum and acid mantle protect the skin and the body from bacteria and injury, so when they are thin and damaged, the skin becomes over-reactive, trying to protect itself through other means. It is also natural for skin to become more sensitive as we age and the skin layers begin to get thinner and weaker.
How to Tell if You Have Sensitive Skin
Unfortunately, the signs of sensitive skin run the full spectrum of every other kind of skin problem. Sensitive skin can be dry, irritated, flakey or peeling, red, itchy, or prone to rashes, hives, and acne.
One of the primary ways that most people discover that they have sensitive skin is when they try to address their acne with acne products which don’t work, try to manage their dryness with moisturizers that don’t work, and try to cover their redness with concealers that don’t work. People with sensitive skin often end up chasing one problem after another, without finding a comprehensive solution. In fact, that’s one of the key signs of sensitive skin: Products intended to solve common skin problems tend to make things worse instead of better. Other common signs of sensitive skin are:
- The skin is prone to bumps, hives, and rashes
- Ordinary beauty products sting, burn, or cause redness
- Dry patches on skin
- Skin feels tight, dry, and itchy
- The skin is sensitive to the sun or to cold, windy weather
- Skin prone to breakouts
- The skin may have broken capillaries and bruise easily
To further complicate matters, many people with sensitive skin don’t have sensitivity all the time. Sensitivity may be seasonal, a reaction to certain products and ingredients, triggered by stress, hormones, or medications. In other words, sensitive skin is perhaps the most difficult to care for because the reactions can be so diverse, and the causes so inconsistent.
How to Learn More About Your Sensitive Skin Needs
If your skin is newly sensitive, or experiencing a sudden change, it’s always a good idea to see a dermatologist. Skin sensitivity can be a sign of other medical conditions, and is often associated with eczema, rosacea, and other conditions a dermatologist can help you manage. If you aren’t sure if you have sensitive skin, or what triggers your sensitivity, read the following tips.
Keep a skin diary
If you suspect that allergies, weather, foods, hormones, or skincare products are irritating your skin, keep a diary that tracks what products you are using, or other suspected triggers, and what condition your skin is in. It can be helpful to keep track so you can identify recurring factors.
If you think you have sensitive skin, only exfoliate as gently as possible or not at all. Until you have identified your sensitive skin needs, harsh exfoliants, facial peels, microderm abrasions, and other treatments may damage your already thin, fragile skin.
Reduce products and ingredients
Fragrances are a very common source of sensitive skin reaction. Until you have identified your needs and triggers, try to reduce your skin care regimen to have fewer products, and choose products with fewer, simpler, more natural ingredients. It can be helpful to take all the products out of your regimen and add them back one by one, to see which ones are triggering a reaction.
Buy separate products
While it can be convenient and time-saving to choose double- and triple-duty products, it can complicate caring for sensitive skin. Choose a separate foundation, sunscreen, moisturizers, and avoid all-in-ones until you know what your skin needs.
Choosing Foundation for Sensitive Skin with Acne
Most acne-fighting foundations with full coverage for breakouts can be too harsh and heavy for delicate, sensitive skin. Many acne foundations are designed for oily skin, while sensitive skin is often dry. Depending on your skin’s needs, here are some things to avoid and adopt:
Common irritants, particularly if you don’t know what triggers your sensitive skin, read labels and avoid the most common skin irritants like talc, mineral oil, and fragrances.
1. Patch testing
When trying a new product, it’s a great idea for people with sensitive skin to do a patch test 24 hours before on the inside of their elbows.
2. Mineral makeup
Mineral makeup can be great for sensitive skin, as is has fewer ingredients, is more natural, and provides smooth coverage. This makeup is also a good choice for oily skin, as is absorb oil without a greasy look. Powdered mineral makeup can sometimes exacerbate dry skin, so you may need a liquid formula.
3. Buildable coverage
Sensitive skin can be different every day, and your coverage needs will vary. Opt for foundation with a lighter coverage that you can build as necessary, to meet your changing needs, rather than a heavy, full-coverage product targeted at acne coverage.
Best Foundations for Sensitive Skin with Acne
We love BaeBlu’s Lux Liquid foundation for sensitive skin, because it’s organic, vegan, natural, with no chemicals or parabens, and no pore-clogging ingredients that exacerbate acne. With gentle, skin-friendly ingredients like aloe, shea butter, rice powder, and mineral pigments, this makeup gives great, buildable, non-drying coverage that is healthy for sensitive skin.
Great for: Sensitive skin, dry skin, mature skin
Neutrogena is famous for being gentle on sensitive skin, and this foundation provides light, natural coverage with acne-fighting ingredients to help unclog pores and clear breakouts. It has an oil-free, non-greasy formula that is great for oily and combination skin, while being gentle enough for sensitive skin. In a clinical trial, 100% of women who used this makeup had improved skin over time, which is an incredible result. It’s recommended by users and experts alike for sensitive, acne-prone skin.
Great for: Sensitive skin, acne-prone skin, oily skin
Amazonian clay has become famous around the world for gently and effectively controlling acne and improving skin. Tarte’s Amazonian Clay 12 Hour Full Coverage Foundation gives light, natural coverage in an oil-free, vegan formula that covers breakouts while balancing your skin. With vitamin E, mineral pigments, and Amazonian clay, this foundation doesn’t have any gluten, parabens, mineral oil, or other ingredients that can trigger sensitive skin.
Great for: Sensitive skin, acne prone skin, oily skin
This unusual mineral sunscreen powder from Nourisse is a pure mineral formula that provides exceptional sun protection and light coverage with no ingredients that can exacerbate sensitive skin. This zinc-based sunscreen powder protects from UVA and UVB rays with 50+ SPF, is water resistant, and long-lasting. The powder doesn’t contain fragrances, preservatives, parabens, PABA, or chemicals.
It comes with complementary light and dark powders, so you can customize your shade or do light contouring. It also has buildable coverage and can be dabbed onto problem areas as a concealer. This sunscreen powder is lightweight, versatile, natural, and provides great coverage.
Great for: Sensitive skin, oily skin
The Emani Vegan Cosmetics Flawless Matte Pressed Powder Foundation is a natural, vegan formula with skin-boosting ingredients like vitamin E. It has no silicon, parabens, or chemicals, and is free of animal products, wheat, gluten, and is cruelty free. It is talc-free, blendable, buildable, and a powder that actually hydrates while it covers. This light, natural, mineral formula is perfect for sensitive, acne-prone skin, and also a great choice for mature skin, as it doesn’t settle into fine lines and creases.
Great for: Sensitive skin, dry skin, mature skin
The light liquid of e.l.f. Cosmetics Acne Fighting Foundation evens skin tone and provides light, blendable coverage with skin-healing and acne-fighting ingredients. It’s infused with salycilic acid, witch hazel, tea tree oil, and aloe vera to soothe skin, reduce acne and inflammation. It helps to cover the breakouts you have now, and prevent breakouts in the future, improving skin over time. It is also vegan and cruelty-free, so you can feel good about using it.
Great for: Acne-prone skin, dry skin
As you can see, there are some amazing foundations that provide just the right amount of coverage without irritating sensitive skin with acne. Whether you have mature skin, delicate skin, dry skin, oily skin, or a combination of them all, you can find a foundation that will help to smooth the appearance of delicate, sensitive skin, without ingredients that aggravate or irritate it.
Our recommendations for the best foundations for sensitive skin with acne will help you find just the right product for your sensitive skin needs, whatever they are.
By the way, we also have recommendations for foundations that will cover up large pores and acne scars, so check it out.
Let us know if you have already used any of these foundations, in the comments section below!