Sensitive Skin – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

What is sensitive skin?

Understanding the causes for skin sensitivity and learning how to protect it is very important for those of you who experience skin discomfort, including symptoms of itching or burning, pain, irritation, rashes and others.

Your skin may become sensitive due to many reasons ranging from environmental factors (such as temperature changes) to internal reasons – such as hormonal changes.

Some people are more prone to sensitive skin. It is a very unpredictable condition and can occur at any time in our lives. In addition, it can occur anywhere on the body and is important to understand that “sensitive skin” is not an abnormal condition or some sort of disease.

A clinical study [1], provided by the US National Library of MedicineNational Institutes of Health, 44.6% of almost 1000 people declared having “sensitive” or “very sensitive” skin. According to the study „Sensitive skin is mainly associated with dry skin, fair phototype, reactivity to climatic and environmental factors, and cosmetics.”

While there is no particular treatment for sensitive skin, this condition can be managed and minimized by being aware what are the exact causes for its’ occurrence.

It is possible to effectively cope with this condition by understanding you skin’ “language” and avoiding irritants (such as personal care products [2]) which can worsen the situation.


How to recognize the sensitive body skin

Flexibility and elasticity of the healthy skin maintain its natural barrier function that protects against external influences and limits excessive water loss.

The slightly acidic environment is a key factor for these features, as it helps both exfoliation of the skin and flaking of dead skin cells, while it also protects from daily stress factors like pollution, bacteria, and allergens.

Subsequent symptoms include:

  • flaking
  • erythema
  • swelling and
  • roughening

accompanied by some invisible sensations such as:

  • itch
  • prickling
  • burning and
  • a feeling of stretching

If these symptoms are left untreated, they can damage the skin on any part of the body turning it into cracked and damaged. Even large skin areas such as the arms, legs, neck, shoulders, elbows, knees, calves are susceptible to increased sensitivity. The condition can be caused by hot showers, aggressive body products, sun exposure, sweating during

Even large skin areas such as the arms, legs, neck, shoulders, elbows, knees, calves are susceptible to increased sensitivity. The condition can be caused by hot showers, aggressive body products, sun exposure, sweating during sports activities and many others.

Cholinergic Urticaria rash after hot bath

Some skin areas are more prone to irritation. Among them are the upper arms where there is a shortage of secretions required to maintain the barrier function of the skin, which leads to lowered protection from external influences.

Regular washing with alkaline soaps also significantly distorts the natural pH levels. The impaired barrier function may result in the occurrence of sensitizing reactions that can even lead to contact dermatitis (any skin inflammation that occurs when the skin’s surface comes in contact with a substance originating outside the body) – inflammation, which manifests itself with blistering, drying and cracking of the skin.

Allergic Dermatitis.

The scalp is often prone to sensitivity. About 60% of women and 40% of men have symptoms, including redness, itching or stretching on the scalp area. There is a compelling evidence that micro irritations play a major role in the increased sensitivity of the scalp.

Body changes causing stretching of the skin – pregnancy, weight gain or rapid growth – can also lead to stretch marks, which are sometimes very sensitive and easily irritated. Stretch marks most often appear on the chest, abdomen and upper thighs.

Stretch Marks Caused By Pregnancy

There are other skin conditions have similar symptoms, but the causes and the solutions for them may differ.

Sun allergies can cause the skin redness as well as itching. These symptoms, however, may be accompanied by blisters, pustules and raised rashes. The areas that are most affected are the underside of the arms, hands, and chest.

These allergies, including polymorphic light eruption (PLE), are relatively common and are caused by UV rays. Sunscreen agents may also be a factor leading to skin irritation.

Polymorphic light eruption: Erythematous papular eruptions on the hypopigmented scar on the right forearm following sunlight exposure

Dehydrated skin is another cause for hypersensitivity – it is actually healthy skin that had lost its’ moisture due to the exhaustion of the aquaporins (membrane water channels that play critical roles in controlling the water contents of cells).

Dry skin can occur with different symptoms – including roughness, flaking, and redness. It is usually accompanied by intense itching.

Just like sensitive skin, dry skin can appear anywhere on the body, but most often it affects the hands, feet, knees and elbows. It is caused by the deficiency of hygroscopic substances or “natural moisturizing factors” [3](NMF), especially urea.

The dehydrated and dry skin may also become excessively sensitive.

What are the causes making the body skin sensitive?

Natural defences

The skin has a number of natural systems that protect it and maintain it healthy. The surface is a hydrolipid film which consists of water, fatty acids and lipids.

Its’ pH is around  5 [9], which means low acid level, protecting the skin from microbial invasion and alkaline substances, such as soap. It neutralizes the alkaline substance with the aid of so-called buffer substances which ensure the recovery and stabilization of the acid balance.

Hydrolipid film covers the upper layer of the epidermis known as the stratum corneum (the outermost epidermal layer, consists of dead cells and is the major barrier to chemical transfer through the skin). It is composed of lipids and cells, forming the permeable barrier. It also has an average pH 5, which supports:

  • normal skin peeling or desquamation
  • barrier formation
  • optimal functioning of the skin enzymes

All of these systems depend on the enzyme activity, which accelerates the biochemical reactions, and keeps the skin moist and smooth while protecting it from irritants. For people with sensitive skin, however, this activity is inhibited, leading to increased water loss and penetration of irritants through the skin pores.

This is most important for the areas where the skin is thinner than on other parts of the body, such as the outside of the upper arms. Fewer sebaceous glands provide less perspiration and lipids, which form a lipid film. Exposure to a wide range of incentives means that body parts (such as hands) can dry up very quickly and become very sensitive.

The skin of the intimate zone is also different from the skin on other parts of the body. It is extremely sensitive and delicate and has a protective layer acidic layer with a pH has a pH of less than 4.5 – it’s significantly lower than the normal skin (which is between 5.4 and 5.9).
before menopause.

This value is maintained by the beneficial bacteria known as Lactobacilli, which inhibit the growth of pathogenic microbes by producing lactic acid. Changes in pH levels can cause irritation, itching, burning sensation and even infection.

Internal causes for sensitive body skin

Although sensitive skin can occur at any age, it is especially common in early childhood.

In this stage of life, the skin is thinner and its’ barrier function is less effective, which can lead to pH imbalance and increased water loss. E.g. baby’s skin is very likely to be sensitive to become a host of potential irritants.

Some might cause bumps, others a bright-red rash. Luckily, most of these baby blemishes are perfectly normal and will pass with time, especially if you know how to treat them.

Various skin conditions may be accompanied by sensitivity to diseases, including atopic eczema and dry skin.

Similarly, people who suffer from Type I allergies (Type I Hypersensitivity is the process that leads to various different “allergies”. A more mild form would include Allergic Rhinitis (Seasonal allergies) that cause things like coughing, sneezing, watery eyes and nasal congestion. ) are more likely to exhibit sensitive skin due to penetration of pollen through the skin.

External causes for sensitive body skin

Exposure to low humidity and cold air forces the body to retain heat by constricting blood vessels in the skin, depriving it of its’ moisture. The skin can easily become dry and scaly.

Dry, irritated, scaly skin

High temperatures and humidity make the body sweat more, resulting in moisture evaporation and skin dryness.

Free radicals [4] created by UV radiation, ozone, and environmental pollutants also weaken the body’s natural defenses of the skin, causing drying and severe irritation.

Medical treatments such as radiotherapy and antibiotics intake may make the skin more sensitive (the antibiotics intake usually damages Lactobacillus, the friendly bacteria in the body).

Conventional soaps and surfactants remove the dirt particles as well as important lipids which protect the skin, and this leads to an imbalance in the pH level and irritated skin.

Contributing Factors

Incentives which increase skin sensitivity

In addition to the factors that cause skin sensitivity, there are many other incentives that can worsen the condition. Therefore, it is difficult to isolate a single determinant factor.

Tightly fitting synthetic fabrics can cause more sweating of skin, which leads to an increased loss of water, especially in the intimate area [10].

Additionally, your hands may be in contact with a number of chemical substances both at work and at home.

Hairdressers, builders, and workers in industrial enterprises are more likely to be in contact with acids, bases, and solvents as a part of their daily routines.

Regular application of moisturizing and cleansing products with an alkaline pH actually makes your skin susceptible to irritants and infections. Some substances (surfactants), such as sodium lauryl sulfate can cause damage to the cell structures in the stratum corneum and damage the permeability barrier. As a result, the skin can considerably dry.

Some substances (surfactants), such as sodium lauryl sulfate can cause damage to the cell structures in the stratum corneum and damage the permeability barrier. As a result, the skin can become considerably dry.

Prolonged contact with water increases the permeability of the healthy skin, because of the loss of its natural moisturizing factors as well as its superficial lipids.

Sometimes friction could increase skin’ sensitivity by the loss of these lipids. This can be caused both by wiping with a towel and the use of scrubs and bath sponges.

How to help the skin protect itself

Sensitive skin enzyme activity is often inhibited, leading to impaired barrier function. Studies show that certain ingredients of natural origin can help to stimulate these enzymes to regain the defense of the body.

  • Dexpanthenol [5], a derivative of vitamin B, stimulating the regeneration of the skin. It strengthens the natural protective function of the skin and keeps it healthy and sustainable. This active ingredient also helps to accelerate healing and regeneration processes of the skin. In certain concentrations, the active ingredient also helps to accelerate skin renewal process.
  • Glycerin [6] is a humectant, or hygroscopic in nature. Humectants attract moisture from the epidermis and the environment to the surface layers of the skin. Apart from moisturizing, it also has cleansing, lubricating and soothing properties.
  • Urea [7] provides deep hydration, promotes water retention in the skin and stimulates the division and restoration of skin cells.
  • Natural pure vegetable oils [8] such as almond and this jojoba oil contain linoleic acid – an unsaturated fatty acid that strengthens the natural barrier function of the skin. If you apply pure essential oils regularly, they can increase the stimulation of blood circulation and improve your skin elasticity.
  • Protecting the skin from the sun can help reduce its sensitivity. It is best to completely avoid the sun between 11 am. and 15:00 pm. And always wear protective clothing. This is especially important for children under 3 years of age. Choose a sunscreen that does not contain irritants such as perfumes, and apply it at least 30 minutes before going out. Reapply every 2 hours.
  • Modify your daily cleaning procedures by limiting the time spent in the shower or in the bath, and try using warm, instead of hot water. Avoid using scrubs and dry the skin by patting instead of rubbing your skin.
  • Choose clothes made of natural fibers rather than synthetics. This is particularly important for the prevention of bacterial infections in the intimate area.
  • Using protective gloves may also protect the hands from harmful substances – when working with surfactants, detergents and other irritants.
  • Studies show that a diverse diet rich in antioxidant foods contributes to a healthy skin. Such diet includes yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, green leafy vegetables, such as lettuce or spinach, fish – especially salmon, and various nuts.


    Sensitive skin in the American population: prevalence, clinical data, and role of the dermatologist.
    Sensory, clinical and physiological factors in sensitive skin: a review
    Natural moisturizing factors (NMF) in the stratum corneum (SC). I. Effects of lipid extraction and soaking.
    Antioxidants and Free Radicals
    Topical use of dexpanthenol in skin disorders.
    Skin friction coefficient: changes induced by skin hydration and emollient application and correlation with perceived skin feel
    A double-blind study comparing the effect of glycerin and urea
    Taxonomic perspective of plant species yielding vegetable oils used in cosmetics and skin care products
    Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora.

About the author

Monika Hristova

Monika is the Editor-in-Chief at SkinPractice. She is a skin care addict and researcher, who feels strongly about helping people with different dermatology conditions from alopecia to warts.

You can read her recommendations and advice both here at SkinPractice or at Quora where she answers skincare-related questions frequently and is the most viewed author in the Skincare category with more than 3 million views or follow her on LinkedIn.

She is also a certified skin care specialist with certification from the Medical College in Sofia.

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