Sensitive skin

What is it?
The sense of tightness, stinging, burning, tingling, pain and itch in the skin, which can occur in response to a variety of triggers (see below)

What causes it?
Impaired skin barrier
Pre-existing skin conditions such as rosacea or eczema
Can occur in otherwise normal skin

What triggers it?
UV radiation, heat, cold, wind
Stress, hormonal changes
Certain cosmetic and skincare ingredients

What to do about it?
Gentle skincare
Hydration: ceramides, hyaluronic acid, other moisturisers
Niacinamide to repair the skin barrier
Consider rosehip oil, jojoba oil for their anti-inflammatory effects
Avoid triggers (hot water, excess exfoliation, irritating skincare)
Caution with actives (vitamin C, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, retinol)

What to avoid?
Fragrance, alcohol, surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate
For some, propylene glycol, coconut diethanolamide and cocoamidopropyl betaine may irritate

Sensitive skin is a common concern, especially now that so many of us are using such a plethora of products and treatments. It can be really frustrating, as sometimes it seems that there’s nothing sensitive skin can tolerate. Fortunately, it can usually be helped, and there are some active ingredients that are usually tolerated by even the most sensitive of skins. 

What is sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is defined as the sense of tightness, stinging, burning, tingling, pain and itch, which often occurs in response to a variety of triggers. These can include certain cosmetic and skincare products, sun exposure, changes in temperature, stress and hormonal changes. 

What causes sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin can occur in people with an impaired skin barrier, alongside skin conditions such as rosacea or dermatitis, and also in those with normal skin. The use of certain active ingredients in skincare can increase skin sensitivity, as can environmental factors such as exposure to UV radiation, heat, cold and wind. Stress and hormonal changes can cause skin sensitivity in some individuals. 

How can I manage my sensitive skin? 

Managing sensitive skin involves avoiding triggers such as sun exposure and extremes of temperature, and using gentle, non-irritating skincare products. Potential irritants found in skincare include fragrance, alcohol, and surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate. Ingredients commonly found in skincare such as propylene glycol, coconut diethanolamide and cocoamidopropyl betaine may aggravate sensitive skin. 

Repairing the skin barrier with hydrating agents such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid and other moisturisers is beneficial. Niacinamide is anti-inflammatory and helps to repair the skin barrier, and is generally well tolerated by those with sensitive skin. Other anti-inflammatory ingredients such as rosehip oil and jojoba oil may be helpful.

Care should be taken when using active ingredients which may irritate sensitive skin, such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids, retinoids and vitamin C. Always apply a new product to a test area of skin first to see how your skin tolerates it, and only ever start one new product at a time. 

What active ingredients can I use?

Below is a list of products that are generally well tolerated by sensitive skin. Remember, if you react to a product, it isn’t necessarily the active ingredient that you’re reacting to, it could be any of the number of other ingredients it contains. Fragrances, alcohol, sodium lauryl sulfate, propylene gycol, coconut diethanolamide and cocoamidopropyl betaine can all aggravate sensitive skin. 

Ingredients generally well tolerated by people with rosacea:

  • Ceramides
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Jojoba oil
  • Niacinamide
  • Gentle exfoliants such as mandelic acid and polyhydroxy acids (start with a small amount applied to a test area first)
  • Rosehip oil
  • Shea butter

Inamadar AC, Palit A. Sensitive skin: an overview. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2013 Jan-Feb;79(1):9-16. 

Misery L, Loser K, Ständer S. Sensitive skin. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016 Feb;30 Suppl 1:2-8. 




Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…