Sensitive vs sensitised skin – how to tell the difference between the two

Redness, itching, flushing, blotchiness, flaking. When your skin reacts, it’s never fun and can be uncomfortable. Sometimes we can be quick to self diagnose and decide we have sensitive skin. But is that the case? Or is our skin merely sensitised? On the surface, the two can look the same. What is the difference between sensitive and sensitised skin? What causes it, and how can you treat it?

Sensitive skin

Sensitive skin is a skin type rather than a condition. It is the skin you are born with and down to genetics (often, your family members will have the same skin type). Certain skins have thinner epidermis, have less pigment, and are more prone to irritation and flushing. The blood vessels are closer to the surface of the skin and more visible. Likewise, people with sensitive skin are often more prone to allergies or various skin conditions (like eczema or psoriasis, for example). Another way to tell if your skin is sensitive is, more often than not, your skin has been reactive throughout your life.

How to treat sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin isn’t curable per se, but it is manageable. It is all about the barrier repair. Reinforce your skin barrier, so it functions at its optimum and protects against environmental factors and bacteria that can lead to irritation. Also, a healthy skin barrier prevents Transepidermal Water Loss (TEWL), which leads to dryness and dehydration.
A gentle, pH-friendly cleanser leaves the skin feeling clean without tightness or irritation as it won’t strip the skin of its natural oils. Barrier-repairing ingredients like ceramides and urea reinforce the natural lipid barrier. Also, look for both humectants and occlusives in your skincare products. Depending on your skin, you might want to avoid products with alcohol, fragrance, and essential oils. All of these can irritate the skin.

Sensitised skin

using retinol

Sensitised skin manifests the same way as sensitive skin, but the cause is external factors. We are living in the age of the skincare nerd. Which, don’t get us wrong, has its benefits. We know about ingredients and formulas. We want effective products. But, all this knowledge can come with some side-effects. Namely, being overzealous and overdoing it. Sensitised skin can be caused by a multi-step skincare routine or overusing actives like retinol or chemical exfoliants. Likewise, lifestyle changes, starting medication, or environmental factors (like extremely hot or cold weather) can cause sensitised skin.

Allergies are another factor that can contribute to sensitised skin. And they can happen at any time. Triggers vary and include anything from various skincare products or ingredients, a new laundry detergent or softener, or hair products.

How can you treat sensitised skin?

If you suspect your skin is reacting to a skincare product or ingredient, you need to go back to a baseline routine. Gentle cleanser with a skin-friendly pH, moisturiser, or serum with barrier-repairing ingredients, should do the trick. Furthermore, if the sensitised skin is down to overuse of actives, stop using them all. Once your skin is back to normal, start re-introducing products one by one into your routine to find the culprit. The same applies if you suspect the sensitivity is down to a laundry detergent or a hair product.


Do you have sensitive skin? How do you treat it? Is your skin sensitised? What caused it?

Roberta Striga