Sensitive skin can feel impossible. Everything seems to cause it to flare up — often unexpectedly. “Anyone can have sensitive skin,” says Dr. Sheila Farhang, a board-certified dermatologist and double-fellowship trained cosmetic surgeon. “Catalysts can be situational or lifestyle-related, including using extremely hot water to wash your face or body, over washing your hands, using harsh ingredients such as exfoliants, or being in a dry climate.”
It can feel really frustrating, especially when coupled with other skin conditions like acne or rosacea. Select editorial director Lauren Swanson was a beauty editor for years and has dealt with sensitive skin and acne her whole life. “I would get stressed when I was breaking out, but then the stress would cause my sensitive skin to flare up. It was a never ending cycle.”
While there isn’t one particular silver bullet that makes skin care “gentle,” Dr. Howard Murad, a dermatologist and founder of Murad Skincare, recommends looking for products that have been specifically formulated for sensitive skin, “as they’re often free from irritants and contain more natural ingredients.” Dr. Randa Jaafar, an anesthesiologist who specializes in pain intervention and wrinkle prevention, recommends looking for skin care products with natural compounds as opposed to ones with artificial ingredients, fragrance and preservatives. “Look for products that contain natural ingredients such as aloe, honey, chamomile, and oatmeal, which help soothe and hydrate skin,” said Jaafar.
“If someone is experiencing dry, irritated skin, I would first choose products such as those recommended by dermatologists,” says Farhang. These can be products that are specifically highlighted during a doctor’s visit, or even some more common over-the-counter products that are marked with a dermatologist’s seal of approval. “If skin is not improved, I recommend scheduling a visit with the dermatologist to rule out any other skin condition including any contact allergies,” Farhang adds.
Best skin care products for sensitive skin
There are dozens of skin care brands on the market today, many of which offer products specifically designed for sensitive skin. Most contain natural ingredients and fewer exfoliants, fragrances, alcohol, sulfates and preservatives. To help you, we’ve rounded up some products that are expert recommended, highly-rated by customers or recommended by our editorial staff with sensitive skin.
Jaafar recommends products from La Roche-Posay, particularly this makeup remover and micellar water. Micellar water is very gentle on the skin since it is made from purified water, alongside moisturizers (like glycerin) and surfactants, or cleaning compounds. Surfactant molecules combine to create micelles, a spherical structure that helps cleanse away oil and dirt. Jaafar notes that this product will help remove your makeup without irritating the skin.
Johari notes that ceramides, which are fatty acids that help to retain moisture, are often found in hydrating products for sensitive skin. This ceramide-based toner gets an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars from Amazon customers, and several note that the product has been a great addition to their pre-moisturizing routines.
This moisturizer is suitable for your face and body, and is designed to help relieve dry, itchy and red skin, according to the brand. The active ingredient in this product is 0.5% colloidal oatmeal, an ingredient that Jaafar notes can help soothe dry skin. Shea butter is another key ingredient in the product, which further helps with hydration. Swanson has used this product during periods of dry skin, but found that it can sometimes make her face break out in acne.
This daily moisturizer utilizes hyaluronic acid and glycerin to help moisturize sensitive skin, according to the brand. Over 3,300 customers on Amazon have given this product an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars, with several customers applauding the fragrance-free formula.
Cetaphil is another brand that comes highly recommended by Jaafar, who notes that this moisturizing cream is one of the best products for sensitive skin. Ingredients include glycerin, niacinamide and vitamin E, all of which Johari notes are key to restoring moisture to the skin. Swanson uses this product every morning and loves how it’s lightweight enough to not cause breakouts.
Jaafar recommends CeraVe products for those with sensitive skin, including this night cream that is fragrance free, non-comedogenic and has a non-irritating formula, per the brand. This night cream also has hyaluronic acid to help soften and hydrate the skin as you sleep.
Jaafar says that this serum is not designed specifically for those with sensitive skin, but tends to be suitable for all skin types. The vitamin C in this formula helps to brighten your skin, while supporting elasticity, according to the brand. It also contains hyaluronic acid, which experts note is suitable for sensitive skin.
This hydrating face serum is recommended by Jaafar for those with sensitive, dry skin. The hypoallergenic formula has a combination of oat flour, extract, and oil to help with hydration without further irritating the skin. This was often a dermatologist-recommended brand for Swanson, as well. “I used this serum and the accompanying oat moisturizers for years. I was told oatmeal is great to soothe poison ivy, so it has a similar effect on sensitive skin, albeit on a smaller scale,” said Swanson.
Over 500 customers on Amazon give this skin recovery cream, designed specifically for sensitive skin, an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars. Several reviewers note that the product has helped with their sensitive, dry, or sun-damaged skin.
Herbivore’s face oil is based on natural ingredients – its base oil is hemp seed oil, which Jaafar notes can help with moisturizing skin. Thanks to its paraben and phthalate-free formula, this product is ideal for sensitive skin, and can be used throughout the day.
While Johari generally recommends avoiding exfoliants if you have sensitive skin, this CeraVe body wash uses salicylic acid, a chemical exfoliant that tends to be less harsh than physical exfoliants, per CeraVe. Salicylic acid helps to reduce the appearance of bumps while smoothing skin, while hyaluronic acid helps retain moisture.
How to shop for sensitive skin products
Experts note that there are a few ingredients to look out for that can be particularly helpful for addressing sensitive skin. Furthermore, Murad recommends a “patch-test” of any new products, which means placing a small amount of the product on the inside of your arm before committing to more regular or widespread use.
“Ceramides help to moisturize and protect the skin,” says Farhang, which makes it ideal for those with sensitive skin. While these lipids (or fats) are made naturally by our skin, products that contain ceramides can help to replenish what our skin loses over the course of the day.
“Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, is a phenomenal ingredient for preventing and treating skin sensitivity,” says Johari. Your skin uses this vitamin to help repair damaged cells and DNA, as well as reduce harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays, adds Jaafar. The compound is so gentle that it’s often added to rosacea moisturizers.
While acids may not seem like the best ingredients for folks with sensitive skin, gentle hyaluronic acid has been shown to be a key molecule in retaining skin moisture. That’s because it is a humectant, or a compound that helps to keep things (including your skin) moist, says Farhang. Hyaluronic acid is a non-irritating humectant that is frequently found in products designed for sensitive skin.
Both Jaafar and Johari cite chamomile as an important anti-inflammatory agent that can be helpful for sensitive skin. Using chamomile to soothe red, irritated skin dates back to the Greeks, and dermatologists today continue to recommend it as an active ingredient.
Jaafar says that products containing aloe, another natural ingredient, can be appropriate for those with sensitive skin. While aloe has been used for centuries to soothe irritation, more recent studies have further shown that aloe vera helps to treat both chronic and acute wounds.
Ingredients to avoid
While each individual will have different sensitives, both Farhang and Murad recommend avoiding common irritants including fragrances and dyes, both of which are artificial and do not serve any functional purpose in most skincare products. Farhang also says that certain sulfates, drying alcohols, silicones, and preservatives can further dry out the skin, causing additional irritation.
Underlying causes of sensitive skin
“Many different things can cause sensitive skin including environmental factors such as the sun, wind, cold, and heat, as well as ingredients in everyday products like soaps, detergents, cosmetics and lotions,” says Murad. ”Foods like dairy, alcohol, sugar, spice and gluten can also contribute to skin sensitivity. Sensitive skin can also be genetic and manifest as atopic dermatitis.”
Aside from skin products, Murad recommends some environmental and behavioral tweaks; for example, he says, “For the colder, dryer months, I’d recommend sleeping with a humidifier.” Moreover, before bed, Murad recommends eating some antioxidant-rich foods, such as walnuts or omegas, to discourage inflammation from within.
Meet the experts
- Dr. Sheila Farhang is a board-certified dermatologist and double-fellowship trained cosmetic surgeon as well as a reconstructive Mohs micrographic (skin cancer) surgeon
- Howard Murad, M.D., F.A.A.D., is a trained pharmacist, associate clinical professor of medicine at U.C.L.A., founder of Murad Skincare Inc, and a physician who specializes in both inclusive health and dermatology.
- Dr. Randa Jaafar is a New York based physician with extensive knowledge in the complex methods and techniques of precision wrinkle prevention. She is the founder of skin studio FILD Studio in New York.
- Pooja Johari is the founder of 7e Wellness. She holds a Masters degree in biomedical engineering from USC.