What is sensitive skin?

What is sensitive skin?


Written by the QV science community.

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While sensitive skin is not a formal medical diagnosis, it is becoming increasingly common for individuals, especially women, to describe themselves as having sensitive skin.


How prevalent is sensitive skin around the world?

Because the symptoms are primarily subjective, it is difficult to obtain definitive data about prevalence. However, it is estimated that overall, 60-70% of women and 50-60% of men report having some degree of sensitive skin1. Around 9% of people worldwide claim to have 'very sensitive skin'2.

In Europe, 74% of women and 38% of men reported some degree of sensitivity1. In urban China, a 2009 study reported 39% of women and only 12% of men had experienced sensitive skin3. There is limited data for Australia, but one study found 51% of Australian men had experienced sensitive skin of the face1.


What are the symptoms of sensitive skin?

Symptoms are mainly subjective and include tingling, itching, tightness in the skin, stinging and burning, however, patients may also present with clinical signs such as redness, dryness, bumps or hives2,4.


What are the main causes of sensitive skin?

Fragrances are the main cause of contact allergy due to cosmetics5. Around 32% of adults report fragrance sensitivity, of which around 1 in 10 cases present as skin rashes6.

For this reason, fragrance should be the first ingredient that patients with sensitive skin eliminate from their skincare routines. Unfortunately, this can prove challenging as up to 90% of cosmetic products contain fragrances5.

Patients should be encouraged to look for fragrance-free products and ranges that have been specifically formulated with sensitive skin in mind.

It is estimated that overall, 60-70% of women and 50-60% of men report having some degree of sensitive skin.


What are the ways to manage sensitive skin?

Although not usually severe in nature, sensitive skin does impact quality of life2. Since the pathogenesis of sensitive skin is not completely understood, and may vary between individuals, there is no universal treatment or management regimen. However, there is a general consensus that the following tips are helpful for most people2.

Avoidance of triggers

Cosmetics are the main triggering factor for sensitive skin. Patients should be advised to minimise unnecessary use of cosmetics and look for products that are free from common irritants such as fragrances; soap and other harsh surfactants; hair dyes, especially those containing ammonia; propylene glycol as well as products formulated for sensitive skin.

Secondary triggers may include variations in temperature, air conditioning, wet hair, wind and sun exposure. Cosmetic procedures such as dermabrasion, laser resurfacing and facelift may also cause skin to become more sensitive to irritation7.

Use of moisturisers

As dry skin is associated with sensitive skin symptoms, use of moisturisers is generally recommended. 


Exposure to ultraviolet radiation may trigger or exacerbate sensitive skin symptoms. Patients prone to sensitive skin should limit sun exposure by seeking shade when outside, wearing protective clothing, hats and eyewear, and using a daily moisturising sunscreen that has been formulated for sensitive skin.

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