Sensitive vs Sensitised Skin and How to Tell the Difference

Sensitive skin and sensitised skin are two terms that are often mixed up. Almost everyone will have experienced some skin irritation, whether it's itchiness, redness or inflammation, it can be hard to tell whether your skin is temporarily sensitised or if you have a sensitive skin type. Determining which is the first step to help you deal with and reduce the discomfort. Here we talk through the differences between the terms sensitive and sensitised and which ingredients you should look out for.

What is sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is a skin type which is determined by genetics and is defined as the occurrence of sensations which can include stinging, burning or itchiness in response to stimuli that normally shouldn’t lead to such a reaction. Those with sensitive skin have less of a protective barrier which means that their skin is more easily affected by environmental factors. The skin's barrier function prevents environmentally triggered sensitivity by creating a healthy defense system. When the skin’s barrier is compromised and not as strong it can allow pollution, bacteria or environmental allergens to penetrate the skin quicker. 

An overactive immune system can also be a cause of sensitive skin. This is when your immune system reacts to environmental allergens that are normally harmless. Your skin can then go into ‘attack mode’ when faced with any of these allergens leading to inflammation and irritation. 

As sensitive skin is genetic it cannot be ‘fixed’ and is often ongoing.  However, there are ways to support and address it. A gentle skincare routine and one that hydrates your skin can help strengthen the skin's barrier. 

What is sensitised skin?

Sensitised skin is a temporary skin condition that can be caused by a specific ingredient that exceeds the skin’s threshold for irritation. Any skin type, whether it be dry, oily or combination, can become sensitised due to various factors including, too much UV exposure, pollution, harsh weather, stress, over-exfoliating, reaction to medication or an ingredient. Allergies can also lead to sensitised skin and it is possible to develop skin reactions or an allergy to an ingredient at any time. 

The symptoms that people experience with sensitised skin are similar in appearance to the symptoms with sensitive skin which can make it difficult to differentiate the two. 

How can you tell the difference?

The best way to tell the difference between sensitive and sensitised skin is whether or not symptoms are ongoing or short term.

Both tend to result in similar symptoms and if you have sensitive or sensitised skin you may notice:

  • Inflammation
  • Frequent flushing or blushing 
  • Stinging, burning, or tingling
  • Itchiness, flakiness, or peeling
  • Discoloration
  • Dryness
  • Pimple-like bumps 

Those with sensitive skin may also have skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema or psoriasis which also result in inflammation. Anyone can have sensitive skin however those with a fairer complexion are more likely to have sensitive skin as the lack of pigmentation makes them more susceptible to a weakened skin barrier. 

If your skin has become more sensitive recently it is more likely to be temporarily sensitised. This could be because you’ve added a new product to your skincare routine or exfoliating too frequently. If this is the case you can identify which product or ingredient is causing irritation and then find a gentle alternative.  

Often skincare routines are the most prominent cause of sensitised skin. A complex skincare routine can be what is causing the irritation and dryness associated with sensitised skin. Our skin naturally works hard to protect itself from environmental irritants, but some products use harsh ingredients that strip the skin of it’s natural oils that are produced to protect the skin. A simple routine with gentle products can help maintain the skin’s natural barrier and soothe irritated skin. 

Are there certain ingredients to use and avoid?

As we’ve mentioned sensitive skin cannot be ‘fixed’ but there are ingredients that can help reduce and calm symptoms, just as there are ingredients that can trigger them. If you are adding new products into your routine, we recommend adding one at a time so that if you do have a reaction you know which product is likely to be the cause. 

Earlier we talked about weakened skin barriers which can cause sensitive skin, there are ingredients that can strengthen the barrier, including antioxidants and humectants which restore skin's moisture. An ingredient that has both of these properties is Shea Butter, which is included in all of our products due to its ability to support and strengthen skin. 

We talked about over exfoliation earlier and while those with sensitive skin tend to avoid exfoliators as they feel it will irritate skin, it’s important because it removes dead skin that builds up. Try including a gentle exfoliator, such as our OKA Body Polish which uses Millet grains that can remove the dead skin cells from your skin. 

If you want to avoid physical exfoliation you could try chemical exfoliators, using ingredients like AHAs that remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. 

A products pH level is also something to consider, particularly in your cleanser and toner. Products pH can affect your skin’s pH level and lead to higher sensitivity. After cleansing use a gentle toner to hydrate and rebalance the skin’s pH level. 

If your skin is currently sensitised or you have a sensitive skin type you may want to reduce the following in your skincare routine.

Fragrance is included in a lot of products but it is something to look out for especially for those with sensitive skin. Artificial fragrances can include allergens or irritants, one way to avoid these is by looking for unscented products or just making sure the ingredient label doesn’t include ‘fragrance’ or ‘perfume’. All of our products are made without synthetic fragrances.

Mixing and layering ingredients can lead to irritation, particularly if you have sensitive or sensitised skin. If you know what ingredients you want to include in your skincare routine try looking for products that already include these together as formulations undergo testing there is less likelihood of a reaction between them. Whereas applying these ingredients separately can result in a reaction. 

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