>>Sensitive skin: a vague term

Sensitive skin: a vague term

The phenomenon of sensitive skin is growing around the world: about 50% of women and 40% of men claim to suffer from it.

The condition is generally self-diagnosed and the number of people reporting to have sensitive skin has risen over the years, hand-in-hand with the number of products formulated to treat this presumably rare group.

So what is “sensitive skin”?

Different ways of defining sensitive skin

Although we do not have an exact definition of the term, there are many scientific theories:

  • Roland Jourdain, a French researcher, claims “sensitive skin” is a term used by people who believe they are more intolerant to the products they use and environmental factors than the general population.
  • According to Miranda A. Farage, an American researcher, it is an exaggerated sensitivity of the skin to frequent or prolonged use of everyday products such as cosmetics or toiletries.
  • Laurent Misery, a French researcher, defines skin as being sensitive (or reactive, hyper-reactive, intolerant or irritable) if it suffers from disorders such as rashes, burning, pins and needles, pain and itching. All these conditions can be brought on by physical, chemical, psychological or hormonal factors.
  • Harald Loeffler, a German researcher, distinguishes between individuals with sensitive skin (they believe their skin is more sensitive than the average), irritable skin (they objectively develop a skin reaction to an irritant which is stronger than average) or “stingers” (they systematically react to a test where irritant and sensitising substances are used).

These different definitions lead us to understand that “sensitive skin” is skin which reacts or is prone to developing adverse skin reactions which do not appear in normal skin.

The causes of sensitive skin

Some studies suggest skin sensitivity occurs when the barrier function is compromised, causing the skin to react to otherwise harmless agents.

It is a constitutional or temporary condition which can be caused by:

  • Dermatological problems: eczema, atopic dermatitis, seborrhoeic dermatitis, acne, etc.
  • Contact with irritants: aggressive surfactants, alcohol, synthetic fabrics, etc.
  • Minor dermocosmetic treatments: pulsed light, laser treatment, peeling, etc.

Skin sensitivity can be triggered off by a number of different factors:

  • Environmental factors: heat, cold, wind, sun’s rays, pollution
  • Chemical factors: drugs, detergents, soaps, cosmetics
  • Psychological factors: anxiety, stress
  • Hormonal factors: menstrual cycles, HRT

When the skin is particularly sensitive, it is important to identify the causes, take the necessary measures to protect against them, and use products which contain a limited number of ingredients and are especially kind to skin.

Sensitive, hyper-reactive, allergic

Skin sensitivity can sometimes be acute and in these cases the skin is referred to as:

  • Hyper-reactive, when the skin has an excessive reaction to a variety of external aggressions, like weather conditions or substances which are normally well-tolerated
  • Allergic, when it develops a delayed immunological reaction after contact with a certain substance (allergen)
Topics dealt with in these articles:
  1. Jourdain R, de Lacharrière O, Bastien P, Maibach HI. Ethnic variations in self-perceived sensitive skin: epidemiological survey. Contact Dermatitis; 2002;46(3):162-9.
  2. Farage MA. Perceptions of sensitive skin: changes in perceived severity and associations with environmental causes. Contact Dermatitis; 2008;59(4):226-32.
  3. Misery L, Boussetta S, Nocera T, Perez-Cullell N, Taieb C. Sensitive skin in Europe. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol; 2009;23(4):376-81.
  4. Inamadar AC, Palit A. Sensitive skin: An overview. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol; 2013;79:9-16
  5. Loeffler H, Aramaki J, Effindi I et al. Sensitive skin. Dermatotoxicology 6th ed, 2004.