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Irritable skin: Is it sensitive or sensitized?

Alright, squad, let's talk about a touchy subject… sensitive skin – something a lot of us deal with but might not totally get. It's a bit mindblowing that over 60% of women and over 50% of men report some degree of sensitivity, according to research.¹ 

But skin sensitivity is not all the same. There are basically two types: true sensitive skin is a skin type, in other words, you're born with it. But sensitized skin is a skin condition – it just gets irritable for some reason, and it can happen to any skin. 

No surprise that many people don't realize there's a difference – it's subtle and symptoms are similar, but those differences are important and will make a, er, difference to how you deal with it. 

But, hey, don't worry—we're about to break it all down for you. Keep scrolling to learn about the crucial facts, plus tips on how to handle and care for both.


The vicious cycle of irritation

Before we get stuck in, it's important to understand what causes inflammation and irritation in the skin:

Irritants cause the release of reactive oxygen species (aka free radicals), which weakens the skin barrier, your skin’s superhero shield. This sets off inflammation in the skin, which causes the release of more free radicals, triggering more inflammation in an unending cycle, unless the cycle is stopped. Got it? 

CERM Skin Sensitive vs sensitized skin. Cactus representing irritation cycle. Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

SENSITIVE SKIN: the real deal

First up, we've got true sensitive skin, which is extra reactive and easily irritated. It’s mostly inherited (check if one or more of your parents has it), you have it from birth and it's a lifelong companion. BUT! It can be managed with the right care.

Sensitive skin is naturally delicate and dry and sensitivity can pop up anywhere on the body, but your face tends to be the hotspot for drama.

What’s it all about? It's like your skin is on high alert all the time, and it just loves to overreact with allergy and rash flare-ups, so it becomes inflamed, red and flaky, not to mention those not-so-fun sensations: stings, burns and itches.

What triggers sensitive skin? Flare-ups can be triggered by anything from extreme temperatures to certain skincare products, and even stuff that shouldn't be a big deal – that even includes water for some unlucky people! Super annoying, right?

Sensitive skin can affect your quality of life

It doesn't just mess with your complexion—it can affect your whole life. You need to constantly think about the fabrics you wear, planning how you'll wash up, and studying skincare ingredient labels like an exam to choose which products to use. 

And let's not forget the mental toll— sensitivity can cause depression, anxiety and sleep problems. It's no wonder that more and more people around the world are speaking up about their sensitive-skin struggles every year both on their socials and to their doctors.

But SENSITIZATION can happen to any skin 

Think of sensitized skin as sensitive skin’s rebellious little cousin. It throws tantrums, too, with extra redness and irritation. But it's not something you're born with; it can develop over time because of a weakened skin barrier.

Why? Because the weakened barrier allows irritants to attack the skin, it flares up with redness, stinging, burning and itching vibes. 

Restoring the barrier should stop it being oversensitive. 

Deep-dive into causes of skin flare-ups

Both internal and external factors can trigger sensitive and sensitized skin:

Internal factors

During daytime, the skin acts mainly as a protective barrier against environmental stressors. Keeping it ready for this role is crucial. This starts with cleaning it with a gentle cleanser to rid it of toxins and impurities accumulated overnight. If you don’t, these irritating substances sit on your skin, irritating it as the day rolls on.

At night, your skin shifts gear, kicking into repair and regeneration mode. It's like a detox and renewal party happening on your face, and your skin becomes more absorbent, so it's more prone to irritation, compared to the daytime. 

External factors

What causes sensitization? As we mentioned, things that damage the skin's protective barrier. A major culprit is our skincare habits: dehydration, using harsh, barrier-stripping cleansers, over-exfoliation, using too much or the wrong skincare product. 

And then there’s also aging, lifestyle habits, stress, pollution, UV damage, hormone fluctuations or illness.

Makeup needs to be cleaned off thoroughly at night. If you don’t, that’s basically like letting a wild bunch of pollutants crash on your skin. This can lead to irritation, redness, and aging before its time. So, make sure you're giving your skin a clean slate before bed.

Air pollution is another biggie. Your skin's on the front line, dealing with all kinds of nasties like dust, cigarette and industrial smoke, car fumes, and more. Even if you're indoors most of the time, you're still getting hit from pollutants from your furniture, gadgets, and AC.

CERM Skin Gameplan to treat sensitive vs Sensitized skin. Young asian woman with rose tinted spectacles and red heart on cheekboneImage: Pexels.com/Putera Danial

Image: Pexels.com/Putera Danial

The game plan for sensitive and sensitized skin

Now, whether you've got sensitive skin from day one or it's a recent development, the game plan is pretty similar: spot the triggers and make some tweaks to your skincare and lifestyle.

Step 1: Start a good skincare plan

Check those product labels like your life depends on it. Avoid stuff with alcohol, fragrance, lanolin, and artificial colorants – they're like kryptonite for sensitive skin. Choose products that say “suitable for sensitive skin”, "dermatologically tested" and "hypoallergenic" (which means less likely to cause an allergy) to help minimize the risk of irritation. 

NEED TO KNOW! Before slathering any new skincare or makeup on your face, do a patch test. Rub a bit on the inside of your elbow or behind your ear and see if your skin flares up. Better safe than sorry, right?

1. Cleanse veerryy gently. Find a very gentle, soothing cleanser that cleans your skin without stripping the precious barrier. Our 2% Salicylic Acid Clearing Cleanser cleans thoroughly, but very gently. It also has skin-calming and hydrating ingredients. Just remember to do that patch test.

2. Use a good sensitivity-calming serum.

Sensitive skin and rosacea must-have: Anti Redness Serum. This gentle, hypoallergenic multitasker uses antioxidant ferulic acid, soothing bisabolol and magnolia bark extract to calm irritation and tackle redness at its root. It strengthens skin resilience and makes it less reactive as it helps reduce the appearance of broken capillaries and boost skin radiance. 

Sensitized skin must-have: our Cica Complete Repair Serum. It uses 3 types of cica aka centella Asiatica to help rebuild and strengthen the skin barrier, relieving inflammation, redness and irritation, and making skin stronger and more resilient.

Bonus: while it’s working its soothing, repairing magic, it also hydrates skin and helps reduce visible signs of aging, boosts elasticity and firmness, and minimizes the appearance of red spots, pores and roughness, with continued use.

3. Add a mild, skin-boosting moisturizer, like our Microbiome Balance Moisturizer. It helps keep the skin microbiome healthy, soothe irritation and strengthen the skin barrier, all while it nourishes and hydrates skin

Cerm Skin Sensitive and Sensitized skin collection: Anti Redness Serum (Sensitive Skin), Cica Complete Repair Serum (Sensitized Skin), 2% Salicylic Acid Clearing Cleanser, Microbiome Balance Moisturizer

Step two: Manage those triggers you can't avoid

You can’t control extreme temperatures (hot or cold), or nasty pollutants. But you can try to  limit your exposure to them. 

And don't forget to keep your insides happy too – practise good gut and skin biome health, exercise, eating right, managing stress, and getting enough ZZZs all play a role in keeping your skin chill, strong and resilient.

If you're really struggling, don't hesitate to hit up the skincare pros, like dermatologists and skincare professionals. They’re there to help you figure out what's up with your skin and to recommend the right path to calm down inflammation and beef up your skin's defenses to help keep your skin calm, cool and collected.

Bottom line

Dealing with sensitive skin might be a challenge, but with a little know-how and some TLC, you can totally manage it. So, here's to happy, healthy skin—no drama required!


1. NIH. The Prevalence of Sensitive Skin. Front Med. 2019. doi: 10.3389/fmed.2019.00098