“Less Is More”—13 Pro-Recommended Products to Get Irritated, Sensitive Skin Back on Track

Back to basics.

By Caitlin Clark

Oh to be alive in the skincare boom, when companies like The Ordinary have pushed for ingredient transparency and made space for affordable formulas you can trust. There are endless buzzy brands to discover, but all that unboxing, patting, slathering, and layering can drive even the most steadfast complexion to irritation. For anyone looking to get things back on track, we tapped four beauty experts—board-certified dermatologist Dr. Macrene Alexiades; celebrity aesthetician and dermatological nurse Natalie Aguilar; Dr. Heather D. Rogers, dermatologist, dermatologic surgeon, and founder and CEO of Doctor Rogers; and Monica Monahan, aesthetic nurse specialist at SkinSpirit—to cull a pro-approved skincare routine for sensitive skin.

“Sensitive skin is generally used to describe skin that reddens or irritates early,” shares Dr. Alexiades. “Such skin often reacts to triggers such as weather, allergies, or skincare ingredients such as retinol or acids.” Aguilar adds, “Bringing our skin back to homeostasis will improve such reactive conditions.”

Ahead, discover the calming steps to take—morning and evening—to bring sensitive skin back from the brink.

Featured image of Ariel Kaye by Teal Thomsen.

Samantha Wennerstrom_skincare routine for sensitive skin
Image by Sara Prince

How do you know if your skin qualifies as sensitive skin?

For anyone else who’s ever blanked when a dermatologist or aesthetician asks what skin type you have, you’re not alone. It’s confusing and often subject to change—especially considering “sensitive skin” isn’t so much a skin type as it is a condition.

“Although there is no specific definition, in general, sensitive skin is just skin that is more easily irritated,” explains Dr. Rogers. “Some skin can just tell if everything is not quite right, and it will let you know! A recent study found that 70% of us report having sensitive skin. Some of us—typically those with thinner, drier, more mature skin types—really do have sensitive skin. But more and more people think their skin is sensitive when it is just sick and tired of the excess we are putting on it. This is sensitized skin.”

The Most Common Symptoms of Sensitive Skin

  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Rashes
  • Dry patches
  • Peeling
  • Being prone to breakouts

Typical Causes of Sensitive Skin

In addition to weather or allergies, a few common instigators of sensitive skin include eczema, rosacea, and contact dermatitis, the last of which is a term for the skin’s negative reaction to an ingredient.

Dr. Rogers, whose skincare line is designed specifically to avoid unnecessary irritation, believes the recent rise in contact dermatitis (one of the five most common skin diseases) may be due to a rise in natural personal care products. “Natural skin care products are popular with the consumer, but that does not mean they are better for our skin,” Dr. Rogers adds.

Inge Theron applying moisturizer to hand_skincare routine for sensitive skin
Image by Teal Thomsen

What ingredients are best for sensitive skin?

Dr. Rogers offers that everyone—but particularly those dealing with sensitive skin—should edit their skincare routines to include only essential, high-quality products.

“Look for skincare products that are hypoallergenic, made with fewer ingredients, and have no fragrance,” she notes. “If your skin is acting sensitive, the first step is to do less. Stop all active treatments. Yes, Vitamin C and retinol are good for your skin but only if it is healthy enough to tolerate them. If your skin is already inflamed, these products will only worsen things.”

Both Monahan and Aguilar recommend supportive, skin barrier-nourishing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, ceramides, glycerine, squalene, shea butter, and lipids.

“And never skip the SPF,” Aguilar adds.

Inge Theron drinking water in bed_skincare routine for sensitive skin
Image by Michelle Nash

What ingredients should be avoided for sensitive skin?

In general, those with sensitive skin should avoid…

  • Fragrance
  • Alcohols
  • Essential oils
  • Petroleum
  • Soaps
  • Dyes
  • Sulfates
  • Exfoliants such as glycolic or salicylic acid
  • Chemical sunscreens

When it comes to beloved ingredients like vitamin C or retinol, lower percentages are best for those with sensitive skin—their reactive skin is able to absorb more of it, while too much of it can cause irritation.

Dr. Alexiades adds a few more suggestions, “Washing too often will irritate sensitive skin and cause excessive dryness. Instead, stick with mild, gentle cleansers, not soaps or scrubs. Use lukewarm water. Do not use waterproof cosmetics as you need a special cleanser to remove them. For the rest of your eye makeup, use pencils instead of liquid eyeliners.”

Megan O'Neill applying skincare
Image by Belathée Photography

How can you tailor your routine for sensitive skin?

When the goal is to restore your skin barrier to its optimal state, less is always more.

“If you introduce too many products or change too many variables at one time, you will not be able to identify the potential irritant,” Monahan adds.

Sensitive Skin Suggestions for a Morning Routine

iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+ Antioxidant-Rich Vitamin C Serum

u003cpu003eDesigned specifically for those with redness, inflammation, and rosacea, Monahan loves this antioxidant-packed serum for its reparative, protective properties. u003c/pu003e

SkinBetter Alto Advanced Defense and Repair Serum

u003cpu003eThis vitamin C and antioxidant-powered product comes paired with niacinamide to keep things calm. u003c/pu003e

PCA SKIN Hyaluronic Acid Boosting Serum

u003cpu003eu0022This serum contains a smoothing blend of ingredients that provides deep, long-lasting hydration on three levels: on the surface, deeper in the skin, and by increasing the skin’s own hyaluronic acid production.u0022 u003cemu003e— Natalie Aguilaru003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Aveeno Eczema Therapy Daily Moisturizing Cream for Sensitive Skin

u003cpu003eIf you’re dealing with sensitive skin on the body, Dr. Alexiades suggests Aveeno’s beloved cream. u003c/pu003eu003cpu003eu0022Emollients that contain oatmeal or shea butter are good choices, such as Aveeno Eczema Therapy. It also features colloidal oatmeal and ceramides that help seal the skin barrier.u0022 u003cemu003e— Dr. Alexiades u003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

Colorescience Brush-On Sunscreen Mineral Powder

u003cpu003eThis brush-on breakthrough product (featuring zinc oxide) is lightweight enough for sensitive and acne-prone skin, according to Monahan. u003c/pu003e

Jan Marini Skin Research Marini Physical Protectant SPF 45

u003cpu003eA favorite of those with rosacea, Monahan loves this lightly tinted sunscreen. u003c/pu003e

Sensitive Skin Suggestions for an Evening Routine

Doctor Rogers Restore Face Wash

u003cpu003eAwarded the seal of acceptance by the National Eczema Association, this gentle cleanser features just eight hypoallergenic, plant-based, biodegradable ingredients, including glycerin. u003c/pu003e

iS CLINICAL Cleansing Complex

u003cpu003eMonahan loves this gentle, lightweight cleanser that clears deeply without stripping the skin. u003c/pu003e

Sente Dermal Repair UltraNourish

u003cpu003eDesigned for ultra-dry, sensitive skin, Sente’s nourishing blend of lipids addresses fine lines and wrinkles while locking in moisture. u003c/pu003e

Macrene Actives High Performance Face Cream Extra Rich

u003cpu003eu0022If you’re acne prone, go for plant-derived oil-free emollient lipids such as those in Macrene Actives u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 rel=u0022noreferrer noopener nofollowu0022u003eHigh Performance Extra Rich Creamu003c/au003e, which contains jojoba esters and coco glycerides.u0022 u003cemu003e— Dr. Alexiadesu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

CeraVe Moisturizing Cream

u003cpu003eDr. Alexiades loves simple, fragrance-free moisturizers for sensitive skin. u003c/pu003e

Creme Dermo-RL By Biologique Recherche

u003cpu003eu0022This is a complete repairing and regenerating skincare treatment whose formula is enriched with lipid-replenishing shea butter and cotton oils, natural moisturizing factor, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and protective and reparative agents.u0022 u003cemu003e— Dr. Alexiadesu003c/emu003eu003c/pu003e

An anytime favorite…

Doctor Rogers Restore Healing Balm

u003cpu003eThis killer multitasker is a fragrance-free, all-natural alternative to petroleum jelly (which does little more than just sit on the skin). The glycerin-packed product can be applied to any damaged skin to help the healing process. u003c/pu003e