Sensitive body skin Understanding its causes, and how to protect it

Body skin can become sensitive for many reasons, ranging from environmental factors like fluctuation in temperature to internal triggers such as hormonal change. While some people are predisposed to outbreaks of the condition, it is a highly unpredictable one that can appear at any time in an individual’s life. It can also appear anywhere on the body and it is important to understand that “sensitive skin” isn’t abnormal or even a disease.

While there is no real cure for sensitive skin, it can be managed and minimised through understanding. It is possible to effectively address the condition by understanding it’s ‘language’ together with the causes of sensitive skin and the stimuli that can make it worse.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

How to recognise sensitive body skin

The suppleness and elasticity of healthy skin is maintained by its natural barrier function, which protects against external elements and limits excess water loss. A slightly acidic level is key to this function, both assisting with skin desquamation or shedding and defending against daily stress factors like pollution, bacteria and allergens.

The resulting symptoms include:

  • scaling
  • reddening
  • swelling and 
  • roughness

accompanied by invisible sensations such as:

  • itchiness
  • prickling
  • burning and a
  • feeling of tightness
Woman wearing a bra, touching her right arm.
Healthy skin has a natural barrier function which limits water loss and protects underlying layers from irritants.

If symptoms are not dealt with, they can lead to skin becoming chapped and cracked anywhere on the body. Even large areas of skin like that found on the arms, legs, décolleté, shoulders, elbows, calves and knees are susceptible and sensitivity can be triggered by hot showers, harsh body products, sun exposure, sweating during sport or air conditioning.

Some areas are more prone to these effects. These include the backs of the hands, where a shortage of the secretions needed to maintain skin’s barrier function means they are less protected from external influences. Regular washing with alkaline soap also significantly undermines their natural pH levels. An impaired barrier function can lead to the occurrence of sensitizing reactions that cause contact dermatitis, an inflammation that appears as blisters, dryness and cracking.

The scalp is often prone to sensitivity, with around 60% of women and 40% of men experiencing symptoms including redness, tightness and itching. There is growing evidence that microinflammations are involved in scalp sensitivity. Find out more about symptoms and causes of a sensitive scalp.

Skin in the intimate area differs from other parts of the body and has numerous barriers in place to protect it. If these are affected, by over-cleansing for example, skin can become susceptible to itchiness, discomfort and even infection.

Changes due to skin stretching – through pregnancy, weight gain or growth spurts – can result in stretch marks, which can also be highly sensitive and easily irritated. These are most likely to appear on the breasts, abdomen and upper thighs. Read more about skin in different body parts.

Two female hands touching each other.
The backs of the hands are have an impaired barrier function so are prone to sensitivity.
Woman checking her scalp.
According to estimations, around 60% of women experience sensitivity on the scalp.

Other skin conditions share similar symptoms, however their causes – and solutions – are different.

Sun allergies can lead to skin becoming red and itchy. However, these symptoms are also likely to be accompanied by blisters, pustules and raised rashes. Areas most affected tend to be the underside of the arms, palms and the chest. These allergies, including Polymorphous Light Eruptions (PLE), are relatively common and are triggered by UV radiation. Sunscreen can be a factor too. Read more about PLE and other sun allergies.

Dehydrated skin is essentially healthy skin that is lacking in moisture, due to a depletion of Aquaporins or protein-based channels, which control the transfer of water into and out of the cells. Creating new Aquaporins has been shown in-vitro through the active ingredient Gluco-glycerol.

Dry skin can range in symptoms, from roughness to scaling and redness. It is generally accompanied by intense itchiness. As with sensitive skin, dry skin can appear anywhere on the body, but is particularly common on hands, feet, knees and elbows. It is caused by a deficit of moisture-binding substances or ‘natural moisturising factors’ (NMFs), especially urea.

Dehydrated and dry skin can also become sensitive, as can other skin conditions and diseases.

Woman touching her chest with her hand.
The chest is prone to sun allergies and can become red and itchy.
Woman applying cream on her right leg.
Creating new Aquaporins has been shown in-vitro through the active ingredient Gluco-glycerol.

If you are unsure about what type of skin condition you have, our skin test may be able to help. Or consult your doctor or dermatologist for a formal diagnosis.

Causes & Triggers

What causes body skin to become sensitive?

Natural protective systems

Skin has a number of natural systems in place to protect it and keep it healthy. On its surface is a hydrolipid film composed of water, fatty acids and lipids. This has a pH of approximately 5, which is slightly acidic, protecting skin from microbial invasion and alkaline challenges, from soap for example. It neutralises the alkaline substances by using what are called buffer substances, which ensure that the acidic balance is restored and stabilised.

The hydrolipid film lies on top of the uppermost layer of the epidermis, known as the horny layer or stratum corneum. This is made up of lipids and cells, which together form a permeable barrier. It also has an average pH of 5 which supports:

  • normal skin scaling, or desquamation
  • barrier formation
  • optimal functioning of skin enzymes.

All of these systems depend on enzyme activity, which accelerates biochemical reactions, keeping skin moist and smooth, and protecting it against irritants. In sensitive skin, however, this activity is inhibited, which leads to excess water loss and the penetration of irritants through the skin.

SKIN BARRIER

Protection against harmful substances
Hydrolipid film
Horny layer lipids
Horny cells
Horny layer
Protection against moisture loss

Graphic illustration of skin and its horny layer.
The horny layer (stratum corneum) forms the uppermost layer of the epidermis and protects the body against external substances.

This is particularly the case where skin is thinner than elsewhere on the body, for example on the backs of the hands. A reduced number of sebaceous glands provide less sweat and lipids that go to make up the hydrolipid film. Exposure to a wide range of stimuli means that hands can dry out very quickly and become highly sensitive.

The skin in the intimate area is also different to other parts of the body. It has a more acidic protective acid layer, with a pH value from 3.5 to 5, before menopause. This value is maintained by a beneficial bacteria known as Lactobacilli, which inhibits the growth of pathogenic germs by producing Lactic Acid. A change in pH levels can result in irritation, itchiness, a burning sensation and infections.

Naked woman covering her intimate area with both hands.
Skin in the intimate area has a different pH value to the rest of the body.

Internal causes of sensitive body skin

  • While sensitive skin can occur at any age, it is particularly prevalent in babyhood and older age. At both stages in life, skin is thinner and the barrier function less effective, which can lead to a pH imbalance and increased water loss. Baby skin is especially likely to become sensitive in skin folds, and around the intimate area. Read more about skin in different ages.
  • Hormonal changes due to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, puberty and the menopause can all affect skin’s resistance to irritants. In pregnancy, for example, it is common for stretch marks to form, becoming reddened and sore.
  • Different skin conditions can be accompanied by sensitivity to irritants, including atopic eczema and dry skin.
  • Similarly people who suffer from type I allergies are likely to also experience skin sensitivity, due to the penetration of pollen through the skin.

Pregnant woman holding her belly.
Hormonal changes can affect the skin‘s resistance to irritants.
Woman scratching her left leg.
Excessive showering or bathing can further dry sensitive skin's vulnerable barrier function.

External causes of sensitive body skin

  • Exposure to low humidity and cold air encourages the body to conserve heat by constricting blood vessels in the skin, depleting it of much-needed moisture. Skin can easily become dry and scaly.
  • High temperatures and humidity cause the body to sweat more, which evaporates, drying the skin out.
  • Free radicals created by UV radiation, ozone and environmental pollutants have all been shown to weaken skin’s natural defences, causing it to dry out and become irritated. Find out more about factors that influence skin.
  • Medical treatments such as radiotheraphy and antibiotics can make skin sensitive, with the latter damaging beneficial bacteria like Lactobacilli.
  • Conventional soaps and surfactants remove not only lipophilic dirt particles, but also important skin-protecting lipids, leading to an imbalance in pH levels and irritated skin.

Woman wearing winter clothes.
Cold weather can damage the skin's hydrolipid film and therefore trigger sensitivity.
Female hand holding a tablet in front of mouth.
Certain medications can make skin more sensitive although this is usually temporary.
Contributing Factors

Stimuli that increase skin sensitivity

In addition to the triggers that cause skin to become sensitive, there are many stimuli that then exacerbate the condition. This can make it difficult to isolate a single determining factor behind an outbreak.

Tight, synthetic fabrics can cause skin to sweat more, leading to excess water loss, especially in the intimate area.

Hands in particular can be in contact with a range of chemical substances both at work, and at home. Hairdressers, builders and industrial workers, for example, can come into contact with acids, alkalis and solvents in their day-to-day activities.

Regular use of moisturising and cleansing products with alkaline pH overtaxes the neutralising capability of the skin, making it susceptible to irritants and infections. Surface-active agents (surfactants) like sodium lauryl sulphate can cause damage to the horny cell structures and impair the permeability barrier. As a result, skin can dry out.

Prolonged contact with water increases the permeability of even healthy skin by a factor of ten, through loss of skin’s natural moisturising factors (NMF) as well as its surface lipids.

In some cases, friction can increase sensitivity through loss of surface lipids. This can range from rubbing the skin dry with a towel to using scrubs and loofahs.

Woman wearing a woollen pullover.
Certain fabrics, such as wool, can cause skin to sweat, leading to excess water loss.
Female haircutter working with hair, holding a comb.
Over-exposure to certain chemical substances can exacerbate sensitive skin symptoms.
Solutions

Helping skin defend itself

In sensitive skin, enzyme activity is often inhibited, leading to an impaired barrier function. Research has shown that a number of naturally-derived ingredients can help stimulate enzymes to start protecting the body again. Among these are:

  • Dexpanthenol, a derivative of Vitamin B, stimulates skin regeneration. It strengthens the natural protection function of the skin to keep it healthy and resilient. This active is also known to help accelerate the healing and renewal process of skin. In certain concentrations, this active ingredient is also known to help accelerate the self-healing and renewal process of skin.
  • Glycerin, which absorbs and binds water, helping to moisturise skin.
  • pH5 Citrate Buffer restores skin’s natural pH levels. As a result the skin’s enzyme activities can return to normal and a healthy balance is restored.

Natural, pure vegetable oils such as Almond and Jojoba contain Linoleic Acid, an unsaturated fatty acid that strengthens the skin’s natural barrier function. If applied through regular massage, they can help stimulate blood circulation and enhance skin elasticity.

Protecting skin from the sun’s rays can help reduce sensitivity. It is best to avoid the sun completely between 11am and 3pm, and wear protective clothing. This is particularly the case with children aged under 3. Choose a sunscreen that is free of irritants, such as perfumes, and apply it generously 30 minutes before going outside, then reapply every two hours.

Adjust daily cleansing routines by limiting time spent in the shower or bath and use warm rather than hot water. Avoid body scrubs and pat, rather than rub, skin dry.

Choose clothes made with natural fabrics, rather than synthetics. This is especially relevant for preventing bacterial infections in the intimate area.

Covering up can also help keep hands protected from noxious substances – consider using gloves when encountering surfactants, detergents and other irritants.

Research suggests that a varied diet, rich in antioxidant foods, can help keep skin healthy. This could include yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, green leafy vegetables, fish – especially salmon, and nuts. Read more about factors that influence skin.

Mother is applying sun cream on her son´s arm.
Always use a sun screen formulated for sensitive skin.
Woman wrapped in towel.
Gently pat skin dry after showering to prevent further damage to the skin barrier.

Relieving and reducing sensitive body skin

Preventing recurrences

The unpredictability of sensitive skin means that in many cases solutions are about prevention rather than cure.

Choosing skin care products

When choosing cleansers, moisturisers and other skin care products for sensitive skin, it is important to avoid those that include irritants such as colorants. More than that however, for a product to be genuinely effective, it needs to work not just on skin’s surface, but also below. With sensitive skin, products that are proven to have long-lasting effects are also a consideration.

As part of a preventative course of action, it can help to use a very mild cleanser for frequent showering followed by an in-shower moisturiser such as Eucerin's new In-Shower Body Lotion or a daily use lotion, cleanser or oil from Eucerin's Sensitive Skin range, all of which combine active ingredients Dexpanthenol and Glycerin to help activate skin's natural defence.

Eucerin In-Shower Body Lotion is an easy, convenient and effective way to keep sensitive skin resilient and in good condition. This innovative product, containing Dexpanthenol, is applied in-shower after cleansing and is rinsed off before toweling, providing the moisture needed to strengthen skin's natural protection while leaving it feeling soft and smooth.

For a sensitive scalp, choose a gentle shampoo that features extra mild surfactants such as Eucerin DermoCapilliare ph5 Mild Shampoo.

Woman applying cream on her elbow.
Look out for active ingredients such as Dexpanthenol and Glycerin, both of which work beneath the surface of the skin.
Woman applying body lotion on her arm
Eucerin In-Shower Body Lotion should be applied on wet skin, while still in the shower.