How to tell if your skin is sensitive or overloaded

Sensitive skin is more common than you think and affects over 50% of the general population. But, just because you react to a particular product, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have sensitive skin. 

The more products you use on your skin, the more likely they will react with your skin because of the multiple chemicals in these products. Even if your skin reacts, how will you know whether it’s due to sensitive skin, overloaded skin or the actual product and if so, which one? There lies the problem.

Many of us have bought skin products claiming all kinds of miracles. After using them for a short period of time, we often stop because they haven’t done what they promised or we have reacted against them.

I thought it would be useful to better understand this common problem by getting back to the basics of skincare.

What is sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is not a medical term or diagnosis. It just means that your skin is more reactive than average and is easily irritated by common triggers such as the sun, wind, cold and smoking as well as face creams and cosmetics. 

Typically, the symptoms of sensitive skin are: redness, stinging, burning, itching and general discomfort.  

The science bit…….for your skin to be sensitive, there has to be a disruption of the protective fatty (lipid) barrier function of the skin. This fatty barrier has 2 main jobs: (1) To keep water in (keeping your skin hydrated) and (2) To keep damaging things out (reducing infections and inflammation/reactions). This barrier can be weakened in conditions like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea or by physically taking away the layer through harsh chemicals or over-exfoliating the skin. Because your damaged skin barrier is not doing its job properly, moisture escapes and your skin becomes dry and more sensitive and so prone to the damaging effects of chemicals.

What can you do to prevent or manage sensitive skin?

Try to maintain the protective fatty barrier effect of the skin. These are the Do’s and Don’ts, keeping the basic barrier function principle in mind:


  • Keep it simple and try not to use multiple products all at the same time.
  • Always wash your face with cool or lukewarm water
  • Moisturise with emollients (moisturisers) regularly. They will retain the moisture in the skin and replenish the fatty/ lipid barrier, keeping your skin healthy.
  • Go slow when using new products with strong active ingredients to build up a tolerance. That’s exactly why at Dermatica we start you off on a low dose and build up to minimize irritation.
  • Use a moisturiser half an hour before adding the product with the active ingredient. This will act as a buffer to reduce the irritating effects. 


  • Overwash: over-washing can strip away the outer protective fatty layer of the skin.
  • Use soap and hot water: soaps can contain chemicals which can strip the natural sebum/oily fatty layer.
  • Use abrasive scrubs and mechanical exfoliants which can also damage the protective layer.
  • Use multiple products at the same time.

How long does it take to see if a skincare product is working?

The outer layer of the skin undergoes constant renewal every 28 days. Therefore, as a general rule, you need to continue with the skincare product for a good 4-6 weeks before you are likely to see an improvement. 

What exactly does overloading the skin look like and how can you wean yourself off a jam-packed skincare routine?

Overloading essentially means you are using too many skin products containing too many active ingredients. These ingredients have the potential to interact with each other and cause reactions to your skin (dryness, redness, burning, flaky skin, pimples), which you may not have had if you had stuck to one product at a time. Furthermore, multiple ingredients make it much harder to identify the culprit!

If you are a skin products ‘junkie’ and have overloaded your skin, STOP. It’s not too late. Let’s get back to basics and keep things simple. Less is more. 

A simple effective skincare regime anyone can do involves the following:

1. Cleanse your face of all makeup thoroughly before bedtime but don’t scrub with a washcloth or use exfoliating face washes as these can irritate your skin when using your topical treatment.

2. Pat skin dry (don’t rub) and allow your skin to dry completely – 3-5 minutes.

3. If you are on treatment for a skin concern, apply your treatment to your entire face – 1 to 2 pumps is usually enough. Allow it to absorb completely, which takes approximately 3-5 minutes.

4. Once your treatment is completely absorbed by your skin, apply a thin layer of a simple, basic moisturizer of your choice to your entire face if desired.

5. In the morning, gently wash your face, pat dry and apply your mineral/physical sunscreen with factor 50 or above and a moisturizer of your choice.

Cherry Armstrong
Cherry Armstrong
Dr. Cherry Armstrong is a physician with over 20 years' extensive clinical experience in Acute and Family Medicine. Dr. Armstrong was trained at the Royal Free Hospital, School of Medicine, University of London. With 8 years of experience as a Clinical Director commissioning NHS services, she has set up Community Dermatology, Cardiology and MSK Clinics (2008-2016). She was a Clinical Lead for Community Services, including Dermatology, Cancer Services, Adult Mental Health and CAMHS (2008-2016). Dr. Armstrong is Medical Advisor for L'Oreal and regularly gives presentations and teaches at GP and Nurses forums on common Dermatological pathologies in Primary Care.

Dr. Armstrong is a member of the Clinical Advisory Board here at Dermatica
Originally published August 20 2020, updated August 20 2020

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