Reactive Skin: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Skin reactivity manifests itself in the form of redness, dryness, irritation, and other uncomfortable issues that are easily confused with a variety of skin conditions. So, what does it mean to have reactive skin and how can you treat it?
Reactive Skin: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

This phenomenon is more common in women. In fact, experts estimate the one in three women can suffer from reactive skin. Some of them experience symptoms so often that they end up interpreting them as “normal” when they really aren’t. In fact, many dermatologists also have a hard time classifying this type of skin.

Skin reactivity is also often referred to as sensitive skin, irritable skin, intolerant skin, etc. But these terms are not precise. Reactive skin isn’t an illness in and of itself, but it does produce discomfort in those who experience it. So, what causes reactive skin? And what can people do in order to keep their symptoms under control?

What is reactive skin?

Up until a short time ago, people talked about this condition in terms of “sensitive skin”. However, dermatologists believe that the term “reactive skin” is more precise. It’s defined as a type of skin that produces uncomfortable sensations, including burning, itching, pain, or stinging triggering an agent that shouldn’t produce these types of reactions.

Indeed, skin reactivity occurs only when no other pathology can explain the changes in a person’s skin. In other words, the symptoms can’t be explained by an allergy to a particular substance or the presence of an aggressive agent, such as abrasive soap.

Another characteristic of this condition is that, in general, it occurs intermittently. In other words, the symptoms appear and disappear. Frequently, the use of cosmetics is a trigger.

A woman with reactive skin.
Reactive skin is a condition that produces irritation, reddening, itchiness, and other types of discomfort due to exposure to different factors.

You may also want to read: 5 Natural Remedies for Irritation After Shaving

The causes of reactive skin

Science has yet to understand the reasons why reactive skin exists. However, there are three hypotheses that could explain this phenomenon, which you’ll find below.

  • Epidermic hypothesis. Suggests that the skin’s barrier, located in the epidermis, is defective. Therefore, it doesn’t protect the skin adequately from external agents.
  • Biochemical hypothesis. This hypothesis indicates that these cases are anomalies en channels known as TRP (transient receptor potential channels). These are located in the most external part of the epidemic cells and in nerve endings.
  • Neurogenic hypothesis. This hypothesis indicates that people with reactive skin have a lower number of intraepidermal nerve fibers. At the same time, they display a greater release of inflammatory mediators.

At the same time, experts have determined that there are some agents in particular that trigger reactivity in the skin. This list includes the following:

  • The misuse of cosmetics
  • The continuous exposure to certain chemicals
  • Environmental contamination
  • Heat and radiation treatments
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Certain medications
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Low humidity
  • Alcohol
  • Spicy foods or highly seasoned foods
How to treat reactive skin.
The misuse of cosmetics, the exposure to certain chemical substances, stress, and other factors can be triggers for skin reactivity.

What steps to take in order to prevent skin reactivity

People that experience skin reactivity need to be careful with the products that they use. It’s best to consult with a dermatologist so that the professional can indicate which specific products are best for each particular case.

It’s important to make certain adjustments in your beauty routine as well as optimize the cleansing and hydration of the skin. The use and reapplication of sunscreen every two to three hours is also fundamental.

At the same time, it’s important to avoid cosmetics that include potentially irritating ingredients. For example, propylene glycol, TCA, AHA, alcohol, among others. At the same time, people with reactive skin should avoid hydrating creams with retinoids and hydroxy acids. What’s more, anti-age products and strong exfoliants can also be irritating.

To cleanse and hydrate reactive skin, it’s best to use lotions and creams in the place of other products. You should apply these products by dabbing them on the skin, without using friction .

Reactive skin: Final conclusions

Treating reactive skin is complex, as is diagnosing it. First of all, a dermatologist must rule out any other possible conditions. Then, he or she can indicate which products are best for each individual patient. In the same way, the professional should determine with products are the most triggering.

Sometimes, doctors recommend medications that are commonly used to treat atopic skin, which have also proven to be effective in cases of reactive skin. In any case, it’s essential that those individuals with this skin condition hydrate their skin. This not only means using hydrating lotions but also drinking plenty of water.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Misery L. Peaux sensibles, peaux réactives [Sensitive skin, reactive skin]. Ann Dermatol Venereol. 2019;146(8-9):585‐591. doi:10.1016/j.annder.2019.05.007
  • Caterina MJ, Pang Z. TRP Channels in Skin Biology and Pathophysiology. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2016;9(4):77. Published 2016 Dec 14. doi:10.3390/ph9040077
  • Son JY, Jung MH, Koh KW, et al. Changes in skin reactivity and associated factors in patients sensitized to house dust mites after 1 year of allergen-specific immunotherapy. Asia Pac Allergy. 2017;7(2):82‐91. doi:10.5415/apallergy.2017.7.2.82
  • Kitson N, Thewalt JL. Hypothesis: the epidermal permeability barrier is a porous medium. Acta Derm Venereol Suppl (Stockh). 2000;208:12‐15. doi:10.1080/000155500750042808
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  • Muizzuddin N, Marenus KD, Maes DH. Factors defining sensitive skin and its treatment. Am J Contact Dermat. 1998;9(3):170‐175.
  • Taberner, J. E., Rodríguez, R. S., & Tapia, A. G. (2011). La piel sensible. Más dermatología, (13), 4-13.
  • Akaishi S, Ogawa R, Hyakusoku H. Keloid and hypertrophic scar: neurogenic inflammation hypotheses. Med Hypotheses. 2008;71(1):32‐38. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2008.01.032

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.