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

Body skin can become sensitive for many reasons, ranging from environmental factors such as fluctuation in temperature to internal triggers such as hormonal change. While some people are predisposed to outbreaks of the condition, it is highly unpredictable and can appear at any time in an individual’s life. It can also appear anywhere on the body. Dry sensitive skin is not a disease, and having ‘sensitive skin’ is perfectly normal. 

While there is no real cure for dry sensitive skin, understanding its causes, symptoms and ‘language’ can help you to address the condition by avoiding the stimuli that trigger reactions and protecting skin to minimise sensitivity. 

 
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

How to recognise dry 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 slight acidity is key to this function. It assists with skin desquamation (or shedding) and defends against daily stress factors such as 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
Dry sensitive skin has a compromised barrier
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 dryness and sensitivity than others. 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 dryness and 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.

Dry sensitive skin on different body parts
The backs of the hands are have an impaired barrier function so are prone to dryness and sensitivity.
Dry sensitive skin on head
An estimated 60% of women experience sensitivity on the scalp.

Other skin conditions share similar symptoms, however their causes – and how best to treat them – 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 décolleté. These allergies, including Polymorphous Light Eruptions (PLE), are relatively common and are triggered by UV radiation. Some people also experience an allergic reaction to the ingredients in certain sunscreen products. 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 dry 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.

Some areas are more prone to dryness and sensitivity than others
The chest is prone to sun allergies and can become red and itchy.
Gluco-glycerol can stimulate Aquaporin production, recommended for dry sensitive body skin
In vitro tests have shown that the active ingredient Gluco-glycerol can stimulate Aquaporin production.

If you are unsure about what type of skin condition you have, consult your doctor or dermatologist for a formal diagnosis.

Causes & Triggers

What causes dry sensitive body skin?

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 stressors, such as soap. The hydrolipid film neutralises alkaline substances and restores and stabilises the skin’s natural acidic balance. 

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
  • skin moisture levels
  • skin's barrier function
When skin’s natural pH balance is altered, its defenses are weakened. Skin suffers excess water loss and irritants can penetrate its surface.

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 from environmental triggers.

This is particularly the case where skin is thinner than elsewhere on the body, for example on the backs of the hands. Here, a reduced number of sebaceous glands means less sweat and fewer of the lipids that make up the hydrolipid film. Exposure to a wide range of stimuli makes it easy for hands to 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 layer, with a pH value of between 3.5 and 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.

Skin in the intimate area has a different pH value
Skin in the intimate area has a different pH value to the rest of the body.

Internal causes of sensitive body skin

  • While dry 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 Dermatitis (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.

Hormonal changes can affect the skin‘s resistance to irritants.
Hormonal changes can affect the skin‘s resistance and lead to sensitive body skin.
Damage of dry sensitive skin
Damage of dry sensitive skin's vulnerable barrier function.

External causes of dry 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 defenses, 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 dry and sensitive, with the latter damaging beneficial bacteria like Lactobacilli.
  • Conventional soaps and surfactants don't just remove dirt, they also wash away important skin-protecting lipids, leading to an imbalance in pH levels and irritated skin.

Cold weather can trigger body skin sensitivity
Cold weather can damage the skin's hydrolipid film and therefore trigger sensitivity.
Certain medications can make skin more sensitive
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. Some surface-active agents (surfactants) can cause damage to the horny cell structures and impair the permeability barrier. As a result, skin can dry out and become sensitive.

Prolonged contact with water increases the permeability of even healthy skin by a factor of ten, through loss of skin’s Natural Moisturising Factors (NMFs) 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.

Certain fabrics can cause dry sensitive body skin
Certain fabrics, such as wool, can cause skin to sweat, leading to excess water loss.
Over-exposure to certain chemical substances can exacerbate dry sensitive skin symptoms.
Over-exposure to certain chemical substances can exacerbate sensitive skin symptoms.
Solutions

Relieving dry sensitive body skin and helping to prevent further irritation

Preventing recurrences

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

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 rich in Omega oils and nuts. Read more about factors that influence skin.

Always use a sunscreen formulated for dry sensitive skin.
Always use a sun screen formulated for dry sensitive skin.
Dry sensitive body skin needs gentle care
Choose gentle but effective cleansers specially formulated for dry sensitive skin.

Clinical and dermatological research has shown that a number of naturally-derived ingredients can help to make dry sensitive skin more resilient and less sensitive.

  • Citrate Buffer, a derivative of Citric Acid, is an active ingredient in Eucerin’s unique pH Balance System. It helps to restore and stabilize skin’s natural pH, making it more resilient to environmental triggers. 
  • Dexpanthenol, which comes from Pantothenic Acid (also known as Vitamin B5), is an extremely effective moisturiser, improving hydration of the outermost layer of the skin. It helps reduce transepidermal water loss and keep skin soft and elastic. Dexpanthenol enhances skin regeneration and repair and helps with the healing of wounds. It has been shown to considerably improve symptoms of skin irritation such as dryness, roughness, scaling and redness when applied regularly.
  • 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.

Choosing skin care products

Dry sensitive skin is easily irritated by environmental triggers, making it even more sensitive. It requires more than gentle cleansing and moisturising to become less sensitive. 

Cleansing dry sensitive body skin

Many cleansers are so effective they clean away not only the dirt on our skin but also the hydrolipid film that protects it. Look for products that contain mild surfactants and ingredients that help to restore skin’s optimum pH. It can also be a good idea to avoid products that contain irritants such as colourants.

All the cleansers in the Eucerin pH5 range contain our unique pH Balance System with Citrate Buffer and extra mild surfactants to help restore skin’s optimum pH. The formula has been clinically and dermatologically proven to be ideal for daily use on dry sensitive skin. It protects skin from drying out (even with frequent washing), supports long-lasting moisturisation and leaves skin looking and feeling soft and smooth.

For all over your body: Choose from Eucerin pH5 Washlotion, Eucerin pH5 Soft Shower, Eucerin pH5 Shower Oil and Eucerin pH5 Soap-Free Bar.

For your hands: Try Eucerin pH5 Soap-Free Bar or Eucerin pH5 Handwash Oil.

For your intimate area:
Try Eucerin Intim-Protect. Formulated with skin’s own Lactic Acid, it has a pH value of 4.5 (the same as the female intimate area) and also contains Bisabolol known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

For dry sensitive skin on your scalp
: Try Eucerin DermoCapillaire pH5 Mild Shampoo.
 
Look out for care product for dry sensitive body skin
Look out for care products that include Dexpanthenol: an intense moisturiser known for its regenerative properties.
Less sensitive skin with the right body care
Eucerin pH5 Soft Body Cream delivers long-lasting moisturisation and makes dry sensitive skin more resilient, less sensitive and velvety soft.

Moisturising dry sensitive body skin

When choosing a moisturising product for dry sensitive skin, it isn’t enough to ensure it is free of irritants. The product needs to actively work below the surface of the skin, stimulating skin’s own regenerative processes and natural defenses. 

Look out for products which include Dexpanthenol, an active ingredient known for its regenerative properties, and Citrate Buffer, which restores and supports skin’s natural pH.

All care products in the Eucerin pH5 range have been specially formulated to address the needs of dry sensitive skin. The formula contains the unique Eucerin pH Balance System with Citrate Buffer and Dexpanthenol to restore skin’s natural defenses and reduce skin sensitivity. It gives skin the daily hydration it needs and leaves it looking and feeling soft and smooth. 

For all over your body:
 The range of creams and lotions includes: Eucerin pH5 Soft Body Cream and Eucerin pH5 Lotion

For your hands:
Try Eucerin pH5 Hand Cream