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The Best Skin-Care Routine for Sensitive Skin, According to Dermatologists

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Retailers

Putting together a skin-care routine can be overwhelming. From cleansers and moisturizers to sunscreens and retinols, there are dozens of potential elements that could go into your day. Before you buy anything, though, it’s important to understand your skin type and your individual needs and goals. A product that might be your friend’s holy grail could be a total dud for you if you have very different skin types — and sometimes even if you don’t. Fortunately, here at the Strategist, we’ve talked to lots of dermatologists and facialists over the years to learn which ingredients and formulas work best for all different types of skin. Based on the many recommendations we’ve gathered plus our own intrepid testing, we’ve put together a new series of routines for oily and dry skin. Next up: sensitive skin. 

Sensitive skin is tricky because it can mean a number of different things. Maybe you’re prone to redness, rosacea, or eczema or maybe your skin is easily irritated by common ingredients in skin-care products. Sensitive skin might react more severely to wind, sunlight, and pollution or be prone to flakiness and itching. If your skin is sensitive in any of these ways, your best bet is to look for gentle products without any potentially irritating ingredients. Everything in our routine below is expert approved for sensitive skin (but it’s always safest to patch-test any product first to make sure it plays well with your skin’s unique needs).

Best cleanser for sensitive skin

Cleansers that leave you with that squeaky clean feeling are likely too harsh for sensitive skin, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a gentle cleanse while washing away makeup and impurities. Makeup artist Sofiia Strykova says soothing ingredients like cucumber extract and rosewater make this Fresh cleanser “perfect for extra-sensitive skin.” She explains that it “leaves your skin toned and brightened, eliminating an extra step from your skin-care routine.” It also contains soy proteins that are rich in amino acids, which help keep skin soft.

Best vitamin-C serum for sensitive skin

From fighting free-radical damage to reducing the appearance of dark spots and wrinkles, there’s not much vitamin C can’t do. It’s powerful, and some formulas can cause redness or peeling, so dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi recommends sticking with this lightweight serum from PCA Skin that she says can “easily integrate into a skin-care regimen” and doesn’t “cause irritation.”

Best retinol for sensitive skin

Retinol is another double-edged sword for sensitive skin. Since it speeds up skin-cell turnover and boosts collagen production, retinol is a dermatologist darling for treating wrinkles and acne — but it’s also a strong ingredient that might irritate more delicate skin types. Along with starting with a low percentage of retinol, look for a formula that is designed to be nonirritating, like this Versed serum. “This nongreasy gem is a creamy, gentle retinol serum specifically formulated for sensitive skin types and first-time retinol users,” says Hope Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Dermatology. “The duo of microencapsulated retinol and natural retinol alternatives arophira and bakuchiol deliver the best of all worlds.” It’s also free of parabens and synthetic fragrances, two other potential irritants.

Best serum for treating redness

If you’re prone to redness, dermatology nurse and celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar recommends this calming serum. “It contains Aldavine [an anti-inflammatory peptide derived from algae] and bisabolol [found in chamomile] to reduce redness and hypersensitivity,” she says.

Best serum for treating rosacea

While a dermatologist can prescribe stronger medication for rosacea symptoms like swollen red bumps and broken blood vessels, an at-home treatment like this one can also be helpful. Aesthetician Candace Marino calls this serum, a favorite among her clients with the condition, “the most compelling rosacea product I have ever worked with.” It contains shea butter, hyaluronic acid, and aloe-vera juice to hydrate and soothe the skin plus peptides and antioxidants to protect from further damage.

Best acne treatment for sensitive skin

When you have sensitive skin and pimples, it can be tricky to find an acne treatment that won’t be too harsh. A lot of the usual suspects in fighting acne — like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid — can cause dryness and flaking that may make sensitive skin worse. Instead, Corey L. Hartman, dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology, recommends this azelaic acid from the Ordinary that is both gentle and effective in treating acne and hyperpigmentation. “It helps to improve brightness and reduce the appearance of blemishes and acts as an antioxidant,” he says.

Best moisturizer for sensitive skin

For a soothing lightweight moisturizer that is suitable for sensitive skin, dermatologist Georgina Ferzli of Sadick Dermatology recommends this noncomedogenic formula that contains antioxidants and rice-protein peptides that encourage collagen production and strengthen the skin’s protective barrier. “I tend to recommend this product for patients with sensitive, non-acne-prone skin who are looking for a rejuvenating moisturizer,” she says.

Best splurge-worthy moisturizer for sensitive skin

If your skin is on the drier side or you want to splurge on something more nourishing, this rich cream is so soothing that it’s actually recommended for people who have overexfoliated with acids or undergone chemical or laser facial procedures that made their skin extra-sensitive. “It hits heavy with moisture, without the weight you feel with most creams,” says Marino. “It promotes deep hydration, decreases inflammation, and stimulates collagen and elastin production.” The star ingredient is heparan, a sugar molecule that is naturally found in the skin that has rejuvenating qualities.

Best sunscreen for sensitive skin

Sunscreen typically falls into two camps, chemical and physical, and dermatologists tend to recommend the latter for those with sensitive skin because it’s less likely to cause irritation or rosacea flare-ups. A physical blocker with a green tint to counteract redness, this Colorescience sunscreen is a top pick of both SkinSpirit aesthetic nurse practitioner Shawna Jones and Farhaad Riyaz, a dermatologist and medical adviser at Docent. Riyaz likes that it contains niacinamide, which he says “helps restore the skin barrier, which helps protect the skin from temperature changes and free radicals — both big rosacea triggers.”

Best mask for sensitive skin

To relieve burning and redness, dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, likes this wash-off mask from Avène’s Antirougeurs (anti-redness) line. “Thermal spring water and calming peptides help reduce facial redness,” he says. Other ingredients like vitamin E and Ruscus aculeatus root extract also work to soothe irritation.

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The Best Skin-Care Routine for Sensitive Skin