Sensitive skin caused by a WEAK skin barrier function?! Everything you need to know about solving skin sensitivity

woman wearing navy tanktop itching sensitive skin Sensitive skin

Today, many adult women suffer from skin problems caused by sensitive skin.

In 2015, Shiseido conducted an awareness survey and found that more than 80% of 2,351 women in their 20s to 50s nationwide have sensitive skin awareness.

Sensitive skin is a skin condition that makes other skin problems occur more easily.

According to an article published in the Journal of the Japanese Society of Cosmetic Chemistry, sensitive skin is easily affected by external factors without obvious skin problems.

Although the symptoms of sensitive skin vary from person to person, it is important to understand the current symptoms and their causes well to take care of sensitive skin conditions and associated skin problems.

If you have (or think you have) sensitive skin, keep reading!

We’ll break down everything there is to know about the causes, symptoms, and treatments for sensitive skin.

Symptoms of sensitive skin

Many people who are aware of their sensitive skin have the following symptoms:

  • Tingling and stinging
  • Easily cracks or dries out
  • Acne-prone
  • Itchy
  • Vulnerable to physical irritation
  • Getting red when exposed to UV rays
  • Having an allergic condition
  • Skin type changes during and around menstruation
  • Easily gets skin problems during seasonal changes
  • Feeling discomfort when changing cosmetics

When the skin is sensitive, it easily reacts to various irritants such as cosmetics and environmental changes that it usually wouldn’t react to when it’s in a healthy state.

What’s happening to the skin when it’s sensitive?

The skin has a barrier function that protects our body from various external stimuli and prevents water from evaporating from our body.

When your skin is sensitive, it’s a sure sign that this barrier function of your skin has weakened.

Sensitive skin is caused by a WEAK skin barrier function

The skin’s barrier function protects it from external stimuli and prevents the evaporation of water from the body.

When this barrier function is weakened, it causes sensitive skin and a variety of skin problems.

The skin’s barrier function is maintained by 2 things: 1) the stratum corneum, which is the outermost layer of the skin, and 2) the sebum film on the surface of the stratum corneum.

normal skin barrier and weakened skin barrier labeled illustration

The stratum corneum is as thin as a sheet of plastic wrap (0.02 mm) and is composed of stratum corneum cells and intercellular lipids.

Imagine stratum corneum cells as bricks, and intercellular lipids as the cement to stack the bricks without gaps. Stratum corneum cells contain the Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF), which retains water. The water retained by NMF is maintained in the body by the gapless structure built by intercellular lipids.

sebum film labeled illustration

The sebum film is a protective film formed by a mixture of sebum secreted from the sebum glands and sweat secreted from the sweat glands. The sebum film prevents excessive evaporation of water from the surface of the skin.

In other words, the stratum corneum retains water, and the sebum film prevents that water from evaporation, thus keeping the skin moist.

This function keeps the barrier function and protects the skin from external stimuli.

So then when does the skin’s barrier function decline?

There are two main factors that are said to impair the barrier function: external factors and internal factors.

Weak skin barrier function due to external factors

External factors that weaken the skin’s barrier function and increase skin sensitivity include the following:

  • UV rays
  • Changes in temperature, humidity, and other outside factors
  • Cosmetics and skincare products
  • Pollen
  • Sweat
  • Dust
  • House dust and mites

UV rays damage the cells that form the stratum corneum, which negatively impacts the formation of a strong, normal barrier function.

Dryness reduces the amount of water and oil in the stratum corneum and sebum film, which declines the skin’s barrier function.

Frictional irritation caused by incorrect wrong use of cosmetics and skincare products can also damage the thin stratum corneum and weaken the skin’s barrier function.

When the skin’s barrier function decreases, external stimuli such as pollen and dust can easily get into the skin. These external irritants will cause itchiness, and the thin stratum corneum will be peeled off from scratching the skin.

This leads to a negative skin condition that makes the skin even more sensitive to external stimuli.

Weak skin barrier function due to internal factors

Internal factors that weaken the skin’s barrier function and increase skin sensitivity include the following:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Eating disorders
  • Psychological fatigue
  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy
  • Menopause

During sleep, our body actively releases growth hormones. These growth hormones promote cell division in the skin and the skin turnover process, or the renewal of skin cells.

However, if the skin cell turnover is disrupted due to a lack of sleep, the natural barrier function of the stratum corneum will be impaired.

In addition, it is said that eating disorders and a lack of intake of vitamins that maintain healthy skin also reduce the skin’s barrier function.

According to a study called “Relationship between skin condition and the intake of nutrients, metabolism, and autonomic nervous system activity in young women” conducted by the Japanese Society of Nutrition and Food Science, it was found that among 54 women aged 20 to 22, those who consumed more vitamin A and vitamin B1 had more water in their stratum corneum and less water evaporation than those who consumed less vitamin.

Furthermore, it has been reported that there is a relationship between psychological state and skin condition.

In the above study, people who answered that “they spend every day in a happy mood” tended to have more water in the stratum corneum and less water evaporation than others.

Female hormone fluctuations caused by menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause are other causes of a weakened skin barrier function.

This is because hormonal balance and the skin’s barrier function are closely related. We will explain the relationship between sensitive skin and female hormones in detail later. 

What to do when you think you may have sensitive skin…

woman applying cream on cheek

If you think you may have sensitive skin, you should consider the above causes of a weak barrier function to see if there is anything that applies to you.

Understanding your current skin condition and its causes are very important to take proper care of sensitive skin problems that tend to repeat. 

Here are some ways to take proper care of your sensitive skin.

Follow a proper skincare routine for sensitive or dry skin

Skin with a weakened barrier function is more vulnerable to external stimulation, so you need to pay special attention to skincare. Specifically, you should reduce the amount of friction you cause on your skin as much as possible.

In addition, the barrier function is maintained by the skin’s ability to retain water, so skin with a poor barrier function is dry. In order to solve sensitive skin, it’s important to keep your skin well-moisturized.

Skin problems that are caused by excessive sebum production, such as acne, are often caused by an imbalance of water and oil. Our skin produces excessive sebum to compensate for skin dryness. In other words, when the water in your skin has evaporated and you skin is dry, there is more oil in the skin. It’s importnant to replenish your skin with the water that it’s missing.

Reducing the burden on your skin and keeping the skin well-moisturized are two important factors when you do skincare.

Consider doing the following when doing skincare: 

  • Cleansing and washing the face without rubbing the skin
  • Keeping the water temperature at around 35° Celsius, which is the normal temperature of human skin
  • Choosing a makeup remover/face wash that doesn’t leave your skin feeling tight and overly dry after use
  • Not aggresively wiping off water after washing your face, but gently patting your face with a towel
  • Applying moisturizer any time your skin feels dry
  • Applying moisturizer gently to avoid friction
  • Using a sufficient amount of moisturizer that feels moisturizing
  • Using sunscreen throughout the year and reapplying it frequently throughout the day

Review your lifestyle patterns

It is highly recommended to review your lifestyle to care for sensitive skin and prevent a weakened skin barrier function.

Your diet and quality of your sleep particularly affect the condition of your skin.


Deep sleep promotes the secretion of growth hormones, which promotes skin turnover. According to the pharmaceutical company SS, the secretion of growth hormones reaches its peak approximately three hours after falling asleep. Moreover, it is said that the turnover process is most active between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m.

You should avoid using your phone before going to bed to help you fall asleep more easily. Aromas can also relieve stress and have a psychologically relaxing effect. Try it if you have a hard time falling asleep!


It is essential to consume proper nutrients to keep the skin barrier function working properly. Vitamins and protein are especially important nutrients to intake.

Vitamin intake affects the skin’s water retention and water evaporation. Protein is also essential for normal skin turnover. 

Excessive intake of carbohydrates and fats should also be avoided.


It has been reported that psychological stress can also affect skin conditions.

A gapless structure of intercellular lipids is essential to maintain normal skin barrier function. However, ceramide, the main component of intercellular lipids, is reduced by stress.

Light cardio exercises such as a quick run or a brisk walk can be effective in relieving stress.

Personal indulgements

Be careful not to comsume too much alcohol or caffeine.

The body tends to get itchy when it is warmed up by drinking, and the act of scratching peels off the thin layer of the stratum corneum that maintains a strong barrier function. 

Caffeine blocks the absorption of zinc, which is very important for maintaining healthy skin. Zinc is a substance that promotes the metabolism of proteins that build skin. A lack of zinc due to excessive caffeine intake can lead to skin irritation.

Consult a dermatologist

Knowing the proper way to care for your skin through a dermatologist’s advice is also an effective way to solve the problem.

Skin with impaired barrier function is easily irritated by even the slightest stimulation. Using over-the-counter medications or skincare products that don’t suit your skin can worsen your skin problems.

In some cases, you may be doing a skincare routine specifically for rough skin caused by sensitivity, but you may be diagnosed with a completely different skin condition.

If you have any concerns, please consult a dermatologist for an accurate diagnosis of your current skin condition to ensure proper and effective care.

Dermatologists will diagnose you based on the results of the medical interview and tests. Prior to the visit, you should make note of how and why the outbreak occurred, and the possible cause of the condition, (for example, environmental and diet changes) in advance.

Find a dermatologist you trust and discuss any skin changes or problems you may be having.

Relationship between sensitive skin and female hormones

Hormones are important substances that regulate the body. Female hormones are especially important because they are closely related to skin condition.

Female hormones help maintain skin moisture and skin elasticity, so when female hormones are in balance, the skin remains healthy and steady. 

The secretion of female hormones decreases as you get older. The amount and balance of female hormone secretion also changes with menstrual cycles and changes in life stages.

Decreased secretion or imbalance of female hormones can lead to an impaired barrier function of the skin.

For changes in female hormones caused by age and menstrual cycles, you should take proper care of your skin according to the life stage.


Female hormones help maintain water content in the skin to keep it elastic and hydrated, promote collagen synthesis, and prevent wrinkles and sagging.

Although female hormones play an important role in maintaining healthy skin, their secretion decreases with age.

There are two types of female hormones: estrogen (follicle hormone) and progesterone (luteinizing hormone).

Progesterone helps maintain the inner lining of the uterus, making it easier for a fertilized egg to land on the uterus.

On the other hand, estrogen is a hormone that plays a major role in the skin’s appearance and maintains collagen and water content. It promotes the production of epidermal cells (which are the source of the stratum corneum) and the synthesis of ceramide (aintercellular lipid that functions as a barrier to the skin)

Estrogen is secreted from the ovaries. However, the function of the ovaries decreases with age, and the amount of estrogen secreted drops accordingly.

As estrogen secretion declines, the skin barrier function also declines, and the skin is unable to retain sufficient water. This leads to a dry skin condition.

As estrogen secretion changes, previously-used skincare products may no longer be suitable for your skin.

It is important to replenish the skin’s water content by moisturizing. When skin is in a dry state, it is more sensitive to irritation, so it’s crucial to use low-irritant and highly moisturizing skincare products.

It is also important to maintain a diet rich in protein and vitamins.

Isoflavones in soybeans have an estrogen-like nature, so you should actively consume isoflavones from natto (fermented soybeans), tofu, etc.


graph relationship between menstruation and skin

Many women experience skin irritations during their period.

Why does the skin become more sensitive and more likely to become rough before and during menstruation? Knowing the changes in female hormones that are happening during the period cycle is the key to solving sensitive skin.

A woman’s menstrual cycle is divided into 4 phases. Each phase causes different hormone production levels and skin changes.

  1. Luteal phase (before menstruation)
  2. Period phase
  3. Follicular phase (after menstruation)
  4. Ovulation phase

Luteal phase

During the luteal phase, estrogen and progesterone change rapidly. Sebum production and skin water evaporation increase, and the barrier function is impaired.

During the luteal phase, the skin is more likely to get acne due to the increased sebum secretion. Because of this, it may seem like your skin is moisturized. But it’s important to remember that the inside of the skin is still dry and the barrier function is impaired.

This is also the time when blemishes from sun damage are more likely to appear because estrogen stimulates the production of melanin. During the luteal phase, it is important to take extra good care of your skin, focusing on washing the face, moisturizing, and protecting the skin from UV rays.

Period phase

During the period, progesterone remains stable, while estrogen gradually increases as the period ends. The excessive sebum secretion goes down and the skin condition stabilizes as you approach the second half of the menstrual period. 

However, anemia and poor blood circulation due to periods can lead to dull skin conditions. You should continue the same skincare as during the luteal phase, as well as maintain an iron-rich diet and keep your body warm during periods.

Follicular phase and ovulation phase

During the follicular phase, progesterone stabilizes, and estrogen, which brings elasticity and moisture to the skin, increases. Thus, the skin will be in a healthy state after period. Peeling and face masks are effective during this period.

When estrogen reaches its peak, the ovulation phase begins. Progesterone gradually increases from the beginning of the ovulatory phase, and estrogen begins to decrease as the ovulatory phase comes to an end.

The skin becomes sensitive due to the changes in the two hormones.

To minimize skin problems during the luteal phase as much as possible, you should carefully take care of your skin to strengthen your barrier function.

To avoid frictional irritation with moisturizers, you should apply and spread them gently and evenly.


During pregnancy, the skin condition can be very sensitive and change easily due to the change in female hormones. From the time of pregnancy until delivery, progesterone and estrogen levels increase rapidly.

Skin turnover is also promoted, and some people feel that their skin becomes more elastic and glossy during pregnancy. On the other hand, due to changes in hormonal balance, acne and blemishes can appear more easily. 

During pregnancy, the skin barrier function is impaired due to rapid hormonal balance changes. 

This leads to dry skin. Since dryness tends to appear all over the body, you must moisturize all parts of your body. The belly area, which will change in size dramatically as the skin is pulled, should be particularly moisturized carefully. This will prevent stretch marks caused by dryness. 

Sudden changes in hormonal balance may cause intense itchiness all over the body. Scratching can worsen the symptoms, so if the symptoms are severely itchy, you should see a dermatologist as soon as possible.


As mentioned briefly earlier, the production of female hormones declines as we get older.

During menopause, around 45 to 55 years old, the function of the ovaries decreases and estrogen decreases. 

The drastic changes in female hormones cause disorders in the autonomic nervous system and mental state, and that is why many women suffer from severe symptoms related to menopause.

During menopause, the skin is dry due to a lack of water in the skin. As a result, the skin barrier function is impaired and the skin becomes more sensitive to irritation.

In addition, problems caused by skin damage from UV rays and melasma begin to occur.

As estrogen (which produces skin elasticity) decreases, wrinkles increase, and sagging occurs when the subcutaneous tissue and muscles are damaged.

Similar to skincare for aging, nutritional intake through diet, moisturizing care, and UV protection are important.


The key to solving sensitive skin is to understand your skin condition, its causes, and to apply skincare that is suitable for those symptoms.

  • Sensitive skin is a condition where the barrier function is impaired and weakened
  • Causes of sensitive skin include external factors such as UV rays and internal factors such as stress
  • Skincare for sensitive skin should be low-irritant and highly-moisturizing
  • Reviewing lifestyle and seeing a dermatologist is also effective
  • Sensitive skin and female hormones are closely related

Keep in mind that sensitive skin is acquired, not something you are born with. Since it is something acquired, there are always ways to treat it.




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