It’s been a long time coming, but it’s here now: my current sensitive skincare routine. I’ll update this post quarterly with what’s working for my reactive skin, so bookmark this for future reference if you’re on the sensitive-skin train. Here’s what’s keeping my skin calm, clear and happy.
By: Nicolle Mackinnon
IN THIS POST:
- Sensitive skin philosophy + caveats
- What’s up with my skin right now
- Morning routine
- Evening routine
- Treatments (as needed)
- Coupon codes
- Sensitive skincare FAQ
I’ve had sensitive skin for as long as I can remember. Like, if I itch my leg too hard, I get a bruise; when I get a bug bite, it immediately turns into a quarter-sized welt; and I have a list of ingredients I need to avoid that rivals the length of the great American novel. My sensitive skin is partly due to a collagen disorder, but you don’t have to have any sort of “disease” to know what I’m talking about when I say “reactive” skin.
I spent most of my teens and 20s trying to calm my skin the eff down, and it wasn’t until I started working in the beauty industry that I really began to understand what was causing my flare-ups. Now, a decade later, I still run into new ingredients that irritate my skin, and product testing for TNK can be hit-or-miss (sensitive skin loooooooooves a routine and consistency, not changing products every.damn.day.).
Not complaining AT ALL, as the products I get to try have actually made me more aware of what my skin can tolerate, and helped me tune into what ingredients are irritants. Which leads me to the same conclusion that Lisa makes in her anti-aging skincare routine: “I get to try A LOT of product. Some things I try once or twice and others take up residency in my skincare routine. Some products I enjoy, but I wouldn’t purchase again; others I rave about and would purchase a million times over.”
The products you’ll see in this post are level 2 on the TNK hierarchy of skincare, meaning I love them and would repurchase. They offer skincare benefits, work for my sensitive skin and have a beautiful sensory experience.
Before we jump into what’s keeping my skin calm and happy this season, a couple caveats about sensitive skin in general. 👇
RELATED: Lisa’s current anti-aging skincare routine (her top picks for the BEST skincare).
A note about sensitive / reactive skin
If you think you have sensitive skin, memorize this rule of thumb: any ingredient, synthetic or natural or mineral or animal (ha), can be irritating to YOUR skin. Everyone is different, so if you find that you’ve got unidentified redness, irritation, bumps, itchiness, blemishes, flakiness or dryness popping up while you’re using a new (or any!) product, you might have to do a little detective work to figure out what ingredient is the culprit.
Yes, that takes time, energy and effort, but trust me, it’s WORTH IT. Having a list of ingredients you personally need to avoid is a game-changer when it comes to getting a glowy, even-toned, irritation-free complexion.
Example? It took me nearly three years to realize lavender was the cause of continuous breakouts on my face; now, I rarely get cystic acne because I’ve eliminated that ingredient from my routine. It’s incredibly annoying to read through a list of ingredients on a new product and realize I can’t use it, BUT I’d take that annoyance over painful red cystic acne any day.
ALSO. Listen to your skin. If you apply a product and you get itchiness shortly after; or you get a little too much sun and your skin is inflamed; or you’re having any kind of flare up (blemishes, redness, irritation, etc.), TAKE IT EASY. Your skin is trying to tell you something with all those red flags—pay attention and don’t assume that your skin will get over it.
AKA, ignore the adage that your skin needs time to “adjust” to a product. That’s a recipe for grumpy sensitive skin.
RELATED: A simple guide to the best skincare for your specific skin type (with product recs!).
Sensitive skin quick tips
- Don’t assume that because it’s “natural,” it’s non-irritating for you.
- Sensitive skin likes a routine—find products that work for you, and keep your skincare consistent, especially while traveling.
- Figure out what your specific skin reacts to, create a list on your phone (or on a Post-It you can tuck into your wallet, if you’re old school) of ingredients to avoid, and scour the ingredient list of any new product you try to make sure it’s safe for you.
- Your sensitive skin will tell you if it doesn’t like a product—listen to it!
- Isolation is key: try not to add in too many new products at once. That makes it much harder to identify what might be causing irritation, if your skin reacts negatively.
- If you have a flare up, revert back to your most basic routine: a very gentle cleanser, a calming / soothing mist and a light moisturizer are all you need.
- Single ingredient formulas can be a sensitive skin’s BFF. I’m talking pure plum seed oil, straight rosewater or plain aloe.
- When in doubt, consider a skin “cleanse.” I do this a couple times per month—skip any products for 24 hours and give your skin a break. Lots of caveats here, including that you might need to avoid a workout or sweat sesh during that time too, so you don’t have dirt and grime building up.
Phew. That was a lot of info—now onto the fun part!
What’s up with my skin right now
I live in Minnesota, and winter is always a bit of a challenge for my reactive skin. My complexion is dry and dull and prone to bursts of irritation and redness (it probably doesn’t help that we’re currently testing retinols, and those tend to raise my skin’s red flags). I’ve been keeping my routine über consistent to eradicate irritation, breakouts and mysterious rashes. And I’ve been making sure to add an additional hydrating serum (something with aloe or water or hyaluronic acid) into both day and night routines.
- I’ve been skipping a cleanser in the morning, and just rinsing with water.
- Kosas Plump+Juicy Vegan Collagen Spray On Serum | $48
- Activist Active Hydration Vitamin C+ Antioxidant Serum | $64
- Made Simple Living Magic City Brightening Glow Elixir (this typically has lavender in it, which I’m allergic to, but the formulator kindly made me one without it because I LOVE blue tansy) | $72.
- Prima The Afterglow (this has been sold out since September and I’m sorry—but honestly, it’s the best, read our full review here) | $68.
- ILIA Beauty Bright Start Retinol Alternative Eye Cream | $46
RELATED: Lisa’s current skincare routine.
- Fitglow Makeup Cleansing Oil | $48
- Activist Skincare Calming Force Serum | $64
- Muri Lelu Bloomrise Sativa Serum | $135
- Le Prunier Plum Beauty Oil | $72
- True Botanicals Phyto-Retinol Vitamin A Sleep Mask | $140.
Treatments (as necessary)
- Indie Lee Banish Solution | $21
- 2x/week: Marie Veronique Multi-Retinol Night Emulsion (Jury’s still out on if this is too much for my skin—using it every other night WAS too much. But more to come!) | $135
- Rael Beauty Miracle Patch | $12
- Made Simple Living: Code TNK15 will save you 15% off your first purchase.
- Prima: Code NEWKNEW will save you 20% sitewide.
- True Botanicals: Code TNK10 will save you 10% off your order.
Check out our Coupon Codes page to save on these products and more!
Sensitive skincare FAQ
Look for single ingredient formulas. Also, don’t assume that because it’s “natural,” it’s non-irritating for you. Learn more here.
If you think you have sensitive skin, memorize this rule of thumb: any ingredient, synthetic or natural or mineral or animal (ha), can be irritating to YOUR skin. Everyone is different, so if you find that you’ve got unidentified redness, irritation, bumps, itchiness, blemishes, flakiness or dryness popping up while you’re using a new (or any!) product, you might have to do a little detective work to figure out what ingredient is the culprit. Learn more here.
Single ingredient formulas can be a sensitive skin’s BFF. I’m talking pure plum seed oil, straight rosewater or plain aloe. If you have a flare up, revert back to your most basic routine: a very gentle cleanser, a calming / soothing mist and a light moisturizer are all you need. Learn more here.
Have you tried any of these on your (sensitive or otherwise) skin this fall? What’s working for you?
TNK Team Note: This article contains affiliate links. TNK uses affiliate links as a source for revenue to fund operations of the business and to be less dependent on branded content. TNK stands behind all product recommendations. Still have questions about these links or our process? Feel free to email us.
FaithOctober 14, 2022
I love these sensitive skin updates–thank you! Do you have any experience or advice for rosacea? My dermatologist prescribed something, but I wonder if there is a less harsh version or other options. Also, wondering if Nicole and/or others have makeup tips for sensitive skin…
Nicolle MackinnonOctober 21, 2022
My best tip is in my note from the blog, which I should have tattooed on my forehead: Everyone is different, so if you find that you’ve got unidentified redness, irritation, bumps, itchiness, blemishes, flakiness or dryness popping up while you’re using a new (or any!) product, you might have to do a little detective work to figure out what ingredient is the culprit. Same goes for rosacea-prone skin (and I’m NOT a derm or a doc or an esthetician, so this is just from my personal experience!). Then, find makeup (and skincare) that is free of those irritating-to-you ingredients.
And I’d add this: ignore the adage that your skin needs time to “adjust” to a product. That’s a recipe for grumpy sensitive skin. If you have any reaction, at any point, stop using that product.
But in general, if we’re talking the best makeup for reactive skin, I’ve found that mineral based makeup is less irritating – and fewer ingredients can be a great place to start. Alima Pure is a great brand for that, as their entire line is mineral based (like a better, cleaner version of Bare Minerals). Jane Iredale is also a great line to check out. I’m wondering if I should do a makeup routine post… or at least brands that have worked for my sensitive skin. Thoughts?
One last thing, and I would have HATED to hear this a decade ago, but I’ve honestly found it to be true: Focus on your skincare and helping to get your skin in balance FIRST; then consider makeup. My skin is the best it’s ever been since I stopped wearing makeup every day (it’s one good thing I can take from the pandemic…). I know that’s NOT what someone with skin sensitivities wants to hear, but it’s worked for me. I still wear makeup but not counting on it daily has changed my skin.
LisaOctober 14, 2022
I’m with Faith! I’ve got rosacea as well so looking forward to your recommendations.
Nicolle MackinnonOctober 21, 2022
I’m going to get our team esthetician to do a post about this, since I’m not an expert. See my reply to Faith about makeup, but keep your eyes peeled for more from Hayley about rosacea!
MaryNovember 5, 2022
I also have trouble with rosacea, and flaky dry skin on my face year round. Any help you can offer would be appreciated. Products from the derm have not been helpful for the flaky skin.
Lisa FennessyNovember 11, 2022
Hi Mary! Have you tried Le Prunier’s Plum Beauty Oil? It’s one of my faves! xo, Lisa
MaryNovember 11, 2022
Thank you, Lisa! I just started plum oil. I am hopeful it will help.
Isabel SuarezNovember 15, 2022
Amazing tips! Thank you so much! I really needed these tips for my skin. How about eye creams? I still cant find one for my sensitive eyes 🙂
Tons of blessings!
Nicolle MackinnonDecember 7, 2022
I’m so sorry you’re struggling with eye creams for sensitive eyes! Tell me more about what you’ve tried… I love these:
Mukti Age Defiance Eye Cream
Evolve Organic Beauty Hyaluronic Eye Serum
LILFOX Eye Mask
Let me know if that helps!
DannaJanuary 6, 2023
What about teens with sensitive skin? My daughter is 14 going on 15. She has some pimples., as teenagers do, but also redness and sensitivity like some dermatitis on her chin. I never see articles for teens with that combo skin. I was looking at odacite. We have tried peach and lily ( not thrilled) and I’m curious also about Live Botanical’s ( she lived the cleanser) and Om. Thank you!
Lisa FennessyJanuary 7, 2023
Hi Danna! Love Live Botanical, Carolyn, the founder / formulator is so knowledgable. If you DM or email her with your daughters specific skin type she will be able to recommend an effective routine for her. You can also follow along with Nicolle Mac’s sensitive skincare routine here for inspo ; ) xo, Lisa
RobynFebruary 15, 2023
Hi, Lisa and Nicolle – I’ve turned 70 and am working on “cleaning up my act” re my health and beauty needs. I have sensitive skin and very sensitive eyes. I can’t find a light, daily, healthy foundation to wear that doesn’t make my eyes tear up all day. What do you suggest? – Robyn
Nicolle MackinnonFebruary 16, 2023
Hi Robyn! I hear you – I just had an eye reaction to a serum yesterday! What foundations have you tried? I’ve had great success with WELL PEOPLE’s foundation stick, INIKA’s BB Cream (which Lisa loves for her over 40 skin too) and ILIA Beauty’s Skin Serum Foundation (another one Lisa also loves). Let me know if there’s a specific formula you’re looking for too and happy to give a couple other recs! Also, an obvious note: Make sure you’re not getting it too-too close to your eyes, especially if they’re so sensitive!
Brooke MuddFebruary 19, 2023
Can you give recommendations of a simple cleanser, mist and moisturizer for when I am experiencing a flare-up? You mentioned plum seed oil, rose water and aloe. I’ve never used those before but willing to try anything to calm things down. I keep buying more and more products that claim they will help and they just don’t. And I think lavender may be an issue for me as well as I had an itchy reaction after a “calm” product that included it. Thank you for mentioning that in your post as I might not have made the connection!
Nicolle MackinnonFebruary 27, 2023
Hi Brooke! Oh, so happy to help. It took me YEARS to figure out that lavender is a trigger for me. I’ve also talked with a few formulators who’ve said that the strains of lavender that brands are using, as we produce more to accommodate the demand, are getting stronger (they’re blends of different types of lavender), which could be part of the sensitivity! And I hear you on the buying products and nothing helping – I’ve been there! Honestly, a skin cleanse (like from this book) also helps me when my skin is cranky. I just let it lie for a day or two, no products at all.
When I AM having a flare up, I revert back to these tried and true products:
Heritage Store Rosewater Face MistActivist Skincare Calming Force Serum
Prima’s The Afterglow
I also love LILFOX’s Cupu Cool Jelly Balm for when things are SUPER inflamed.
For sure skip anything exfoliating or anything with acids. The simpler the ingredient list, the better (as long as that list doesn’t include anything you’re allergic or sensitive to!).
None of these have ever flared up my skin, and I depend on them to take things back to basics! I do this simple routine in the morning and evening for three to four days, or until my skin calms down. LMK if you need more recs!
Melinda ElyaderaniFebruary 19, 2023
Do you have any experience with the solawave wand? Any suggestions on which products to uses with it if you aren’t a fan of their serum? I don’t know which products are good for conductivity snd the what to use after. Thank you!
Lisa FennessyFebruary 24, 2023
Hi Melinda! No I haven’t used that devise but my friend Suzi has and she blogs about clean beauty too, you can DM her! xo, Lisa