Four solutions to surprising causes of sensitive skin

Illustration by Caitlyn Massy | The Collegian Charlotte Graham, sophomore studying English, scratches an annoying rash on her arm while reading a book on Wednesday.

Sensitive skin can be an irritating challenge in daily life, but it can also be a red flag of something more serious. Skin is not just something that covers the human body; it is actually the body’s largest organ. Skin problems are often the body’s way of warning us of other, seemingly unrelated issues.

Dry, irritated skin is a common winter weather problem. According to an article by Dr. Jessica Wu, a specialist in medical and cosmetic dermatology on, skin actually loses some of its ability to hold in moisture during the winter months, which is one of the reasons why it dries out so easily. The air is also less humid, and indoor heating can make the air drier.

This problem is compounded by dehydration. People tend to feel less thirsty and drink less water in the winter than they do in the summer, because they do not tend to sweat as much. Water is vital for proper cell and organ function, including skin. When skin is dry and dehydrated, it can look wrinkled and become more prone to chaffing and damage.

Drinking more water will help, but protecting your skin from the dry air is also important, especially if you spend time outdoors in cold winter air or windy conditions. Wu recommended using lotions and soaps that contain glycerine, which is a compound that is naturally found in fat or oil based products that helps to better lock in moisture.

Food allergies or sensitivity
It may seem counterintuitive, but food allergies do not always manifest as an itchy throat or stomach problems. Sometimes it can appear as a rash.

“Food allergies cause a lot of skin conditions,” said Anna Binder, registered dietitian at Maximum Performance Physical Therapy and Fitness at 426 McCall Road. “About 70 or 80 percent of the immune system is tied to your gut.”

An allergic reaction happens when the body rejects a foreign substance. In the case of food allergies, this can include not just the food itself, but chemicals and other substances within the food, making it a complicated process to pinpoint the source of the allergy. It is usually not just one allergy, but several, Binder said.

“I usually warn against people using a blind elimination,” she said. “We test for 150 different foods and chemicals. It’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Chemicals found in processed food or preservatives, like nitrates and sulfates, can be culprits, but there are many natural substances that cause allergy issues. Fructose, a natural fruit sugar found in many foods, can cause allergic reactions in some people. Food allergies can develop at any time, even with foods one eats frequently. It is important to be aware of the symptoms.

Check with a doctor or dietician to see if food allergies could be a problem with sudden, onset symptoms, as testing will likely be needed. While a food allergy can manifest very quickly after eating a particular food, a less potent food sensitivity can sometimes take days for symptoms to show up. This makes it a lot harder for someone to figure out which food is causing the problem or if food even is the problem, without consulting an expert.

“Eczema and other skin issues can see great improvement if it turns out food was the issue,” Binder said.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that about 7 million people in the U.S. have diabetes and don’t know it. Diabetes can cause serious complications to health without treatment, resulting in things like blindness, nerve damage, coma or even death. It may come as a surprise that one of the first signs of diabetes is often skin problems.

Diabetes can often result in an increase of bacterial infections of the skin. This includes boils, infections around the nails, styes, infections of the eyelid and yeast infections. Fungal infections like athlete’s foot and ringworm are also more common in people with diabetes. Localized itching, tingling or numbness can also occur, especially in the hands or feet.

If a person is overweight, does not eat well or diabetes runs in his or her family, that person may be at risk of becoming diabetic. It is important to check with a doctor regularly and monitor blood sugar levels, but especially if skin problems or other symptoms associated with diabetes develop. For more information visit the American Diabetes Association’s website at

There are three main ways medication can affect your skin. It can cause an allergic reaction, which results in a bad rash or painful hives. Medications can also react with another medication a person is on or even with a food. Lastly, it can cause photosensitivity, which means someone can become hypersensitive to sunlight and burn easily. All of these reactions are potentially dangerous.

It is important to check with a doctor before taking any new medications. Find out if the drug reacts with other drugs a person might already be on or take on occasion, such as over-the-counter pain medication.

Some medications react with certain foods, such as grapefruit or pomegranate, so research about any common food reactions, too. Finally, make sure to read about and be aware of all of the possible side effects when taking a medication.

Do not stop taking a medication unless instructed by your doctor. In some rare cases, a bad rash or hives caused by medication could be a sign of a life-threatening reaction and need to be treated by a doctor immediately.

It is important to listen to your body. If skin is dry, itchy or doing something else that is not normal, it is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Don’t ignore it or take it lightly. It could just be a mild irritation or annoyance, but it could also be something serious that needs immediate attention.