Your Burning Questions About Why Your Skincare Products Sting
You might have noticed that some or all of your skincare products sting when applied.
This sting could stop almost as soon as it starts but a stinging sensation is definitely happening. Then again, it might not last very long and just fade away and feel fine.
Is this a good thing? Does it mean your products are working and doing their job effectively? Does it mean your products are too strong for you?
Well, yes, it can mean these things and it could mean other things, too.
What Does a 'stinging' sensation from your skincare products mean?
Basically, 'a stinging sensation" is an inflammatory reaction to something that has been applied topically. The skin on your face has nerve fibers that are close to the skin’s surface, this allows for increased sensation on your face.
When a skincare product is applied to the face that your skin doesn't like or one that has a lower pH than your skin, you’ll get varying degrees of a 'stinging' sensation. Since blood vessels are also close to the skin, it can also give off redness. That's the telltale 'pinkness' or 'redness' after anything irritating has made contact with your face.
There are Three Levels of a Sting:
When you feel a slight sensation happening, yet it's mild and dissipates quickly, this is a tingle. (Usually it's gone within five seconds.) You can feel something happening, but it resolves on its own without seeing any visible redness.
This is a mild prickling sensation that gives an indication that something is happening. A stingle will go away on its own but can take up to 10 seconds or so. Your skin may or may not get slightly pink and flushed.
This is a moderate to severe prickling sensation that continues on and may increase to a burning sensation. When skincare products sting, you’ll feel it a lot.
There are various degrees of stinging, with the mildest lasting a bit beyond 10 seconds. The strongest will continue on for up to one minute or more. (If this sting lasts for over a minute, you’ll likely enter into the burning-feeling phase.)
Sometimes a sting can go away on its own. Other times it won’t go away until whatever causes it is rinsed or washed off. Depending on the severity of the sting, the skin can get flushed with a reddened look to the face.
Should you be worried?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Common causes for why skincare products sting
- A skincare product has a lower pH than your skin’s natural pH. You’ll mainly find these with exfoliating acid-based products.
- Skincare products that are highly fragranced with synthetic perfume or even natural essential oils can cause a sting.
- Your skin doesn't like something in a product, and it may be hard to know exactly which ingredient or group of ingredients are causing this sting.
- A product contains solvent alcohols like SD Alcohol 40 or Denatured Alcohol. Think drug store Witch Hazel.
- The seasons are changing and the air is getting colder and drier which can put your skin’s barrier in a more vulnerable state. Dry, winter skins don't have barrier protections and ingredients slip in too quickly causing the stabbing sting.
- Your skin is naturally sensitive with a delicate skin barrier and is easily reactive to a lot of things that are applied. This is very common.
- Your skin is severely dry (lacking its own oil and protection) and your skin’s barrier is compromised. This can be from a dry climate, airplane travel or use of topical prescription retinoids.
- You have dehydrated skin (lack of water) and your skin’s barrier is compromised. This can happen when topical acne products are applied or even from a long airplane flight.
- Your skin’s barrier has been damaged by harsh products.
- You’re taking an oral medication where stinging of the skin is listed as a side effect.
When is it okay or considered normal for skincare products to sting?
- When you apply products to broken skin such as an oozing, freshly picked or squeezed blemish, stinging can occur.
- When you use any acid-based exfoliating product in the form of liquids, gels, and creams, stinging is an indication of the product working. Acids such as glycolic, lactic, malic and salicylic will all lower the pH of your skin moving it into an acidic state which creates the tingle, stingle or a stinging you feel.
In a perfect world, you shouldn't feel anything when you apply skincare products. This 'non-response' means your skin barrier is intact and functioning the way it should be. And your products are a good fit for your skin.
Remember, some acid products will sting temporarily as they do their job driving serious results such as clearing acne and smoothing away wrinkles.
Note: water-based liquids like acid toners will generally sting more so than gel or cream formulas. This is because water penetrates deep and really fast into the skin which can quickly stimulate the nerve fibers.
What if my acid serum used to sting and now it doesn’t anymore? Is it no longer working?
Such a good question.
Many people will feel a 'stingle' or a sting when they first start using acids. This is completely expected and considered normal. After a while, this side effect can go away. The reason for this is because exfoliating acids actually improve lipid production to repair your skin’s barrier. When the barrier is intact (with the help of gentle acids like BHAs), you’ll experience less of a sting.
The problem occurs when people associate the stinging with “working.” It’s the “no pain, no gain” mentality that people fall into and that will get them into deep trouble.
If you keep chasing the sting by moving up to higher and higher percentages of acids, you’re causing damage to your skin by keeping it in a state of inflammation.
Hale and Hush is a brand of skin care specifically for people whose struggle with sensitive skin or who have an illness or disease causing them to have reactive, immune-compromised skin. In many oncology hospitals, Hale and Hush Skincare is their face's salvation for those going through radiation or chemotherapy.
When is it not normal for skincare products to sting?
- When using any product that is not supposed to sting or to lower your skin’s pH. (Stinging is not ideal.)
- When any product stings and leads to dry, patchy skin or a condition known as contact dermatitis.
NOTE: Eye creams can sometimes cause the eyes to sting and water. This isn’t usually because of the cream itself but due to it being applied too close causing it to seep into the eyes. Your body heat is melting it and the eye cream is spreading closer to your eyelash line and into your eyes. Start a tiny bit farther up.
The bottom line: Healthy skin is hydrated skin. You want to continually work to strengthen your skin’s moisture barrier to seal the cracks so that moisture stays in the skin and your nerve endings aren’t so reactive.