Ever tried a new skincare cream or foundation that caused your skin to become red, perhaps with tiny, acne-like bumps? Or maybe your skin feels tight and dry after every wash, or you breakout from your moisturiser or sunscreen? Do the scents of certain household products give you a headache? If so, read on because all of these symptoms are more common than you may think and all of them affect your skin.
While there is a difference between sensitive skin as a condition versus having a one-time reaction to an ingredient or compound in a product, the symptoms of sensitive skin are incredibly unpleasant, disruptive and something we want to avoid altogether at all costs. Truly sensitive skin easily reacts to any or most products and is characterised by flushed areas of the cheeks, visibly broken capillaries, blotchiness, burning or stinging and irritation such as hives or peeling.
However, all of us experience these symptoms to a certain degree and now it’s easier than ever to navigate skincare, cosmetic and household brands to determine irritating ingredients. You can also implement simple lifestyle and general skincare tips to nurture your highly reactive skin. Here is what I recommend and the types of sensitive skin, so you can learn what to look for or what may trigger your personal issues.
Types Of Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin types include those with a range of conditions like acne or dry skin, but also include eczema and psoriasis and, although it mostly affects dry skin, oily and combination skins are also susceptible.
For those who frequently experience reactions to products, it’s best to have a dermatologist determine and diagnose your skin type. Factors that dermatologists consider include age, gender and race. They usually look for:
- Skin reactions, such as pustules, bumps or erosions
- Very dry skin that does not properly protect nerve endings
- A tendency toward blushing and flushing
Sensitive skin, such as those prone to acne, eczema and psoriasis, can be inherited. Skin irritation from a reaction to a certain skincare product, cosmetic or household product is not inherited.
Why Sensitive Skin Needs Special Care
Sensitive skin tends to be thinner with fine pores. It reacts easily to product ingredients, secondary substances in common household items, sun exposure, wind exposure or even eating a certain food.
What To Watch For If You Have Sensitive Skin
The first step is to look for products that contain no fragrance, since fragrance is the #1 cause of reaction for sensitive skin. Keep in mind most products labeled ‘fragrance-free’ are not 100% fragrance-free because they contain about 1-2% of some fragrance to mask any natural scent. Certain ingredients to avoid include but are not limited to:
- Alcohol-based products
- Antibacterial or deodorant soaps
- Sodium Laurel Sulfates (SLSs)
- Propylene glycol
- Sunscreens containing PABA
- Botanical compounds including menthol, lavender and citrus oils
Recommended Ingredients For Sensitive Skin
While no two skin types are alike, these ingredients are much less likely to irritate the skin:
- Vitamins A, C and E, although some may be allergic to vitamin C
- A physical sunscreen of SPF 30 (no less) and includes zinc oxide or titanium dioxide
- Botanical compounds including cucumber, calendula or chamomile
General skincare tips for sensitive skin
Always select brands and products that are dermatologist-tested or clinical-based and are labelled ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘allergy tested’. However, keep in mind these terms do not guarantee you won’t have a reaction – they’re just less likely to irritate. Read the labels on products and choose those with 10 or fewer ingredients. Surprisingly, natural skincare brands aren’t always the best option. While they sound like a logical choice for sensitive skin, many of them contain active plant and botanical compounds, and fragrances that could irritate just as much as a synthetic blend can.
Other skincare tips include:
- Have a few go-to products and avoid using multiple brands.
- Cleanse with a mild creamy cleanser twice a day.
- Choose an alcohol-free toner and use it in a spritzer (which causes less amount of friction to the skin).
- Always moisturise, especially in winter. Sensitive skin needs to maintain a balanced moisture barrier.
- Exfoliate 2 times per week and avoid exfoliators with large, fragmented beads. Look for ones with smaller, perfectly spherical beads, or make your own using 3 tbsp of brown sugar mixed with a carrier oil: coconut, avocado, jojoba or olive oil. Exfoliate while your skin is dry, rub in circular motions for a few minutes and then turn on the shower to rinse off.
- Limit showers to 5-10 minutes and use lukewarm water. If skin is very dry, focus on washing the armpits, groin and feet only. Pat dry instead of rubbing and apply moisturizer while skin is still slightly damp to seal in moisture.
Lifestyle Tips For Sensitive Skin
Along with avoiding fragrance-based products, there are several other common irritants to avoid:
- Quaternium 15 – a specialized ammonium salt that is used as a preservative in many cosmetics, industrial substances and even some clothing
- Nickel – usually found in earring posts and zippers
- Balsam of Peru – a sticky, aromatic liquid that is used in skincare products (including baby powder), fragrances and some foods
When it comes to diet, choose foods with essential fatty acids (for oil production) and vitamins A, C and E (for the antioxidants). When it comes to clothes, choose cotton and avoid wool, (too rough), and synthetic fabrics (which cause more perspiration).
Other lifestyle factors include:
- Purify your home with an air purifier. In the winter, consider purchasing a humidifier and avoid overheating rooms.
- When it comes to cosmetics, avoid applying too much eyeshadow or eyeliner in certain colours, such as greens, purples, bright blues, and choose neutrals, (brown and black), since they contain less colourants and dyes.
- Avoid using liquid eyeliner and choose pencil.
- Avoid waterproof mascara since they contain thick waxes and require a special cleanser to remove.
- Use a silicone-based foundation and throw out all old cosmetics (for example, a lip gloss that is more than six months old).
When purchasing skincare products at a specialty or department store that offers testers, avoid applying the products directly to your face and especially the eyes. Instead, apply products behind the ear, since the skin is similar to the skin on the face.
Keep in mind there are few federal rules or standards that skincare companies must comply with when labeling products for sensitive skin. Also, the FDA regulates the manufacture and marketing of products but not which ingredients are used.