If you struggle with acne, rosacea or other skin flare-ups, you likely have sensitive skin. But before you invest in pricey treatments to address your specific skin concerns, it’s wise to first understand the causes. Use this handbook as a guide to identifying and treating sensitive skin, to help you maintain gorgeous skin under any circumstances. Acne, rosacea, product sensitivities, genetics or just fickle skin – there are numerous factors responsible for causing skin sensitivities. Don’t let sensitive skin discourage you from building a beauty regimen that’s tailor-made for your skin.
The basics behind sensitive skin
Whether or not you have sensitive skin can be difficult to determine, because every person with sensitive skin reacts differently to various triggers. One person may experience mild irritation while another could break out in hives or blisters.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sensitive skin falls into four different categories:
- Acne forms when clogged pores become infected. These infected pores become inflamed and sore, and in severe cases, can even cause scarring. Skin that’s acne-prone is often more sensitive to certain skin care ingredients including coconut oil and avocado.
- Rosacea is a skin condition resulting in redness, blisters and thickened skin on the face, nose or eyes. Although the cause of rosacea is still unknown, certain ingredients in skin care products – including vitamin C and alpha hydroxy acids – can worsen the condition and should be avoided.
- Burning or stinging reactions on the surface of skin results from contact with particular skin care ingredients including lactic acid, benzoic acid, azaelic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid and vitamin C.
- Allergic reactions , also known as contact dermatitis, result in rashes or hives across the surface of skin. Some types of allergic reactions occur when the body’s immune system reacts to contact with certain triggers – such as pollen or peanuts. Other types of reactions that result in hives or rashers are simply contact irritations resulting from skin exposure to harsh chemicals or ingredients. .
Identifying the triggers of sensitive skin
Sensitive skin conditions may differ from person to person, and it’s essential to understand what types of triggers that may cause a reaction. There are three categories of common causes: the environment (i.e. weather and household cleansers), skin care ingredients and daily diet.
- The environment
If you have sensitive skin, you need to beware of how weather, certain household cleaners and lifestyle habits can trigger reactions.
- Weather. Seasonal changes aggravate already sensitive skin. When humidity drops in the winter, skin loses its natural moisture barrier, leading to increased skin thickening and inflammation, especially in damaged skin. In the summer, sun exposure can dry your skin, and, for anyone who has a sun allergy, trigger a painful rash.
- Household cleaners. Many everyday household detergents and cleansers contain ingredients, such as fragrances and preservatives, which trigger reactions in sensitive skin. Sensitivity to or an allergy to a particular ingredient is usually the cause.
- Lifestyle. Personal habits can also produce reactions. For instance, frequent, hot showers can strip the skin of its outer layer of protective oils, leaving it vulnerable to external irritants or infections. Swimming in chlorinated pools can also leach the skin of its moisture, leading to increased skin sensitivity.
Knowing which ingredients irritate and which ones calm inflamed skin is crucial to managing sensitive skin.
- Ingredients to avoid. Fragrances and preservatives in cosmetics also cause irritation or allergic reactions. Always look for products that are labeled “fragrance free” – which mean that all fragrance-causing ingredients have been removed. Avoid those labeled “scent free,” as these may still contain the fragrances that trigger reactions, but contain additional ingredients to mask the aroma.
Although exfoliation benefits sensitive skin, avoid products with chemical exfoliators, such as alpha hydroxy acids, which may cause inflammation.
- Ingredients to embrace. On the other hand, ingredients such as oatmeal, chamomile and aloe vera calm and soothe inflamed skin. Exfoliators have been shown to benefit sensitive skin; however, be sure to use natural exfoliators such as blueberry seeds.
Always remember that reactions to a particular ingredient vary on an individual basis. Some individuals are allergic to “natural” products such as chamomile. For that reason, when trying out a new product, make sure to test a small amount to find out how your skin will react over the course of five days. If no reaction occurs, you should be safe to use the product. When in doubt, check with your dermatologist.
- Daily diet
In addition to your skin care ingredients, common foods in your daily diet may affect sensitive skin. Certain processed foods, such as white flour and sugar, can increase inflammation, and reducing these foods in your diet can bring relief.
Maintaining a well balanced diet with fruits and vegetables can benefit your skin. According to WebMD, including a good source of B vitamins in your diet can help relieve some of the symptoms of sensitive skin including dryness and itching.
Other dietary supplements benefit specific skin disorders as well:
- Fish oil improves symptoms of eczema, and in some studies, psoriasis
- Zinc can reduce the appearance of acne
Both of these supplements do have some risks if taken in excess or in combination with other medications, so always discuss any dietary changes or supplements with your doctor, first.
Everyday care for sensitive skin
Here are some tips for caring for sensitive skin.
- Apply products properly. If you’re using a prescription medication in combination with other skin care products, the order in which you apply them makes a difference in their effectiveness. Dermatologist Susan C. Taylor recommends the following routine:
- Step 1: Wash with your normal cleanser and dry your face gently
- Step 2: Apply any prescription or over-the-counter medication as directed
- Step 3: Lather on face moisturizer and sunscreen
- Step 4: Apply makeup
- Don’t overuse products. Applying several products to try to fix a skin reaction often makes the problem worse, not better. An excessive amount of skin care products or cosmetics can increase redness and inflammation in already damaged skin. Sometimes, less is more when it comes to relieving and caring for sensitive skin.
- Identify the triggers. Avoid ingredients that cause flare-ups, such as fragrances, preservatives and chemical exfoliators. If you’re struggling to identify the problematic products or ingredients, talk to your dermatologist about other strategies for determining the triggers for your sensitive skin condition.
The biggest challenge when dealing with sensitive skin is that reactions can be hard to predict, affecting every individual in a slightly different way. Whether it’s a sudden onset of acne during adulthood or your child’s first case of hives, it’s important to identify the triggers, and come up with an individualized strategy for managing symptoms and preventing reactions. Never hesitate to make an appointment with a dermatologist or allergy specialist.