August 19, 2019
If you’re the type of person who breakouts in splotches at the mere sound of an active ingredient, you probably have sensitive skin. In fact, you’re most likely familiar with a few other things too, like tightness, breakouts, flakiness, itching, burning, flaking, cracking, flushing… even a rash or two? Well, you’re not alone. In fact, in the last five years, Google searches for the term “skin reaction” have increased by almost 30 per cent. But the problem with that stat, is that most people are confusing sensitive skin (a mostly genetic condition that people are born with) with sensitised skin. Sensitised skin is a more recent phenomenon and has come about because of environmental factors. Here, we explain the terms and what to do with them.
Sensitive skin is most often something you are born with (thanks, genetics!) and happens because the protective barrier of the skin (the outer layer of skin, also called the lipid barrier) is thin or weakened. This in turn means that more allergens and irritants can get through skin layer... which means more reactions and inflammation to the skin underneath. This lipid barrier is also there to keep potentially harmful things like UV rays out, and water in, so when that is compromised (as it is with sensitive types) the skin is often drier too. Now, of course, each individual can have specific ingredients that they uniquely react to, but, if you have skin that reacts like that often, it’s most likely a sensitivity issue. Oh and here’s another fun fact: as we age the lipid barrier doesn’t turn over as quickly, so people often become more sensitive and drier as they age.
This type of sensitivity is part lifestyle and part environmental. With the increase in UV radiation, pollution and the like, the skin essentially acts like it’s under environmental attack and will react with things like redness, inflammation and accelerated ageing. On the lifestyle front it’s things like diet, alcohol intake and constant use of products with alcohol, fragrance, colourants etc that could lead to a sensitivity flare up.
How to take care of sensitive and sensitised skin
Knowing the makeup of sensitive skin will help you better understand how to treat it. If you essentially think of the barrier as being compromised and letting too much past in (into the deeper skin layers), you can understand why active ingredients like retinols will likely cause a flare up. The best thing you can do is be gentle. Wash your face with lukewarm water, stay away from harsh (or stripping ingredients like soap) and don’t overdo anything like cleansing or exfoliating. Also, always read the back of your product for the ingredients it contains, staying away from common allergens like artificial fragrances, colourants, sulfates, alcohol, harsh preservatives and parabens. Don’t be fooled into thinking “natural” scents are better either. Essential oils can be just as irritating. In general, products specifically formulated for sensitive skin will not contain any of these, but if you’re unsure always consult your dermatologist and always do a patch test first. On the flip side, look out for ingredients that will help lock moisture in and help to repair and protect the lipid barrier.