Working with Sensitive Skin

By Dain, New England, Skincare Contributor

Dain is a freelance editor and writer, who graduated with a Bachelor of Art in English. She expected to pursue an academic career but found her interests straying elsewhere–like beauty! She has dry, sensitive skin and is always looking for ways to keep her skin hydrated.  When she isn’t writing about beauty, she loves to play video games, cook (and eat!), and read.

Check out her blog, Ars Aromatica!

On me: a reaction to a magnesium abscorbyl phosphate serum, a derivative of vitamin C

As a rule, you don’t treat sensitivity so much as avoid it. Unfortunately, because irritants are completely specific to the individual—for example, essential oils don’t bother my skin, but I can’t go near a scrub.  People with sensitive skin must learn to read ingredients lists and identify irritants before they start. If you do trigger a reaction, it is time that heals your skin, rather than any products. Nevertheless, it is possible to alleviate some of the symptoms of sensitivity with skincare, though they are not quite as effective as your skin’s ability to heal itself.

If you’re experiencing damage…

It should resemble severe dehydration, perhaps accompanied by pain and redness: the skin’s surface should be rough and dry to the touch, dead many layers down. This is generally the side effect of detergent-based cleansers, over-exfoliation, retinoids, and dermatological peels, but it can also occur if you are exposed to a harsh climate. Unless you’re on a retinoid (follow your doctor’s instructions), it’s best to stop all treatments and switch to a basic regimen of mild cleanser and moisturizer generously applied while fresh skin grows back. When it’s nearly done healing, a gentle exfoliant will buff away the dead, damaged surface.

If you’re experiencing an allergic response…

Allergens are unique to every individual. An allergic reaction can be characterized by redness, heat, inflammation, hives, and itchiness. I prefer to wait it out, because it dies down on its own without any further ill effect, but you can apply oatmeal or cortisone to problem areas. Depending on the severity of the reaction, may want to consult your doctor before proceeding.

If you’re experiencing inflammation…

Sunburns fall under this category, as does acne, some forms of rosacea, and contact dermatitis. Certain ingredients, such as the vitamin C on me shown above, can sometimes trigger an immune response that resembles acne, because the pores are aggravated, inflamed, and filled with pus. If you are acne-prone, it is advisable to approach your skin as if it were sensitive and not provoke already reactive skin with harsh skincare that can turn a mild condition into a severe one. There are a number of anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as salicylic acid, bisabalol, aloe vera, oatmeal, calendula, zinc oxide, and the essential fatty acids in many plant oils—and yet, some of these can be irritants themselves, depending on the individual. Always do a patch test.

If you’re experiencing physical sensitivity…

Though anyone may encounter inflammation, damage, or allergies, thin skin is largely a physiological condition. Some people also encounter physical sensitivity when they’re on retinoids. This is a deficiency in the skin’s barrier function, so there is a higher incidence of the other kinds of sensitivity. You can reinforce the barrier with moisturizer, built up in several layers: a humectant solution in direct contact with the skin to aid penetration; a lipid barrier in direct contact with the environment to prevent moisture loss and any further damage; and an emulsion sandwiched in between. Look for ingredients like shea butter, plant oils, mineral oil, and anything that forms a barrier. It’s not the same as healthy, resilient skin, but it helps buffer thin skin from the elements.