Sunday, January 29th, 2012

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.

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8 thoughts on “Working with Sensitive Skin

  1. Plagio

    This is fantastic!

  2. Joli

    Just FYI, a lot of people with sensitive skin are sensitive to petroleum products, such as mineral oil, so I’d look for barrier products without it first.

  3. Melissa

    Great article- well written, well researched, well thought out. I personally believe that everyone should treat their skin as if it were sensitive skin. There are numerous lists available of known irritating ingredients that are often found in skincare products. I won’t buy a skincare product without cross referencing its contained ingredients with a list of known irritating ingredients! Even those with non-sensitive skin can find themselves experiencing issues due to an irritating ingredient. It’s always best to use gentle products that aren’t irritating. Again, great article!

  4. Moni

    I have reactions to Avene too. :( Took me a while to realize what product was causing it because I figured it couldn’t possibly be the expensive Avene I just bought!

  5. Christina

    I love Avene Cold Cream Ultra Rich Cleansing Gel and use that as a shower gel. I use La Prairie Cellular Comforting Cleansing Cream for the face. I find it doesn’t leave a film, where Avene Cold Cream does. Perfect for the body.

  6. totally described my skin this weekend… damaged and inflammed due to me thinking honey facials, and clay masks would be helpful while i’ve been taking Retin A. :( now i’m dealing with the aftermath. lesson learned. thanks for reminding us sensitive ladies to KEEP IT SIMPLE and beware :)

  7. Aleeta Kline

    I was pleased with your excellent info on sensitive skin. I am 59 y/o & have had this problem for 25 -30 years, & was a Registered Nurse. Please tell people that Cetaphil products are excellent also but not the store brand equivalent. Now this next brand is expensive but lasts up to 6 months, it is La Mer. It actually heals my skin within a week or so & I continue to use it until I discover the cause of exacerbation. To keep this cheaper, these are the products to use: “The Cleansing Fluid” or “Cleansing Lotion”, “Refining Facial (exfoliation), opt. “The Tonic”, “The Concentrate” this is absolute to use, & “Moisturizing Cream” or “Moisturizing Lotion”, “The Eye Concentrate”, “The Eye Balm Intense” or “The Eye Balm”, opt. But does keep sun out & moisture in better, is “The SPF Fluid”. Do not NEED any other other of their products. Their line of cosmetics are excellent to use during flare ups. I started buying these products on Ebay, much cheaper, also ‘gifts with purchase’. Stores are more generous with samples than online, even just order from store over the phone.
    For cosmetics, Jane Iredale, she has her own web site but Nordstrom & I think Sephora sells some of them. All her products are ok to use during flare ups or permanently. I went without to pay for these items & was worth it. After about 2-3 years, rare flare ups & beautiful skin. My home is never without Lamer or Jane Iredale. Best of luck, ak

  8. NeenaJ

    I adore your skincare posts, Dain! I’m having some crazy inflammation right now due to a BHA exfoliator, where even my moisturizer hurts. So, it’s Vaseline until my La Roche-Posay Toleriane Soothing Protective Skincare (cream) arrives.