Dr. Shreya Andric is a dermatologist based in Sydney. She is passionate about skin health and her mission is to educate the public on how to care for their skin, and also clear up the vast amount of misinformation out there on this topic.
While Dr. Andric has independently chosen the products that appear in this article, she does not receive revenue from the links. Some of the links may return revenue to Yahoo Lifestyle Australia.
Approximately 50 percent of women and 40 percent of men report having sensitive skin at some point in their lives. But what does 'sensitive skin' mean and what can you do about it?
While sensitive skin is not a clinical diagnosis, it generally means skin that is easily irritated by environmental factors like sun, wind, cold, or topical products like lotions or fragrances.
People with sensitive skin often report symptoms such as stinging, itching, and burning. This can be with or without visible skin changes including redness, dryness, scaling, peeling, bumps and hives. Most people describe sensitive skin only on the face — products that can be used elsewhere on the body without any problems can cause irritation and rashes on the face.
Eyelid skin is thin and so this area can be especially sensitive. The armpits, groin and genitals may also be more sensitive than other areas because of this same reason.
What causes sensitive skin?
Most often sensitive skin occurs because the skin barrier is weakened. We all have a protective fatty outer layer on our skin that works at keeping water in and keeping potentially harmful things out, such as UV rays, wind, heat, and harsh chemicals.
If that barrier is damaged, it makes it easier for irritants to pass through and cause inflammation. Skin allergies can occur if your immune system is repeatedly exposed to a certain irritant (this could be a skincare ingredient like fragrance or dye, or it could be a substance like rubber, formaldehyde or nickel) and becomes increasingly sensitive to it.
This generally takes multiple exposures over several years to develop, but once you have it, it’s hard to shake and avoidance is key.
As we age, the skin barrier becomes less effective as it replaces itself less frequently. This can explain why products you previously used with no problem start to cause trouble. It also explains why most people experience more dryness as they get older, as the skin can't hold onto moisture as well.
Anyone's skin can react to certain irritants, but if you frequently have sensitive skin, it could be secondary to an underlying skin condition. There are a number of medical conditions that can cause sensitive skin including:
Irritant and allergic contact dermatitis
Urticaria (also known as hives)
Eczema/dermatitis of any type
How to care for sensitive skin?
The first place to start is by stripping back your skincare routine and then very slowly re-introducing products as your skin tolerates it.
An ideal routine would be to use a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser (such as Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser), along with a sunscreen in the mornings and then cleansing and moisturising with something like QV cream at night.
If your skin starts to settle with this, then you can assume that something that has been going on the skin is irritating it.
You can then start to patch test products one at a time. This is done by applying a pea-sized amount to the upper inner arm every day for seven days. If there is no reaction, you can try it on your face for a week and if still no reaction, then you can move on to test the next product.
Fragrances are a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis and so it is important to read labels carefully to ensure there are no fragrance agents in the products you are using if you suffer from sensitive skin. Products labelled as 'unscented' may still contain fragrances or chemicals that mask the scent of other ingredients to create a neutral-smelling product.
Ingredients to look out for
It is important to stay away from abrasive scrubs and mechanical exfoliants, which can cause microscopic tears in the skin. Optimising the skin barrier is key. The ingredients you want to keep an eye out for are those that retain moisture (eg. emollients and humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid) and replenish the skin barrier (ceramides and fatty acids like linoleic and alpha-linoleic acids).
People with sensitive skin should also be cautious with products containing strong active ingredients like hydroxy-acids (glycolic and salicylic acid), vitamin C, and topical retinols/retinoids.
If you choose to use these products, start slowly — 2-3 times per week — and apply a moisturiser underneath (or mixed in) to create a buffer. This can impact the efficacy of the product but as time goes on and the skin becomes more tolerant, you can increase the frequency and apply the product directly to the skin prior to moisturiser.
Sometimes just simplifying your skincare routine might not be enough and this is where I would recommend seeing your GP or dermatologist for further investigation and treatment. Indicators you may have a diagnosable skin condition include persistent symptoms — extreme redness and irritation, painful burning or stinging, flushing, itching, blistering, scaliness, pus-filled bumps — that flare up without any good reason.
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