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Whether the struggle is with persistent redness and rashes, sensitivity to the sun, full-blown allergic reactions, or tightness, flaking and itching, working with sensitive skin can be quite challenging because of all the potential variables.
Sensitive skin is really a lay term, not a medical condition, and has come to be associated with people who have allergic reactions or experience irritation from a variety of allergens, random substances and triggers. That said, over-working the skin is one of the main reasons it will ‘act’ sensitive.
Rosacea is usually a ‘constant’ once it appears. Characterized by red flushing, small visible capillaries, watery eyes, and small inflamed bumps, it can be controlled. Take the necessary steps to treat rosacea before it becomes severe and avoid the triggers that exacerbate it.
If redness and flaking comes and goes, it might be environmental, lifestyle-related, a skin condition like contact dermatitis, photo-dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis, or one of several types of eczema. Auto-immune diseases are becoming more common and often come with skin rashes, severe sun sensitivity and inflammation.
Dermographism, which means “skin writing”, is an exaggerated skin reaction to scratching or light friction, such as a massive amount of swelling after a few simple extractions. Though frightening to witness the first time, it requires no treatment and disappears on its own because it’s part of that person’s individual range of normal.
Though not necessarily sensitive, many people mistakenly believe they have ‘sensitive skin’ because they “react” to shaving or their acne worsens from pore-clogging ingredients or poor food choices.
Patch testing isn’t always accurate because many doctors test for only the 24 most common allergens. Some doctors specialize in this kind of thing and may test for over 100 different substances.
Where to Start
Do some extensive detective work to determine the probable trigger(s), like addressing sun exposure, fragrances, soaps, products, the weather, chemicals, inflammatory foods, alcoholic beverages, etc. Keep a journal and log exposure to everything by date and time, including what you put in and on your body, stresses, breakouts, stinging, flushing, and bouts of itching.
Firm red nodules, sores and scaly growths that develop a crust and/or bleed, but fail to improve, should be evaluated by a dermatologist to rule out pre-cancers and skin cancer.
You Are What You Eat
Omega 3 essential fatty acids and vitamin E improve your health, strengthen the skin’s barrier, and help reduce the inflammation, dryness and flaking of seborrhea, eczema, psoriasis and itchy rashes. Eat omega-rich foods like salmon and other cold water fish, anchovies, sardines, flax seeds, chia seed, walnuts, seafood, fish roe, spinach and kale. Supplement your dietary intake with flax seed oil, enteric-coated fish oil capsules and vitamin E supplements. Check with your physician if you take other medications.
Avoid inflammatory foods if auto-immune conditions, eczema, psoriasis, lupus, diabetes, etc. are a problem. These foods include sugar, dairy, fried foods, refined flour, white rice, vegetable oils, saturated fats, artificial sweeteners, grain-fed meats, artificial additives, lunch meats, refined carbohydrates, white bread, trans fat foods and fast foods, MSG, gluten, casein, and omega 6 fatty acids.
Skin Care Products
Eliminate everything except lukewarm water, gentle low-lather, sulfate-free liquid cleanser, and a fragrance-free cream with a short, simple ingredient deck. Introduce new products one week apart. In the absence of irritation, wean on to mild anti-aging and acne products very gradually and apply very sparingly. To reduce or eliminate stinging, wait at least 10 minutes after cleansing before applying products with active ingredients.
If you must wash your hands often, choose a gentle lotion cleanser. Moisturize with a fragrance-free hand cream hourly. Wear latex-free gloves when possible and avoid hand sanitizers that contain alcohol and fragrance.
Stay Fragrance & Dye–Free
Choose fragrance-free products for everything. Perfumes, mixtures of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents can be irritating to sensitive skin and very reactive in sunlight.
Make sure all personal care, household and laundry products say “free of perfumes and dyes”, “unscented” or “fragrance-free” on the label. Safe laundry detergents are easy to spot because of their white containers. Stop using chlorine bleach, starch, borax and fabric softeners. Try chemical-free dryer balls, which last forever, save money, and are environment-friendly.
Look for dermatitis on the side of your face, neck and body where you sleep, areas where you perspire, and anywhere clothing is fitted, tight or your skin comes in contact with chemical residue from washing powders, liquid detergents, chlorine bleach, additives and fabric softeners.
Don’t apply fragrances directly to the skin, especially on sun-exposed skin. Don’t use sprays like cologne, household cleaners, bug spray, hairspray, etc. because overspray can come in contact with the skin.
Everyday products, including cosmetics, personal care products, soaps and household products contain harsh dyes to make them more commercially appealing. Choose colorless products that clearly state they are fragrance-free and dye-free.
Clothes and Bedding
Choose materials made of natural materials cotton, silk, linen or blends of these. Chemically-derived synthetic fibers like polyester, acetate, nylon, modal and spandex can be occlusive, and are more likely to irritate sensitive skin. Despite being natural, wool can be scratchy, so it’s best to avoid it.
Steer clear of fabrics labeled static-resistant, stain-resistant, permanent press, wrinkle-free, or moth repellant because extensive chemical processes are needed to produce the finished product. Because imported textiles are shipped in containers sprayed with toxic pesticides and fungicides, launder all new apparel, towels and linens in fragrance-free detergent before use.
Use Caution with Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Acids found in cleansers and toners can wreak havoc on sensitive skin. Ingredients like glycolic acid, salicylic acid, mandelic acid, and ascorbic acid are added to cleansing products because they exfoliate the skin, help fight breakouts, “cut” oiliness, and perform other corrective functions. More often than not, tightness, flaking, rashiness, and rebound oiliness are the unwelcome consequences. Sensitive skin will improve dramatically with a gentler approach to cleansing.
Avoid Alcohol on the Skin
Products containing alcohol, also known as ethanol, can strip and compromise the skin’s barrier and cause over-drying, skin irritation, allergic reactions and rebound oiliness on sensitive skin. Ditch the astringents that contain alcohol and exfoliants like salicylic acid. Instead, mist with a water-based hydrating toner.
Limit alcohol consumption too. Drinking alcohol exacerbates conditions like rosacea, causes flushing, and dehydrates the body, which compromises the barrier function of the skin.
Protect Skin from Chemicals
When choosing skin care products, make every effort to avoid as many known irritants as possible. Cosmetic ingredients known to cause problems include sulfate surfactants, fragrances, aromatics, masking fragrances, FD&C dyes, preservatives including parabens, formaldehyde, formaldehyde releasers, lanolin and its derivatives, and chemical sunscreens.
Switch to nitrile gloves. Vinyl gloves are thick and cumbersome and latex gloves cause skin reactions on way too many people to keep using them, even if they’re un-powdered.
Practice Safe Sun
Sun exposure can cause a rough, swollen, itchy rash called photo-dermatitis on those (1) who are naturally sensitive to the sun, (2) who suffer from an auto-immune disease, or (3) who take one or more photo-sensitizing medications.
Choose physical sun protection formulated with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which are much less irritating to the skin and eyes than chemical sunscreening agents. Before going into the sun, even for a short time, apply a generous amount of physical sunscreen to all exposed skin. It must be reapplied often, even when exposed to indirect sun, and also after swimming, exercising, perspiring and rubbing with a towel.
Don’t be fooled by cloudy skies. The glare that causes us to squint on overcast days confirms the presence of the longer UVA rays. It’s these longer, skin-darkening, cancer-causing rays that penetrate the cloud layer and car windows, causing the most sun damage. In addition to sunburn and sun rash, the skin can become uneven and blotchy, freckles can multiply, the texture will eventually roughen, and skin cancers can form.
Minerals & Metals
Sensitivity to mineral make-up can often be blamed on bismuth oxychloride, a synthetically-prepared powder created from bismuth, chloride and water. Used to blur fine lines and add a pearlescent glow to mineral powders, these tiny crystals must be buffed into the skin, which causes the itching and irritation. Though it’s not the only cosmetic ingredient to spell trouble for sensitive skin, it’s the most common offender.
Metal allergy is also common and nickel is usually the culprit. While several metals are safe on their own, some are so soft that small amounts of nickel is often added to make jewelry, grommets, buckles, eyeglass frames and more. Safe metals include titanium, nickel-free stainless steel, surgical-grade stainless steel, 18-karat yellow gold, nickel-free yellow gold and sterling silver. Choose plastic or titanium eyeglass frames if metal allergy is a problem.
Gentle Skin Care
Sensitive skin can be treated successfully by tweaking home care and making simple changes. Modify cleansing and skin care routines during the colder months, in dry climates, and in hard water areas. Non-foaming, sulfate-free cleansers, milder exfoliants, and fragrance-free moisturizers suited to skin type will help restore the glow to compromised skin
Don’t scrub. Cleanse with fingertips only and blot dry. Never rub with a towel. Because so many things, including even gentle active ingredients and professional treatments, can cause superficial flaking and peeling, the temptation to “speed up” the process by scouring off dead skin cells can be irresistible.
Grainy scrubs, baking soda paste, sonic cleansing brushes, spa gloves, buffing pads, loofahs, washcloths, and even towel-drying can spell trouble for sensitive skin. Side effects include redness, burning, prolonged scaling, increased sun-sensitivity, a thick build-up of keratin, and an uneven, blotchy skin tone. Attempting to scrub off flaking and thickened dead skin will backfire. The body quickly produces a thicker build-up to protect itself, just like calluses form after repeated friction from ill-fitting shoes and pedicure paddles. Once this behavior is discontinued, sensitive skin improves dramatically.
Hot showers and baths disrupt the skin’s moisture barrier and strip natural oils, leaving it dry, exposed and susceptible to irritation. Help maintain healthy skin by using gentle body washes that won’t add to the dryness. Blot dry with a soft towel laundered in fragrance-free detergent and immediately apply fragrance-free lotion while skin is still damp to lock in moisture.
Hard water can be devastating, especially during the colder months. Filtered showerheads and handheld sprayers can make hard water feel like rainwater, soften skin and hair, and eliminate hard-to-remove lime scale.
Shaving & Hair Removal
Shave with care. Use a fragrance-free shaving cream or foam and a fresh blade and shave in the direction of hair growth. Don’t dry shave, shave with soap, shave too close, or use chemical depilatories.
When waxing, never use hot wax or treat irritated skin. Opt for threading, lukewarm wax or cold sugaring instead. If ingrown hairs and razor bumps are a constant problem, consider laser hair removal using a Q-switched laser, like the Candela Gentle YAG, that produces a 1064nm wavelength of light. It’s both safe and effective for all skin tones and ethnicities when performed by an experienced technician.
Water intake hydrates the skin from within, improves elasticity, plumps fine lines and wrinkles, and helps achieve a healthy glow. When the skin is well-hydrated, it’s easier to address dry skin, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, rosacea and eczema. Caffeine, alcohol and smoking dehydrate the skin, so it’s best to cut back drastically or just stop.
Running a cool mist humidifier at night will hydrate the skin and help counteract the drying effects of cold weather, dry climate, heaters and AC. Clean as directed to prevent fungus and bacteria growth.
Don’t overheat your home and avoid heat sources like hot stoves, ovens, hairdryers, fireplaces, space heaters, hot showers, and direct sun.
The material on this website is provided for educational purposes only, and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Results vary from person to person and are not guaranteed. Professional treatments must be performed on a regular basis to obtain desired results and require specific home care, sun protection, and lifestyle changes to see lasting improvement.
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