Sensitive skin: how to treat an irritable complexion

Posted by for Beauty

As anyone with a temperamental complexion can attest, sensitive skin is prone to flare ups. But what actually causes sensitive skin? And how should you look after it? We consulted the experts for the answers. 

Of all the skin types, sensitive skin is a particularly tricky one to get your head around. Why is it that your complexion can turn from cool, calm and collected one minute, to red, inflamed and sore the next? What’s even more frustrating is the fact it’s not always easy to work out what triggers your skin flare ups, either.

If Google searches are anything to go by, more of us than ever are experiencing some kind of skin sensitivity;  searches for the term ‘sensitive skin’ were up 50% year on year between 2018 and 2019. Should that correlate to a growing number of cases, then there could be a multitude of factors to blame, from soaring pollution levels (a known skin irritant) to our collective obsession with trying out every new buzzy skincare ingredient under the sun — which can all too often lead to a sensitised and sore complexion.

Either way, if you think you have sensitive skin, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with expert tips, recommendations and routines to follow to help keep your complexion balanced and calm. That’s why we’ve consulted a panel of three renowned skin experts to share everything you need to know about treating sensitive skin. 

What is sensitive skin?

Sounds silly, but it’s an important question. “Sensitive skin is skin that tends to react to the application of various products, explains Dr Justine Hextall, consultant dermatologist for La Roche-Posay. “Broadly it will be less tolerant of any products that can traditionally be difficult to tolerate. These include alcohol based gels, exfoliants, soaps and perfumed products, amongst others.”

How can you tell if you’ve got sensitive skin?

According to aesthetician and founder of Black Skin Directory, Dija Ayodele, the tell-tale signs of sensitive skin are most often, “tingling, prickling, heat, burning, pain, redness or itching sensations.” On lighter skin, sensitivity will often manifest in pink or red skin, whereas on darker skin, a reaction isn’t always as easy to spot visually. “Black skin may not always flush red, but rather a deep brown or purple colour as blood and heat rise to the surface,” Ayodele adds.

What causes sensitive skin?

“The main hypothesis attributed to the occurrence of sensitive skin is the increase in the permeability of the top layer of the skin - the so-called stratum corneum - leading to greater penetration of substances and also to water loss,” explains Dr Hextall. “Essentially the thinner the top layer of the skin, the increased permeability, i.e. substances that irritate skin will get in and more water will leak out.”

This becomes an issue, because when substances are allowed to enter the skin via a compromised barrier, they can release pro-inflammatory mediators. “These in turn stimulate the formulation of neurotransmitters that stimulate nerve endings – hence the symptoms of sensitivity burning, itching and stinging.”

What’s the difference between sensitive and sensitised skin?

Just because your skin has started to flare up, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have naturally sensitive skin. In fact, it might just be that you’ve made your skin more reactive yourself. “The research over the last 20 years shows that when most clients say they have sensitive skin, they actually mean they have sensitised skin,” explains Ayodele.

In her opinion, sensitised skin is skin that has been made sensitive through, “practices that have created an imbalance, such as overuse, incorrect or underuse of skincare products, lifestyle factors such as sun damage, pollution, not washing your face, a poor diet, poor sleep habits or high stress levels.”

Can you ‘cure’ sensitive skin?

“If you can start to repair the skin barrier, by using the right products that protect the skin when cleansing, hydrate the skin and reduce the sensation of itch, burning, stinging etc, then yes, I think you can ‘cure sensitive skin’,” explains Dr Hextall. “Obviously, those with a predisposition to sensitive skin will always be potentially vulnerable so sticking to the right routine is important.”

And as for sensitised skin? “Self-made sensitised skin can be cured through the removal of inflammatory sources, strengthening the moisturising component of the skin and bolstering its natural barrier function,” adds Ayodele.

So, can you train sensitive skin to tolerate more powerful ingredients?

“The more the skin barrier is strengthened by reducing inflammation, increasing hydration then the more it can tolerate stronger ingredients,” reveals Dr Hextall. 

According to her, the ingredient neurosensine is excellent at gearing up sensitive skin for more potent formulas. “One of the main issues in sensitive skin is the constant irritation or a stinging sensation when products are applied,” she explains. “Neurosensine which occurs naturally in skin is a peptide that can block pain sensation and as such, reduce those sensitive symptoms. It makes skin much more comfortable when applying products.”

You’ll find neurosensine in La Roche-Posay’s Toleriane Ultra Dermallergo Serum, £28 which works a treat to soothe and calm sensitive skin, and help it acclimatise to active ingredients.

What are the best ingredients for sensitive skin?

The key when compiling a skincare routine for sensitive skin is to hunt out ingredients that will help strengthen the skin barrier, to stop potentially-irritating substances from entering the skin.

Studies performed with menopausal women showed improvement of sensitive skin with the use of moisturisers and emollients,” explains Dr Hextall, who also points us towards research that suggests ceramides could be a good option for sensitive skin too. “There is an association between reduced ceramides (the mortar around the skin barrier bricks) and skin sensitivity.” 

“The big star of sensitivity skincare is centella asiatica extract,” according to dermatologist, cardiologist and founder of Meder Beauty Science, Dr Tinna Meder, who also lists, “Aloe vera juice extract, witch hazel, allantoin, panthenol, and some new ingredients interacting directly with skin receptors, such as albatrellus ovinus (mushroom) and polymnia sonchifolia (Yacon) extracts,” on her hit list. “The sensitivity of the skin is closely related to microbiome changes, so prebiotics and probiotics-based products are highly recommended too,” she adds.

Ayodele calls out anti-inflammatory ingredients as being highly beneficial, too. “You really want to throw a bucket load of anti-inflammatory ingredients at the skin to start calming down the inflammatory process and help the barrier function to go into repair mode.”

And which ingredients should you avoid for sensitive skin?

Given that sensitive skin is prone to adverse reactions, it can be beneficial to cut out certain ingredients from your routine. “When the barrier function of the skin is already compromised, many products and ingredients are going to cause irritation, including fragrance so in the first instance avoid products that are overly stimulating or have a powerful action on the skin such as alpha hydroxy acids or retinol,” explains Ayodele.

She also recommends avoiding products with a mechanical action, like sonic face brushes or formulas laced with grains or exfoliating particles.

However, Ayodele is keen to point out that doesn’t mean those with sensitive skin should rely solely on natural products. “Natural products themselves can be the source of the problem,” she explains. I find a lot of skin of colour clients will use black soap, shea butter or coconut oil to cleanse and moisturise; the former can strip delicate facial skin and the latter two have the ability to clog, which are both actions leading to a compromised stratum corneum.”

Dr Tinna Meder agrees, adding, “it’s also better to avoid essential oils. Many of them are allergenic and can provoke contact dermatitis or sensitivity.”

The best skincare products for sensitive skin

  • The best cleanser for sensitive skin

    Cerave-Hydrating-Cleanser

    When it comes to cleansing sensitive skin, you want something that is really gentle, which means foaming or exfoliating formulas are out of the question. This creamy cleanser contains those all-important ceramides to rebuild skin barrier function, but also hyaluronic acid for hydration.

    Cerave Hydrating Cleanser, £9

  • The best serum for sensitive skin

    La-Roche-Posay-Toleriane-Ultra-Dermallergo

    As well as pain-numbing neurosensine, this serum contains soothing, mineral-rich spring water and osmolyte. “It’s an amino acid that helps to protect the cells from environmental stress such as dehydration and oxidisation,” explains Dr Hextall. “It helps reinforce the skin barrier to avoid loss of water from the skin.”

    La Roche Posay Toleriane Ultra Dermallergo Serum, £28

  • The best rich moisturiser for sensitive skin

    Kiehls-Centella-Sensitive-Cica-Cream

    Containing the powerful centella asiatica extract mentioned above, this thick, unctuous cream is ideal for those whose sensitivity leaves their skin dry and rough. 

    Kiehl’s Centella Sensitive Cica-Cream, £38

  • The best serum for redness

    Meder-Beauty-Red-Apax-Concentrate

    Blending preobiotics and probiotics, as well as protective yakon extract and northern truffle extract, which blocks the skin receptors of pain and heat, this serums dials down sensitivity-induced redness.

    Meder Beauty Science Red-Apax Concentrate, £90

  • The best light moisturiser for sensitive skin

    Curel-Intensive-Moisture-Facial-Cream

    Curel’s entire range is built on the power of ceramides, and this lightweight moisturiser is full of them. Use it on inflamed cheeks and dry chins, and it’ll help to settle near enough any bout of irritation.

    Curél Intensive Moisture Facial Cream, £19.50

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