Is the way your skin reacts as unpredictable as the weather – randomly flaring up, turning red or breaking into a rash? If so, you may have sensitised skin.
Sensitive skin, and skin that’s sensitised, are two different things. According to Dr Eileen Tan, dermatologist at Dr Eileen Tan Skin, Laser and Hair Transplant Clinic, while sensitive skin is genetic, sensitised skin refers to normal skin that has turned red and become sensitive as a result of external assaults, irritants and allergens.
So you may suffer from this condition, even if you were not born with sensitive skin. Symptoms include dry, flaky, red and itchy skin. In more severe cases, the skin may become swollen, hot and painful, adds Dr Tan.
Growing Skin Woe
In fact, sensitised, or reactive, skin is becoming more common. “I see more patients than before – approximately one in seven women come to me with some form of skin sensitivity,” says Dr Low Chai Ling, medical director of The Sloane Clinic.
“This could be partly due to people travelling more, so the skin struggles to adapt to climate changes. We are also exposed to more environmental pollutants, as well as irritants and allergens in cosmetic products,” Dr Low points out.
Fend Off Pollution
Skin experts from beauty brands such as Estee Lauder, Clarins and Dior have discovered that excessive pollution and toxin build-up can cause inflammation and accelerated skin ageing. Skin doctors stress that these make sensitivity worse as well.
To address the problem, Dr Georgia Lee, medical director of TLC Lifestyle Practice, suggests: “Cultivate a good habit of cleansing with a basic milk-based cleanser to ensure minimal friction to the skin.”
She also advises consuming food rich in antioxidants to neutralise free radicals from pollution, and drinking enough water to support the skin and body’s natural detoxification processes.
Less is More
Doctors also agree that drowning your skin in too much skincare may backfire. “It increases your exposure to a wider variety of trigger ingredients, ranging from fragrances to colourants,” explains Dr Tan.
“If you suffer from skin sensitivity, whether genetic or temporary, you should stop using all cosmetic products,” advises Dr Low. “Sometimes, it is impossible to know which products make the problem worse – my advice is to revert to a basic regime that includes a cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen, until your skin barrier recovers.”
Read the Ingredient List
As a guide, Dr Lee says to avoid products that contain fragrances, alcohol, menthol, ammonia, ethanol, menthoxypropanediol, menthyl acetate and benzalkonium chloride – all skin irritants. She also cautions that while natural ingredients and essential oils may sound gentler on the skin, they may actually increase the risk of allergies, so use with caution.
To help your skin, look out for ceramide and fatty acids in skincare products. “Studies show that skin with dermatitis (a medical condition where skin becomes red or inflamed) seems to be deficient in these, so replenishing them helps to reduce skin sensitivity,” explains Dr Lee.
Adjust Your Skincare Ritual
To help sensitised skin, you should fine-tune your skincare regime. “Deodorant soaps with strong detergents and highly fragranced soaps should be avoided,” says Dr Low. Replace them with soap-free cleansers and liquid facial cleansers, especially those formulated for sensitive skin.
As a rule of thumb, the less stress you put your skin through, the better. So avoid scrubs, harsh peels, and abrasive automated cleansing gadgets. Dr Lee also adds that water that’s too cold or too hot, as well as the steaming step during a facial, or a steam bath at the spa, could aggravate sensitised skin.
Do include a gentle moisturiser to keep skin hydrated. “Pick a fragrance-free formula without antibacterial ingredients, retinoids or alpha-hydroxy acids to prevent irritation,” says Dr Low.
And to complete your skincare regime, Dr Lee recommends picking a good physical or mineral sunscreen – these tend to be less likely to exacerbate skin sensitivity than chemical sunscreens.
Stagger New Skincare
Does this mean you should never trade up from your existing skincare regime? Thankfully not! Dr Lee suggests doing a simple patch test.
“Test new products on the skin in front of the ear for a few days before using them over the entire face. If these cause a reaction, the rash that surfaces will be less obvious,” she explains. “Stagger new skincare products over a few days as well, so it will be easier to identify the culprit of skin sensitivity.”
Watch Your Makeup and Haircare
If you are suffering from skin sensitivity and inflammation, avoid using makeup until your skin recovers. However, if that’s not possible, Dr Low recommends sticking to face powder, as it tends to have fewer preservatives, as well as a silicone-based foundation, to minimise skin irritation.
“Black mascaras and liners tend to contain the least number of allergenic coloured pigments, as compared with other colours. Pencil eyeliners and eyebrow fillers are usually gentler than liquid eyeliners, which may contain latex and cause an allergic reaction. In addition, waterproof cosmetics are best avoided, as they require special cleansers that may be too harsh for sensitive skin,” she adds.
Don’t forget to examine your haircare and styling products closely too. “These can affect the skin of your scalp, as well as the skin near your hairline. And as our hair frequently comes into contact with our face, hair products can have a secondary impact on our skin,” explains Dr Low. Where possible, cut these to the bare minimum until your skin has recovered from any sensitive reaction.
This article was originally published in Simply Her September 2015.