If you are a fellow sensitive soul, you understand the frustration of finding skincare products that your skin approves of. The disappointment of avoiding a host of ingredients, not by choice but by absolute necessity, and passing up the extra sensory experience of a beautiful fragrance because your skin will have a hissy fit.
Having sensitive skin when you love skincare is really a bummer. That is why I get so frustrated when every influencer on social media and her friend seem to have “super sensitive skin.” You fellow sensitive souls will understand what I mean here. It’s hard enough to find the perfect balance in your routine, add a village of others that claim to have the best recommendations for sensitive skin when they don’t really have sensitive skin makes the situation even worse.
It feels like a “cry wolf” culture has made this journey harder for me. I’ve experienced many interactions with professionals who don’t seem to quite believe the sensitive advisory I give about my skin because, these days, everyone has sensitive skin. This leads to a slew of prescriptions, treatments, and tips filled with ingredients that send my skin into fight or flight mode.
In the spirit of this, let’s take a moment to uncover what sensitive skin really is, to help you identify if you are a sensitive soul, and explore some tips on how to treat your sensitive host.
A Few General Things About Sensitive Skin
“Now, this is where the waters get murky, and people often get confused. What sets off your sensitive skin may be completely different than what affects another sensitive soul.”
Sensitive skin makes me more vulnerable to inflammation that shows up as redness, red blotches, and burning sensations. My sensitive skin is also very susceptible to itching, stinging, a feeling of tightness, and a general feeling of discomfort. It’s mainly caused by a genetic predisposition to sensitive skin, so if your mom is a sensitive soul, there is a good chance you may be too.
Now, this is where the waters get murky, and people often get confused. What sets off your sensitive skin may be completely different than what affects another sensitive soul. Still, generally speaking, there are usually some common denominators your skin would prefer you avoid. These include certain chemicals in skincare, color additives in cosmetics or skincare, and scents that are present in some products.
I know through experience that I need to avoid fragrances, essential oils, and many types of fruit extracts. I also need to be extra careful with plant extracts. As an example, I have terrible reactions to aloe vera. I know! Who has a response to aloe vera? When I use products containing this, my skin turns red, unbearably itchy, and it starts flaking off. It’s an awful experience.
Harsh actives like retinol are also something I need to be very careful of unless I want to feel like my skin is literally melting off in a stream of lava. I also tend to develop cystic acne when using retinol or other actives formulated too strongly for my skin. Sounds over-dramatized, but if you’ve been there, you feel my pain.
Sensitive vs. Sensitized Skin
Here is where it gets interesting, and I think the conversation around sensitive skin gets distorted. Sensitive skin, as explained, is mainly due to our genetics. It means our skin has a very low tolerance to cosmetics and personal care products. So we are the ones who always patch test everything on our inner arms or wrists. This type of skin cannot be “cured” but is manageable with the correct approach and routine. If you have sensitive skin, you are more likely to have a damaged, weakened, or altered skin barrier. The stratum corneum is the upper layer of your epidermis responsible for protecting you from the elements or other forms of irritation. So if it is not functioning as it should or is weakened, your skin is less resistant to irritation, redness, and dryness. If you’re in doubt, visit your cosmetic dermatologist or other professional to help you identify your skin type.
Sensitized skin, on the other hand, is an acquired condition that can be treated or alleviated by removing the source of the irritation. The irritation can be due to changing seasons, for example, and should be helped by swapping out your moisturizer for a richer winter buddy or not spending so much time in front of heaters. Life stages are also a source of sensitization. Our skin has different needs as we age, and adjusting your routine to these needs can alleviate the issue. Sensitization is also common when you over-cleanse or over-exfoliate. This can break down the skin barrier and lead to skin sensitization. Of course, once the source of sensitization is removed, the skin will need some time to return to normal.
“Sensitive skin is an ongoing journey, and sensitized skin is often based on single occurrences precipitated by an identifiable irritation factor.”
It is easy to confuse sensitive skin with sensitized skin because it can manifest similarly. For example, you can have redness, itching, or stinging sensations with sensitive and sensitized skin. The main difference is that something in your daily routine causes sensitized skin, and eliminating the source of irritation can clear up the issue. Sensitive skin, on the other hand, is wired this way. Although there are some common irritants, the skin will always be more susceptible to irritations and unexplained bouts of freak-outs, even if you have not changed a single thing or have not introduced anything new. Sensitive skin is an ongoing journey, and sensitized skin is often based on single occurrences precipitated by an identifiable irritation factor.
Still confused? Try this checklist to see if your skin is sensitized:
- Has there been a recent change in seasons, and have you adjusted your routine accordingly?
- A recent hormonal phase or change?
- How often are you exfoliating and cleansing? Don’t exfoliate more than twice a week; cleansing with only water in the mornings is a great way to avoid over-cleansing.
- Has something in your skincare routine changed? (i.e., new products, a change in how often you cleanse or going to bed with makeup on more often.)
If you’ve addressed all the above and your skin is still unhappy, you may have sensitive skin. The best way to know for sure is to see your dermatologist, who can give you much better advice than you will find on Google or social media.
My Sensitive Skincare Routine
Having sensitive skin requires me to take daily measures in my skincare routine. The immune system is involved in sensitive skin conditions, so I generally need to keep other elements of my life in check, which can all add to the state of my skin. These include keeping my panic disorder under control, avoiding foods that I generally have reactions to or do not agree with me, etc. It is essential to understand that sensitive skin is a specific condition that may sometimes require medical intervention.
Regarding products, there is one golden rule I need to remember: My skin does not like change. At all! I have to keep my routine stable and consistent. For example, I only cleanse with water in the morning, regularly hydrate my skin, drink lots of water, do one exfoliation a week, etc.
This means no product hopping. Find what works and stick to it. Of course, the products change, ever so slightly, between Summer and Winter to accommodate the climate changes and the effects these have on my skin.
Tips And Pointers For Sensitive Skin
“Go easy on the targeted treatment serums because high concentrations of actives can overwhelm your skin. Always patch test these serums on your inner arm or wrist for two or three days before using it.”
Consistency, patience, and kindness are the three magic words for sensitive skin. Try to cleanse with water in the mornings and only use cleansers at night. FIGGI Beauty is a huge supporter of the Double Cleanse, so make sure you choose a nourishing oil-based cleanser for your first step and a gentle gel for the second step. Use caution here because many oil-based cleansers on the market are packed with fragrances, essential oils, or exotic fruit extracts. If it’s like mine, your sensitive skin will not enjoy this. Shameless bragging here: the FIGGI range has a great Double Cleanse Duo launching in December 2022. Since I have pre-launch access to these beauties, I use these at the moment, but Clinique Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm is a favorite for my first step, and Cerave Hydrating Gel Cleanser is a favorite for my second step.
Add a hydrating thermal water spray into your routine. Make sure it is just plain treated thermal water that is not filled with fragrance, oils, and other substances. This can really help soothe burning and inflamed skin. I use Avène Thermal Spring Water.
If you’re into toners, avoid using toners with exfoliating acids daily. Once a week, even once every two weeks, is usually all my skin can handle. Also, be on the lookout for any drying alcohols in your toners. I use Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.
Go easy on the targeted treatment serums because high concentrations of actives can overwhelm your skin. Always patch test these serums on your inner arm or wrist for two or three days before using it, and even then, you may only be able to tolerate using it every other night. Opt for Glycerin-based hydrating serums that can add much-needed hydration and calm and soothe. I use Aveeno Calm and Restore Serum and tranexamic acid, but I have yet to find retinol or anti-aging serums that my skin can tolerate. I will keep you posted.
Try to find day moisturizers that will give you extra protection from the elements that can further aggravate your already sensitive skin. Also, be on the lookout for fragrance if this upsets you, essential oils, and alcohol-based moisturizers. Once again, I use the pre-launch FIGGI Day Cream but Aveeno Calm & Restore and Biossance Squalane + Probiotic Gel Moisturizer are favorites.
Evening moisturizers follow the same rule but with the added benefit of giving that extra soothing effect, mostly a little heavier and more luxurious. FIGGI night cream is my go-to here but I would also recommend the Biossance Squalane Omega Repair Cream and Farmacy’s Honey Halo.
A fundamental rule in my skincare is sunscreen. Since my skin is so sensitive, I must avoid sunburn or over-exposure to the sun. This is a tricky one for sensitive souls because the very nature of the chemical and physical filters that protect against the sun and have to be included in sunscreens can be highly aggravating for sensitive skin. Use caution here, but see what works best for you. I also have sensitive eyes, so I cannot use any products that react with my eyes. I really love Heliocare Ultra 90 Cream SPF 50+ from Cantabria Labs.
Sensitive skin is not just a current “it-word.” It really is a struggle for those dealing with it. If you doubt whether your skin is sensitized by an element, you can easily remove from your routine, or if your skin is sensitive, consult your dermatologist so you can get the right help for your skin issue.
Thank you for allowing me to share the journey of this sensitive soul. To all my sensitive Goddesses out there: I wish you glowing, calm, and happy skin!
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- Sensitive Vs. Sensitized Skin. Link Here.
- Sensitive Skin: 10 Do’s And Don’ts. Link Here.
- Sensitive Skin Dos And Don’ts. Link Here.
- Dermatologists’ Top Tips For Relieving Dry Skin. Link Here.
- The Best Skincare Routine For Sensitive Skin. Link Here.
- Why A Consistent Skincare Routine is Important. Link Here.
- Is Sensitive Skin A Myth? Link Here.