In the realm of skincare, there are certain terms used frequently to describe different skin types, including oily, combination, dry, acne-prone, and sensitive skin. That last one, sensitive skin, is one of those concerns that you hear about all the time. Perhaps you even think you have it. However, it may be unclear to you what causes sensitive skin and how to properly care for it. You may wonder if it is an innate condition or if anyone can develop it, as well as whether there are various types or degrees of sensitive skin. Additionally, you may want to know if skin sensitivity can change over time and which common skincare ingredients to avoid if you have sensitive skin. In this blog, I aim to set the record straight on sensitive skin.

What is sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin refers to skin that reacts consistently to certain products or ingredients, resulting in irritation such as redness, dryness, pain, and tightness. This condition is usually categorised as irritant contact dermatitis (ICD), in which the skin is predisposed to become irritated when exposed to specific ingredients or products. However, sensitive skin can also encompass skin conditions like rosacea, eczema, or polymorphous light eruption (PLE). The nerve endings in the top layer of the skin become irritated, resulting in sensitive skin when the skin’s natural barrier function has been compromised by various triggers. These triggers include environmental factors, hormonal changes, and contact with certain foods, drinks, or products, resulting in ICD.

Why is the skin barrier so important?

The primary function of the skin is to act as a protective barrier between our delicate inner body and the outside world. As an organ, the skin covers the entire body, making it the largest one. Like every other organ in our body, it requires nurturing to function at its best.

As a barrier, the skin’s role is to retain moisture inside the body to prevent dehydration, as well as repel dirt, water, and bacteria that we encounter. When the skin is healthy and functioning correctly, it feels comfortable, performs its job efficiently, and you experience no issues. However, when the skin becomes damaged, problems arise.

What causes sensitive skin?

The skin’s sensitivity is a result of its damaged barrier, which is no longer able to protect itself or its nerve endings. However, the reasons for this damage are numerous, which can make it difficult to identify what is causing the irritation. Here are some common triggers of skin irritation:

  • Environmental factors: Harsh weather conditions, such as cold wind, can dry out the skin due to low humidity, while pollen can irritate sensitive skin.
  • Hormonal fluctuations: Variations in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy can affect the skin’s ability to secrete sebum, which can weaken its barrier.
  • Over-exfoliation: Although exfoliation can be beneficial, overdoing it, either physically or chemically, can damage the skin’s barrier.
  • Irritant contact dermatitis: This sudden reaction can be caused by a product that has been applied to the face or used to wash clothes, among other things. Many ingredients can cause this reaction, including common ones such as fragrances and preservatives.
  • Medication: Some medications can make the skin more sensitive to UV light or cause an inflammation-like reaction, resulting in redness.
  • Food and drink: Certain foods and drinks, such as spicy foods and alcohol, can cause the skin to flush and become more sensitive to other triggers.
  • Age: As we age, the skin produces less sebum, making it thinner and more susceptible to external irritants. 

Why is my skin suddenly so sensitive?

Skin can exhibit a sudden and sensitive reaction to the above triggers, resulting in irritation. When trying to pinpoint the triggers, it’s helpful to consider the location of the reaction on your body and what you have recently come into contact with. If no apparent triggers are present and you’re not exposed to harsh weather conditions, it’s possible that internal factors such as consumed items (food, drink, or medication) or hormonal changes may be the cause.

How do I heal my sensitive skin?

While it’s not possible to completely prevent sensitive skin from reacting again, if you have it, you can identify your triggers and minimise exposure to them as much as possible, while also being gentle with your skin. Dry and sensitive skin suggests that your skin barrier isn’t in great shape. Work on this by focussing on gentle, hydrating products – a hyaluronic acid serum, sealed in with a moisturiser and, in the morning, topped with sunscreen. Once your skin is feeling stronger and more comfortable, start using a product with retinol or another retinoid (start slowly, with tiny amounts and twice a week at first) to help with acne management. Taking omega-3 supplements can really help with skin hydration, reducing inflammation and skin quality, too.

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