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What is sensitive skin? What can you do about it?

It is hard to find a precise definition of sensitive skin, but sensitive skin does exist: more and more people are defining themselves as having sensitive skin, reaching numbers as high as 50%. We may have to re-define normal, because once more than half of us have sensitive skin, this becomes the new normal. Clearly, there must be something that we are doing wrong.  In “we” I include people and manufacturers of skin care products. What is “exaggerated” reaction? It can be pain, stinging, dryness, inflammation, redness, reactions to products or environmental conditions that usually are not described as irritating or allergenic.

In my opinion, this huge increase of people who have sensitive skin indicates a self-inflicted problem: we are eroding our skin and by doing this we are breaking the skin barrier. The “regime” dogma pushed by skin care companies is a big factor in this bad habit. Skin care companied want to sell more products so they are telling you to erode the skin barrier using strong cleansers, acids and polishing powders (the equivalent of a sand blaster), so that you then have to replace the removed skin with a moisturizing product that will not be as effective. Other companies sell you devices that use heat, vibration or light to “rejuvenate” your skin when what you actually do is irritate your skin and cause inflammation. This may cause a temporary tensing of your skin and hiding of wrinkles but when inflammation passes your skin will be older in structure and physiology.

One helpful definition of sensitive skin:  a skin type that has higher reactivity than “normal” skin and developing exaggerated reactions when exposed to external factors.  Dermatologists have tried to develop tests that would allow them to put numbers to the self-perception of sensitive skin but such a test does not yet exist. There are, however some objective parameters that can be measured. Your skin may have a tendency to be barrier impaired, which would lead to skin hyperreactivity to water-soluble irritants, simply because more irritants are absorbed. Erythema (skin redness) shows that cutaneous vascular hyperreactivity may correspond to baseline vasodilation, i.e. your blood vessels are usually more dilated that they should be.

What can you do if you have sensitive skin?

  • Choose a moisturizing product carefully. Even very simple creams may contain ingredients that “sting” your skin. They may be OK for other people. If you find such a moisturizer product, stick to it. I will come back to this later.
  • Use as few topical/cosmetic products as possible.
  • If any cosmetic product produces burning or discomfort, stop using it immediately.
  • Avoid soap and cleansing or exfoliating masks.
  • Avoid products containing retinoids or un-buffered alpha hydroxy acids.
  • Protect skin from sunlight, heat, wind and temperature changes.
  • Choose hair products without irritating detergents.
  • Always choose fragrance-free and essential oils free formulations.
  • After 3 to 6 months avoidance of cosmetic products, re-introduce them one by one at intervals of one or two weeks. Remember that a recurrence is always possible.
  • Food and drink: pay attention, does the problem appear after eating a spicy food or coffee? Limit alcohol consumption, alcohol will dilate the capillaries reaching your skin and will increase their permeability.

How to choose a moisturizing product?

The “right” moisturizing product has to be right for you, but here are some suggestions and why. My granddaughter reacts badly to creams that contain lanolin, but I do well with them, so you must “listen to your body”,  and read the ingredient list!

Skin Actives Every Lipid Serum: no fragrance, no essential oils, but yes essential fatty acids and other lipids that will help reapir your skin barrier.

Skin Actives Ultra Calming cream, it contains several actives that help decrease inflammation, decrease the allergenic response (and strengthen the “correct” immune response), like xylitol, luteolin plus extracts of Polypodium leucotomos, Andrographis paniculata, Centella Asiatica and Boswellia serrata. Also included are the lipids required by your skin to build your skin barrier, decrease water loss and penetration of noxious susbtances.

Skin Actives Redness Reduction Serum. Will help with blood vessels that react with flushing to heat and other environmental triggers, like it happens in rosacea. For this problem, yu can also try Skin Actives anti-aging Hydra Mist spray, which also has the benefit of softening wrinkles for a couple of hours.

Skin Soothing Serum.  Calm the skin instantly, after shaving, or a mosquito bite. The “magic broth” is not magic but has the great polysaccharides of sea kelp, and is enriched with more fucoidans. Add bisabolol, sodium PCA to replace lost natural moisturizinf factor and you are half way there, back to “normal” skin that is not that sensitive anymore.

Seasonal advice

The chlorine in swimming pools will cause itching and/or stinging in many people. The water must be kept free of dangerous microorganisms and parasites, and chlorine is still one of the best ways to ensure the safety of a swimming pool. When you come out of the pool, remove your swim suit (rinse it well) and take a shower. Afterwards, apply an antioxidant product by Skin Actives.

In Winter the air is dry, either because it is cold and snowy or because the heating used inside the home and work.

In Summer, UV and heat will irritate your skin and dry it. Adjust the moisturizer accordingly and re-apply as needed.

And a final take-home message: be aware of what you put on your skin, even products that can help you right now, like cortisone cream, may harm you in the long run.


DISCLAIMER: These claims have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.


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