KEEP CALM AND... CALM YOUR SENSITIVE SKIN
It can be frustrating when your skin seems to react to everything. It gets red, itchy, and inflamed. You never know what is going to set it off, and trying new products can be an ordeal. Or maybe your skin is normally pretty good, but suddenly can’t seem to tolerate ingredients it used to.
Consumers of K-beauty products are pushing for more gentle, natural ingredients. Skincare brands have responded by reducing or eliminating irritating ingredients, and developing products specifically for sensitive skin. There are brands with entire lines dedicated to gentle, calming skincare.
So keep calm, and let’s look at ways to soothe your sensitive skin.
Sensitive or Sensitized?
Before you assume that you have a sensitive skin type, you may want to make sure your skin isn’t just sensitized. Sensitized skin is going through a period of irritation, or has a damaged moisture barrier and is especially reactive. It doesn’t mean that your skin will always be sensitive. However, to restore your skin barrier to health, you’ll need to find out what is causing the breakdown, and reduce or eliminate it.
Some causes of sensitized skin are: Smoke and/or other forms of pollution, environmental damage, stress, damage to the skin barrier (caused by irritating ingredients), or over-exfoliation.
Not sure what’s triggering your skin sensitivities? Here are some tips to reduce irritation.
Overexposure to UV rays can result in damaging free radicals in the skin.
Double cleanse with gentle, pH-balanced cleansers to ensure you’re ridding your skin of pollutants.
Dry and broken skin doesn’t protect as well, so use hydrating products.
Reduce irritating ingredients
Check your current products for possible irritants, patch test if needed.
Not getting enough sleep or eating poorly can cause stress that reduces your skin’s natural functions.
Over-exfoliating can damage the skin barrier, so try exfoliating 2 to 3 times a week instead of every day. Make sure you check all the products in your skincare lineup - some products aren’t technically exfoliants but may still contain exfoliating ingredients, like acids.
Sensitive Skin Type
If you truly have a sensitive skin type, your irritated skin is likely a predisposition and, unfortunately, genetic. People who have this skin type may also have other skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea. These are all common physical manifestations of sensitive skin.
Here are some other signs that you might have sensitive skin:
- Rashes or bumps
- Stinging or burning sensations when you use some products
- Dry patches
- Cracking or peeling
- Breakouts triggered by certain products
For serious reactions, you should check in with a dermatologist. Certain things like food intolerances and allergies can also cause skin to become irritated, so you’ll want to check in with an expert.
There are some general things you can do to improve the condition of your skin. With sensitive skin it’s important to keep irritants to a minimum, and boost the health of your skin barrier.
It’s impossible to know for sure what causes a reaction unless you test it for yourself, but there are some ingredients that many people find irritating. This doesn’t mean everyone will. However, if you know your skin is reactive, one or more of these could be the culprit:
Artificial fragrances can contain dozens of different elements which don’t need to be listed. If you’re avoiding fragrances, products listed as “fragrance free” are better than products labelled “unscented”.
This is a type of preservative that can cause problems for some people.
These are agents that cause solutions to lather or foam. Sodium laureth sulfate or sodium laurel sulfate can strip natural oils from the skin.
Some botanical extracts or essential oils
Natural ingredients can still irritate your skin. Oils from menthol, peppermint, bergamot, and citrus have been known to cause issues for certain people.
Exfoliants with crushed shells or kernels in them can cause tiny tears or cuts in the skin, weakening its ability to retain moisture and causing inflammation. Physical scrubs should contain dissolving particles, or particles without sharp edges.
Alcohol can be used to improve the texture of skincare, as a preservative, or to help a formula absorb better. However, it can be drying and cause irritation.
Liquid paraffins or mineral oil
These coat the skin with a layer of oil to help keep moisture in, but they can also block pores and cause breakouts.
There isn’t really a way to know exactly what is irritating your skin unless you test your products out. If your skin is especially reactive, you might want to avoid irritants in general.
It’s also important to patch test when trying out a new product. Try a little bit of product on a small patch of skin, and see if it causes any sort of irritation in the next few days. If it’s clear, that product should be fine to use.
What to Look For in Products
Now that we know what to avoid, what are some things we should look for when choosing products for sensitive skin? Let’s take a look:
A short ingredient list means it is less likely that a formula contains irritants. If your skin does react, it will be much easier to identify the culprit.
pH balanced formulas
It’s very important to keep your skin barrier healthy if you have sensitive skin (and even if you don’t). Your barrier is your first defence against irritants and bacteria, and helps to keep the oils and moisture in your skin regulated. One way to keep it healthy is to use a pH balanced product. By keeping your skin slightly acidic (the way it should be), you’ll keep it in top shape.
Lower concentrations of actives
We love our vitamin C and our chemical exfoliators. However, active ingredients can be a major issue if your skin is sensitive. To get the benefits of actives without the irritation, start with a lower concentration. As your skin builds tolerance, you may be able to slowly up the concentration.
Having trouble finding an exfoliator that works? Instead of AHAs or BHAs, try a product with PHAs. PHAs are the mildest acids and gentle on the skin. If preservatives are an issue for you, try a powder exfoliator or cleanser. Because they’re a dry solution, they tend to have fewer preservatives than liquids. For really mild exfoliation, use a product with papain (papaya extract), or gently buff skin with a konjac sponge.
There are a lot of soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients that can calm redness and irritated skin. They work for skin that is sensitive, or sensitized. Centella is healing and anti-inflammatory, as is snail mucin. Botanical extracts from calendula, chamomile, and birch or bamboo sap are known to be soothing as well. Green tea extract is a commonly-used ingredient, rich in antioxidants and calming as well. To boost your skin barrier and keep moisture in, finish off your routine with a cream containing ceramides.
Skincare brands are becoming more and more aware of the need for sensitive skin products, and are providing more options. Unscented versions of cult favourites, products with limited ingredients, formulas without potentially problematic ingredients, and lines designed to calm and soothe are available for those who need them.