A sensitive or reactive skin is a common condition that affects approximately 50% of individuals and in general, slightly more women than men (60% women & 40% men). This percentage varies in different countries across the world. It is a condition that is commonly discussed by patients and the media but up until now, there has been a lack of a clear definition from Dermatologists.
However, in 2017, the International Forum for the Study of Itch defined a sensitive skin “as a syndrome defined by the occurrence of sensations like stinging, burning, pain, pruritus (itching) and tingling sensations, in response to stimuli that normally should not provoke such sensations”.
Sensitive skin can affect all body locations but especially the face. Many people with a sensitive skin have associated skin diseases which include atopic dermatitis, rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis – these can be the cause of long term sensitivity. There are also many causes of temporary sensitivity but with the correct treatment, this short-term sensitivity can be corrected.
Trigger factors of unpleasant sensations in sensitive skin can include the following:
- Ultraviolet radiation
- Extremes of heat & cold
- Dry Air
- Overwashing the skin with harsh alkaline soaps
- Scrubs or exfoliants
- Chemical peels
- High concentrations of active ingredients in cosmeceuticals
- Oral Isotretinoin (Roaccutane)
- Menstrual cycle
Ways to manage a Sensitive Skin
- Use gentle pH neutral cleansers and moisturisers
- Avoid exfoliators & scrubs
- Use specially formulated products for sensitive skins
- Increase hydration to build moisture reservoirs
- Use a mineral sunscreen (chemical-free sunscreen)
- Build a healthy skin barrier
General Tips for Sensitive Skin
If your face is squeaky clean and tight after cleansing you are probably using the wrong cleanser which can cause a pH imbalance and sensitivity
Only wash your face once a day at night with a mild cleanser. In the morning splash your face with lukewarm water or use Micellar water on a gauze pad to freshen the skin.
Use moisturisers that are formulated with essential lipids to build the skin barrier and reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL).
Apply a moisturiser immediately after cleansing.
If any ingredient causes irritation or sensitivity, stop usage immediately. Once the sensitivity has settled, re-introduce the product again and if it again causes irritation, stop usage completely.
If you are using multiple products and are not sure which one is causing the irritation, stop using all the products and reintroduce one product per week to see how your skin reacts. In this way, you will find the product with the offending ingredient.
There are anti-ageing products that are specially formulated for sensitive skins and these include ingredients that are more gentle on the skin: Gluconolactone, Lactobionic acid, NeoGlucosamine, Niacinamide, Hyaluronic acid, Peptides and plant-derived Growth Factors.
Sensitive skins could not previously tolerate Retinol, even low concentrations, but more modern formulations encapsulate the Retinol and release it slowly into the skin over a longer period of time, reducing the risk of irritation. It should, however, still be used in a lower concentration and only once or twice a week in those with a sensitive skin.
Sometimes sensitivity can be transient, meaning it can be temporary and can settle for the correct treatment or products.
Avoid products with irritating ingredients, fragrances and very active ingredients that might cause irritation because a sensitive skin is already at a disadvantage with low moisture levels and an impaired barrier function.
If your skin barrier is healthy and functioning normally, this will reduce sensitivity in the skin.
Reference: Acta Derm Venereol 2017; 97: 4-6