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Sunday, 26 October 2014

Sensitive Skin: Introduction

This post focuses on very sensitive, irritated skin

All skin is sensitive really. Over-scrubbing, using harsh ingredients and not protecting it from the sun will make it even more sensitive. All skin is sensitive, but all skin is different. What works brilliantly for one person may send another reaching for a cold flannel and the antihistamines. If this includes you, and you end up resigning half of your skincare to friends, a drawer, or the bin, then your skin is probably ‘intolerant’ or ‘allergic’. I don’t really like these terms, but they are useful for understanding how the skin reacts. Allergic skin will react straight away, flaring up as soon as or shortly after it comes into contact with the irritant. Intolerant skin will generally react to a product slower because it takes a period of exposure to the irritant to have an effect. A product may be fine for a few days or weeks, then start to feel weirdly tingly, itchy, stingy and sore. This is what I have and it used to drive me mad. Finally, I thought, I've found something that will work, only to have it make my skin feel like it was trying to crawl off my face a few weeks later. My skin felt tight, fragile and my cheeks stung. I found that my intolerant skin started to behave like allergic skin because of continued use of irritating ingredients. 

The most irritating thing (pardon the pun) is when skincare is marketed as being as for sensitive skin when in reality it makes skin which really is sensitive (i.e. intolerant and allergic) so much worse. Some of these products are essentially well-meaning, using lovely natural ingredients like aloe vera and shea butter, which is all well and good. But then these ingredients are suspended in preservatives that are almost guaranteed to cause a reaction. One irritant can cause a chain reaction and cause other ingredients to be irritating too.

Here are some potential nasties:


For me, the main culprits are alcohols. Any kind of alcohol in a product and I will avoid it. I realise this is a very indiscriminate way of dealing with what is a very common preservative, but I don’t have the time or patience to find out whether I react to every type of alcohol or only some. I find they dry out my skin and leave it feeling raw and unprotected.

Essential oils: for instance tea tree, peppermint, witch hazel, and citrus oils, plus their derivatives linalool and limonene, can be irritating. 

Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS): basically foam makers, they can be found in bath bubbles, shower gels, hand washes and face washes. They strip the skin of its natural oils and are often make up a high percentage in in a product (i.e. the first or second ingredient on the list.)

Fragrance (also listed as ‘parfum’): because you’re never told what it's made up of.

Acids: citric acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid: chemical exfoliants which eat away at the top layer of the skin to give a bright and smooth complexion. But getting rid of skin cells can expose sensitive skin even more, so avoid these for the time being. 

This is a long, but not exhaustive list. There may be things I’ve missed out. Not everybody will react to something on this list. What I’m trying to get at is that there are so many things that can irritate and they are in a lot of ‘gentle’ skincare. If your skin reacts to something marketed as being gentle, soothing or comforting, it may well be because of these ingredients.

Eczema and rosacea: I have thankfully experienced neither, I don't have the knowledge to recommend ways to reduce them. However, I hope this post might have been helpful to those who do because I know that both can be worsened by irritants.

Rashes: if you have a skin issue such as a rash that hasn't cleared up, it is best to see a doctor.

Dermatitis: I have had a very small amount of contact dermatitis on my hand; hydrocortisone cream, which can be bought over the counter at pharmacies, cleared it up. Steroid creams shouldn’t be used for longer than a week, so if yours doesn’t clear up, see a doctor. Switching to a gentle, emollient-rich hand wash has helped to stop it returning.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to post questions and comments below.