The many faces of sensitive skin
Year on year, the sensitive skin community continues to grow. Blogs and vlogs dedicated to the topic have spread like wildfire, while studies today show that 60% of Australians are now affected*. But despite now being the majority, sensitive skin is often poorly understood. Why is that?
*2011 TNS Skincare Usage & Attitude Study, Australia
Sensitive skin: an often invisible condition
Sensitive skin can be hard to diagnose, even professionally, for a very simple reason: it is defined by what women feel, not by what the physician sees in the clinic.
From the woman’s perspective, sensitive skin is a distressing daily reality. Skin prickles, stings, flushes and burns in response to the environment, diet or daily care products.
From the dermatologist’s perspective, sensitive skin can look a little red or dry, but its appearance is essentially normal.
So you think you have sensitive skin… but which kind?
There is not one, but a whole spectrum of skin sensitivity. Knowing which type of sensitive skin you have is the first step in making peace with your skin and adopting a routine adapted to your diagnosis.
Sensitive: occasionally reacts to products or environmental changes.
Redness-prone: blushes and flushes in response to certain foods, alcohol or temperature changes.
Reactive: frequently reacts to both products and environmental factors.
Atopic: suffers from conditions like eczema or contact dermatitis.
Allergic: reacts to specific allergens in daily care products and the environment.
The dermatological reality of sensitive skin
What can trigger sensitive skin reactions?
The common aggravating factors basically fall into three categories, evidenced by major studies led by La Roche-Posay on a total of over 6,000 consumers in 8 different countries
Environmental (59.8%)*: changes in temperature or humidity can bring on intense discomfort, as can sun exposure, pollution and even pollen exposure.
Skincare products (55.1%)*: some contain potential irritants, like fragrances or colourants.
The third category is internal factors: psychological stress (34.7%)* as well as lifestyle choices such as spicy foods or alcohol can all trigger sensitive skin to react with redness and discomfort.
*Observational study on 3,800 patients in 8 countries.
What actually causes sensitive skin?
The root cause is the skin's own defense system that is no longer doing its job correctly. Healthy skin has a protective barrier called the hydrolipidic film, which acts like a shield to stop bacteria and irritants from reaching the deeper skin layers. This defense shield also holds in moisture and is critical in maintaining skin's firmness, elasticity, and above all its comfort!
In sensitive skin, this barrier is weakened, leaving skin vulnerable to “nasties”, as well as changes in temperature and humidity. Overexposed to bacteria, irritants and environmental changes, skin thinks it’s in danger and sends out warning signals, leading to flushing, burning and stinging.
Why does skin react so strongly?
The skin has an incredible network of nerves, with around twelve endings per square centimeter. In sensitive skin, these nerve endings are hypersensitive, firing off significantly more danger signals to the brain than the nerves in normal skin. In essence, the nerves interpret normal stimuli as harmful, leading to sensations of discomfort at the slightest thing.
How can you reduce skin’s sensitivity?
First of all, don't lose hope – it is possible to reduce skin's sensitivity.
- Eliminate aggravating factors. Keep a diary of which factors bring on your symptoms – foods, alcohol, air conditioning – and try to avoid them if you can.
- Don’t strip skin’s protective barrier with harsh products like alkaline soaps. The best cleansers for sensitive skin are gentle milks or micellar waters applied with a cotton pad.
- Replenish skin’s surface lipids to restore its hydrolipidic film using a high-tolerance moisturizer for sensitive skin.