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What Is Sensitive Skin & What Causes It?

If—like an increasing number of Australian women and men—you have sensitive skin, you’ll be uncomfortably familiar with the many environmental and emotional factors that can result in redness and discomfort. From spicy food to cold weather, stress and too much sun, read on to learn about the different sensitive skin triggers, and how a tailored sensitive skincare routine can make a difference.

What Causes Sensitive Skin?

Sensitive skin occurs when the nerve endings in the skin’s top layer become irritated. This arises when a trigger (e.g. icy temperatures, dehydration) leads to a weakening of the skin’s natural barrier function. This impaired barrier then becomes less effective at keeping irritants out and moisture in.

According to Lauri Fisher, Senior Scientific Advisor at La Roche-Posay Australia, “Sensitive skin is something you’re born with. Genetically, it may be because your skin has a lower amount of pigment, a thin epidermis, or blood vessels close to the skin surface.”

While the causes of sensitive skin may be intrinsic, increased sensitivity can occur as a result of a variety of environmental stressors and lifestyle factors. Triggers for skin sensitivity, which differ from person to person, include the following:  
·         Sun exposure
·         Pollen
·         Air pollution
·         Frequent or sudden changes in temperature
·         Cold, dry and windy weather
·         Very hot water
·         Hard water (with a high mineral content)
·         Lack of sleep and late nights
·         Alcohol and caffeine consumption
·         Spicy foods
·         Over-exfoliation
·         Medications such as Accutane
·         Stress
·         Hormonal changes that occur during your menstrual cycle or pregnancy
·         Smoking
·         Chlorine (in swimming pools and spas)
·         Dry skin (a skin type)
·         Dehydrated skin (a more temporary condition than dry skin)

How Common Is Sensitive Skin?

Sensitive skin is more common than ever and on the rise for both sexes, according to Fisher.It’s hard to differentiate clinically (sensitive vs sensitised skin) but we see it reported in about 50% of the female population and 25-30% of males,” she says. 

Skin sensitivity lies on a spectrum from mild, occasional reactions to extreme sensitivity that is characterised by chronic discomfort, redness, flakiness, dryness and blemishes. Not only is highly sensitive skin uncomfortable, it can negatively impact self-confidence, mood and self-esteem.

Is Sensitive Skin More Common In Women?

While more women report experiencing sensitivity, sensitive skin affects men and women equally. So, why the different statistics? Women are likely to come into contact with irritants more frequently, due to the (typically) larger number of products and treatments they subject their skin to.

What’s The Difference Between Sensitive And Sensitised Skin?

“A true sensitive skin condition is genetic, so you’re born with it,” says Fisher. “It occurs when the outer layer of skin (epidermis) is less efficient so irritants and allergens can infiltrate causing redness and allergies. “Alternatively, sensitised skin occurs due to both external and internal factors, i.e. pollution, air travel, alcohol, smoking, spicy food, emotional and physical stress, hot showers or poor diet. Exposure can lead to inflammation and red, irritated skin. The trigger is different for different individuals and it can also look and feel different for everyone.”

What’s The Difference Between An Allergic Skin Reaction And Sensitive Skin?

An allergic skin reaction is typically more severe than general skin sensitivity. In allergic skin, contact with a problematic allergen (or allergens) will result in a rash, itching, burning sensation, or other reaction. In certain situations, medical attention may be required.   Some common skin allergens include:

•           Fragrances and preservatives in personal care products
•           Rubber and latex
•           Metals including gold and nickel
•           Antibiotics used in first aid creams

What Are The Signs Of Sensitive Skin?

According to Fisher, “Sensitive skin presents as persistent redness, flushing and sensitivity.”  Still not sure if that’s you? Consider the list below. These are common signs you may have sensitive skin and benefit from skincare specially formulated for added comfort and protection.   

Sensitive skin:  
•           Frequently feels tight and uncomfortable
•           May experience itching and/or stinging sensations 
•           Is visibly red and/or blotchy
•           Flushes easily, particularly after drinking alcohol or eating spicy food
•           Can be painful or sensitive to touch
•           Requires extra hydration in winter
•           Dries out during air travel
•           May be oily in summer
•           Has areas of uneven texture, dryness and flakiness
•           Often reacts to skincare products
•           Feels itchy or develops a rash after contact with irritants
•           Can be irritated when wearing coarse, synthetic fabrics
•           Turns red and feels tight and dry after a hot shower or bath
•           Is aggravated by hard water

Can Sensitive Skin Be Healed?

While sensitive skin cannot be healed, eliminating some of the causes of skin sensitivity can certainly improve the comfort of your skin. By avoiding your individual triggers where possible and following a skincare routine for sensitive skin, you can achieve greater skin comfort and enjoy a healthy, glowing complexion.

How Can You Prevent Sensitive Skin From Becoming Worse?

If you suffer from skin sensitivity, there are a few simple steps you can take to manage your condition and prevent further weakening of your skin’s barrier. As mentioned, avoiding your sensitivity triggers is the first step. Next, it’s important to practise good hygiene, keeping your hands clean and avoiding touching your face as much as possible.  Sensitive skin is particularly vulnerable to UV rays and requires daily application of a high-level broad spectrum sunscreen. To avoid the risk of irritation, make sure you opt for sun protection formulated especially for sensitive skin. The same goes for skincare products, and even cosmetics.

Avoid over-exfoliation and use active ingredients, such as retinol, with caution. If your skin reacts to a product, pare back your skincare routine to tried-and-tested minimalist (low ingredient) formulations until your skin feels calmer.

Which Products Should I Use If I Have Sensitive Skin?

Follow a daily skincare routine designed for sensitive skin. This means choosing hypoallergenic, minimalist and fragrance-free products with relatively few ingredients, such as the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra range. Cleanse every evening (and morning if desired/tolerated) and moisturise morning and night. Ensure your skin is protected with daily application of a high-level broad-spectrum sunscreen. Try Anthelios Ultra Cream SPF 50+ sunscreen. Dermatologically tested for sensitive skin and eyes, the non-greasy, ultra-comfortable formula is suitable for normal to dry sensitive skin prone to sun intolerance. Make sure you also take care when choosing cosmetics for sensitive skin. Toleriane is La Roche-Posay’s 100% allergy tested make-up range with no parabens, fragrance or alcohol.

What Should I Do If I Have A Sensitive Skin Reaction?

While severe allergic and sensitive skin reactions should be seen to by a medical professional, there are steps you can take to soothe milder skin reactions at home.

Simple steps to help soothe sensitive skin

Step one: Gently cleanse your skin with a mild, soap-free cleanser. If rinsing, use tepid, rather than hot, water. Try La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser. Enriched with moisturising glycerin and soothing La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water, the wipe-off cleansing milk is formulated for maximum tolerance for dry, reactive and sensitive skin.

Step two: To reduce tightness, dryness/dehydration and discomfort, apply a hydrating serum to your face and neck. Gently press the serum into your skin, allowing it to absorb before following with moisturiser. Try La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Serum, an intensely hydrating, re-plumping serum formulated with moisture-boosting pure hyaluronic acid, soothing madecassoside and Vitamin B5 to accelerate visible repair.

Step three: Apply a soothing, hydrating moisturiser.

Try Toleriane Ultra Dermatological Moisturiser, a true minimalist moisturiser formulated with soothing Neurosensine™. Stripped to the essential ingredients, the rich, high-tolerance formula—suited to ultra-sensitive, reactive and allergy-prone skin—is free from preservatives, fragrance, alcohol, lanolin and colourants.

How Can La Roche-Posay Products Help Sensitive Skin?

La Roche-Posay is dedicated to helping people achieve a better life for their sensitive skin. Specifically formulated for sensitive, allergic and reactive skin, our Toleriane range is proven to care for sensitive skin. Free from fragrance, preservatives and alcohol, all Toleriane products use minimal ingredients, are 100% hypoallergenic, and contain soothing La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water.

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