When it comes to sensitive skin, there are a lot of triggers that can upset it. It can be hard to determine exactly what they are when our skin is in contact with so many different things every day!
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
First thing’s first: sensitive skin is not a skin type. Any skin type can experience sensitivity, from oily and acne-prone, to dry and mature. Countless internal and external factors can trigger sensitivity, causing a host of unpleasant symptoms such as redness, prickling and stinging.
Sensitive skin can disturb our beauty sleep, prevent us from taking part in certain activities, and limit our choice of skincare and cosmetics. Basically, it can be a massive drag! To help you get your skin back in the safety zone, you need to know more about possible sensitivity triggers.
THE DIFFERENT SYMPTOMS OF SENSITIVE SKIN
Sensitive skin is not necessarily allergenic skin. It is a type of skin that is naturally vulnerable to outside attacks, which it has an extreme reaction to. This hyper-reactivity is directly linked to the excitability of the skin's nerve endings. According to each profile, sensitive skin can therefore manifest itself through different types of reactivity, which may accumulate: prickling, tightness, itchiness, heat discomfort and/or burning sensations, sometimes combined with redness.
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 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.
FOR SENSITIVE SKIN
Sensitive skin symptoms can be caused by internal and external factors. Let’s look at the external factors first.
TEMPERATURE CHANGES AND WIND
External factors that can trigger skin’s sensitivity include heat, cold and wind. This is because these factors cause sharp temperature changes that trigger release of the itch molecule histamine in the skin. This causes annoying prickling or itching sensations and causes blood vessels to dilate resulting in redness.
What you can do: You can’t change the weather, but you can avoid excessively hot showers or baths, and try turning down the central heating in winter and the air conditioning in summer.
One top sensitive skin enemy is pollution. Fine particles called PM 2.5 (basically soot) adhere to skin’s surface, where they trigger a chain reaction of oxidative stress, causing irritation within the skin. This degrades its surface protective barrier, causing dryness and further increasing skin’s sensitivity to external irritants.
What you can do: The most advanced dermocosmetic solutions now come in pollution-proof textures that help stop irritant dust from sticking to skin and causing reactions.
The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight triggers oxidative stress and inflammation in the skin, which can lead to the unpleasant symptoms associated with sensitive skin. Sun is also a “beauty enemy” in general, constituting one of the major causes of skin ageing and even acne.
What you can do: Integrate a sun protection product with SPF 30-50 specifically formulated for sensitive skin into your daily care routine.
ADDITIVES IN COSMETICS
Many cosmetics are not created with sensitive skin in mind and include all kinds of potential “nasties” - colorants, fragrances, alcohol, lanolin… - which can trigger the symptoms of sensitive skin. Other than additives, certain products contain very harsh anti-aging ingredients such as extreme concentrations of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which can also leave skin feeling more than a little sensitive.
What you can do: Seek out products specifically formulated to soothe and support sensitive skin, which are hypoallergenic, free of the main “nasties” mentioned above and tested on sensitive to reactive skin types.
WASHING POWDER AND SENSITIVE SKIN
Lotions and potions are not the only things that touch your sensitive skin: Clothes do too, and that means your skin also comes into contact with traces of washing powder or detergent. “Biological” washing detergents contain enzymes that can irritate the skin, while others are simply too concentrated in irritants like sodium lauryl sulphate that strip skin of its defences.
What you can do: If you have sensitive skin, opt for non-biological washing powders. Use only the necessary amount of powder or detergent based on the size of the load and how dirty it is. Finally, give clothes an extra rinse cycle before drying to remove any traces of detergent.
SENSITIVE SKIN AFTER SURGERY
After an operation, you are likely to have a wound on your skin. While it is healing, it will be very sensitive to the touch and even light pressure can cause severe discomfort. After surgery, skin will be sensitive to anything but the gentlest care products.
What you can do: Keep your wound clean with a gentle cleanser specifically designed for healing wounds. Ask your pharmacist for recommendations. To help reduce your post-surgical skin’s sensitivity day after day, use a suitable pro-healing scar cream applied several times a day with a massage. This will optimise your scar’s healing. Again, ask your pharmacist to recommend a good scar cream or gel.
OF SENSITIVE SKIN
Now let’s look at the internal factors that can cause sensitive skin symptoms.
Ever noticed particularly piquant dishes can turn up the heat with your skin too? This is no coincidence: a substance called capsaicin in spicy food can trigger irritation receptors in the skin, leading to those all-too-familiar sensitive skin symptoms. Many people also find their skin flushes and reddens after eating this type of food.
What you can do: Though tasty, super spicy dishes are best avoided by people with sensitive to reactive skin. If you are going out for Indian food, why not opt for a mild korma?
Alcohol is a top cause of sensitive skin due to two important effects: First, it causes dilatation of the blood vessels in the skin, resulting in flushing and redness; second, it acts as a diuretic (a substance that flushes water out of your system) which dries the skin out, making it more vulnerable to external attacks.
What you can do: Moderation is the key! You don’t have to go teetotal, but you are advised to limit your alcohol consumption to around one medium-sized glass of wine per day (around 2 units of alcohol).
SKIN SYMPTOMS OF GLUTEN INTOLERANCE
Gluten intolerance can affect your skin. In extreme cases, it is associated with a widespread blistering rash called dermatitis herpetiformis. Several other skin diseases such as psoriasis have also shown an improvement on a gluten-free diet. Gluten is not a common cause of sensitive skin, but it is worth considering if your symptoms flare up after eating bread, pasta or other gluten-containing foods.
What you can do: If gluten is a trigger for your sensitive skin, it is a good idea to try a gluten-free diet. You will have to get into the habit of checking food product labels for gluten, but the main change will involve eliminating grains such as wheat, barley and rye from your diet.
Many women find that the symptoms of sensitive skin are brought on by hormonal fluctuations such as their monthly cycle or the perimenopausal stage of life. Hormonal changes are particularly likely to worsen flushing and redness of the skin.
What you can do: If flushing is an issue, your first reflex is to spritz your skin with naturally soothing, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant Thermal Spring Water Facial Mist. Also ensure your sensitive skincare routine is on-point. Ask your pharmacist to recommend products specifically designed for sensitive skin, with anti-redness active ingredients.
STRESS OR INTENSE EMOTION
For some people, stress and intense emotion can be a trigger factor for sensitive skin. When you are flustered, the nerve endings in your skin start firing off pain signals and blood vessels in the face and neck dilate, causing visible flushing and making the face and neck feel hot.
What you can do: If you find your skin feels uncomfortable or flushed in high-stress situations, your first step is to try to get your stress under control. One technique with proven usefulness in this situation is Mindfulness: Focus your mind on the present moment and observe your thoughts in a detached, non-judgmental manner.
Of course, mindfulness in the middle of a high-pressure meeting or while chasing after a toddler can be a challenge! Luckily, you can treat and reduce skin’s sensitivity day after day with the right skincare. Result? Skin’s sensitivity is progressively reduced, and your skin becomes more resilient to the stress effect.
1A. Green et al. Evening light exposure to computer screens disrupts human sleep, biological rhythms, and attention abilities. Chronobiology International. Vol. 34, May 26, 2017, p. 855. doi: 10.1080/07420528.2017.1324878