I've always had pretty low-maintenance skin — no angsty teenage benzoyl-peroxide abuse here — so I was panic-stricken when, last winter, I noticed my cheeks literally chapping and peeling. I went on the offensive, applying every masque, moisturizer, and scrub I could get my hands on. Well, my complexion fought back, turning redder and more inflamed than ever. Funny, I'd never thought of myself as delicate.
Products for sensitive skin now crowd drugstore shelves and luxe cosmetic counters, proclaiming their soothing, redness-busting powers. But what, technically, is the dermatological definition of "sensitive"? Simply put, it's skin that gets flushed, itchy, and inflamed easily, due to genetics, environmental factors like cold and pollution in the air and water, or using the wrong products. Women who suffer from skin disorders like rosacea or eczema can have a reaction to almost anything, while others, who may have gone decades without incident, can suddenly experience a stinging code red if they overdo it with a new antiaging serum, an extra hour in the sun, or a too-hot shower. And sometimes the culprit is invisible — like the iron and calcium content in hard water.
Between do-it-yourself LED facials, microdermabrasion, and chemical peels, it's no wonder the American Academy of Dermatology reports that skin irritations are usually self-inflicted. Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross estimates he's seeing 50 percent more cases of sensitive skin than he was just three years ago. "Now that there's so much at-home treatment available, the temptation is definitely there," he says. "The thinking is, The more I do for my skin, the better." Consider the woman who decides to indulge in her first domestic microderm. No problem there — until she immediately follows up with an astringent and a retinoid moisturizer. Suddenly, the retinoid, which she'd used without incident for months, triggers unsightly irritation. "When we strip away the skin's natural barrier of protection" — say, by overdoing it with an extreme exfoliator like microdermabrasion — "we enable toxins, pollutants, sensitizers, allergens, and irritants to enter and cause problems," says Arkansas derm Dr. Sandy Johnson. Skin needs recovery time after an intensive treatment. Unless you know better — and I certainly didn't — the common knee-jerk reaction to a skin problem is to throw more products at it.
The good news is, you can fix the damage you've done.
For starters, forgo the candy-store approach to cosmetic counters — this is no time to sample every colorful potion you can afford. You always pay a price for overindulgence, so switch to a bare-bones regimen of mild cleanser, chemical-free sunblock (look for a mineral formula containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide), and an unscented moisturizer, as additives like fragrance and preservatives can further aggravate sensitized skin. In cases of extreme redness, some derms will also prescribe a topical like cortisone — but be sure to use sparingly, because steroids can weaken the epidermis and trigger new allergies. Stick to this scaled-back regime for two to four weeks — generally enough time to bring skin back into balance — and then gradually reintroduce one product at a time. "Before you can do a workout with 30 pounds at the gym, you have to do it with 10 first," says Gross. "Skin abides by the same principle."
Sensitive-skin-friendly formulas are now available at all price points — from posh brands like Darphin and RéVive to Walgreens standbys like Cetaphil and Eucerin. The key is to pamper with the fewest possible ingredients. "You want to avoid any product that boasts vitamins, antioxidants, alpha hydroxy acids, and sunscreen all at the same time," says Dr. Diane Berson, adjunct assistant professor of dermatology at New York University.
Even after your skin crisis subsides, keep yourself out of the red for good by moderating use of the harsh hydroxy acids and abrasive granulated scrubs and steering clear of alcohol-based toners and battery-powered scrubbers. For those who have a genetic predisposition toward delicate skin, select from the many mild products with minimal active ingredients. And don't forget that products need to change with the seasons: A deep cleanser that helps control oiliness in the summer can also leave skin parched in the icy winter months. Drop it from your ski-weekend travel bag
Of course, I learned the hard way that year-round vigilance is essential. After I finally soothed my full-on flaky skin, I re-inflamed it on a summer beach trip with alcohol-based sunscreen and overwashing. (Applying SPF every morning felt like running a cheese grater over my cheeks.) So I backed off big time on the toners, masques, and scrubs and went with a gentle fragrance-free moisturizer for a few weeks. Ah, relief. And clear, contented skin to boot. Sometimes what sensitive skin needs more of is less.
Some "Natural" Is Better than Others
From brightening coffeeberry serums to soothing green-tea moisturizers, natural is marketable. Believing anything natural has got to be good for you, Americans spent $62 billion on the stuff last year. But the fact is, flora-based scrubs made from abrasive fruit pits can be irritating, too. If sensitivity is your major concern, these are the ingredients you should be looking for:
- Rose and lavender work wonders in calming inflammation, according to Michele VanLandingham, ingredient information specialist for Dr. Hauschka Skin Care.
- New York dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross suggests seeking out soothing chamomile derivatives, natural toners like witch hazel, and gentle exfoliators like blueberry seeds.
- Dr. Kay Baxter, a U.K. dermatologist who tends to recommend "bland, unfragranced, nonbotanical products" to patients, uses organic aloe vera on sensitive skin.
For extreme inflammation cases, Manhattan dermatologist Dr. Diane Berson recommends a compress of milk, water, and ice to combat itching and burning.
Originally published on September 16, 2008