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."