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.