Most women shy away from being called ‘too sensitive.’ But when the subject is kin, they’re all too willing to wear the scarlet S. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, at least 40% of women believe they have sensitive skin, although most dermatologists report that only a fraction really do. Sensitivity “defined as skin that’s prone to irritation from products, weather, or stress” is a real (albeit misunderstood) condition. It’s not the same as an allergy. It means you have a lower tolerance for irritating ingredients, such as fragrances and dyes. The evil twist here is that the more skin reacts, the more sensitive it becomes. Imagine normal skin having a natural barrier like Saran Wrap. People with sensitive skin have a disrupted barrier all the time. But by identifying what disadvantages that barrier and protecting it with the right moisturizer, you can develop a thicker skin.
Read Labels: Before applying creams, lotions, or makeup, read the ingredients list. The fewer ingredients on the label, the better. All products and formulas should be free of fragrance, dye, and isopropyl alcohol (commonly known as rubbing alcohol). And beware of botanical ingredients and oils. Test each new product on the side of your neck for a few days before using it on your face.
Cleanse: Wash you face with a milky, non-foaming liquid cleanser or a soap-free bar. Do not use a washcloth or any rough scrubber, which can be too abrasive for sensitive skin. Rinse face well by splashing with lukewarm water and pat with a soft towel, leaving skin slightly damp. There is no need to use a toner, which generally contains drying and irritating isopropyl alcohol.
Moisturize: Dab moisturizer onto damp skin in the morning and night. Look for one that contains ceramides, fatty acids, or cholesterol, all of which help form a protective barrier against irritation. In the morning, when the moisturizer is absorbed, apply a sunscreen (with an SPF 15 or higher). It should also contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are least likely to cause reactions.
Choose the right products. ‘Allergy-tested’ means it does not have ingredients that cause common reactions. ‘Noncomedogenic’ means it will not clog pores.
Read labels. Not everyone with sensitive skin is bothered by the same thing, but the most common irritants, in order, include fragrance, isopropyl alcohol, dyes, PABA, lanolin, sorbic acid, formaldehyde, and benzoic acid.
Do not assume that natural products are safe. Some botanicals (rosemary, sandalwood, arnica) and essential oils (jojoba, tea tree, lavender) may irritate.
Test samples on the neck for several days. If they do not irritate you, they’ll probably be fine for your face.
Do not try an arsenal of new products at once. Similarly, if skin breaks out, stop using everything, and reintroduce products one by one.
Be as gentle as possible. Use a creamy, liquid cleanser or a soap-free bar and rinse with lukewarm water. Avoid Buf-Pufs and washcloths. Pat with a towel and leave skin slightly damp.
Moisturize with a product for sensitive skin, or one that contains fatty acids, cholesterol, and ceramides.
Every day, be sure to apply a PABA-free sunscreen that contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
Wash with a milky, non-foaming liquid.
Use a soap-free formula with oatmeal that calms dry and itchy skin.
For day, use a fragrance-free moisturizer containing a non-irritating sunscreen. At night, smooth on a noncomedogenic formula that helps fortify the skin’s barrier while you sleep.
Dermatologists say that sensitive-skin sufferers are more likely to avoid using sunscreens, associating them with past reactions to PABA. Choose one that will not aggravate skin.
It’s not just what you put on your face. Hair spray can cause breakouts along the hairline. Use an allergy-tested and keep the hair off the face whenever possible.
To soothe redness, dermatologists recommend using a fragrance-free treatment. A dime-size dab of an over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream also relieves itching.
For dryness on the body, increase resistance to the environment with a product containing lipids, which is safe for sensitive types.
To treat blemishes, start with an irritant-free face lotion that minimizes blotches with vitamin A. Follow with a concealer that will not aggravate acne, which does double duty by helping clear and conceal blemishes.
Dermatologists like products that get their color from iron oxides, which are less likely to cause reactions. They’re also talc-free, which means they will not rob skin of the moisture it needs.
Tricks of the Trade
Do not ‘shower or bathe for more than 20 minutes, or you’ll dry out your skin. Use lukewarm water.
Do not start any aggressive treatments during the winter, when skin is dryer and more sensitive because of low humidity and indoor heating. A humidifier helps skin from becoming parched.
Grainy or chemical exfoliants can cause breakouts. Excessive daily scrubbing rubs the sebaceous glands, which can clog pores. Use a clay or mud mask to slough off dead cells instead.
Facials are trouble unless they’re simple, steam-free, and employ fragrance-free products.
Avoid chemical peels and laser treatments if you’re sensitive to exfoliants and skin-lightening creams.
If acne medications irritate your skin, ask your doctor about taking oral antibiotics or birth-control pills, which can help minimize blemishes.
Keep Retin-a treatments to only once a week. Dilute the strength by mixing it with your moisturizer.
For skin that seems provoked by anything and everything, ask you dermatologist about cleansers and moisturizers that are typically prescribed for hypersensitive postsurgery and postpeel patients.
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