Planning skincare for sensitive skin doesn't require a BSc in chemistry
Save yourself from turning into the red-faced emoji
I have not been blessed with the good skin gene. Sure, I’m tall, have long legs, and a poker face to rival Lady Gaga, but even a few drops of new serum can turn my face into a tamatar with an itchy rash and breakouts. I’ve had acne late into my twenties, hyperpigmentation that looks like bad contouring and finicky skin that throws tantrums like a teething toddler. ‘Skincare for sensitive skin’ tops my Google search history.
Until a conversation with dermatologist Markus Braun-Falco had me rethinking how I viewed my skin. I almost felt like apologising for all the insults it has had to deal with as I grumbled in the mirror. Sensitive skin isn’t a skin type, after all — it’s a temporary condition which can be resolved.
“Sensitive skin is characterised by the occurrence of sensations of tingling, prickling, heat, burning, pain, or itching. It can be in response to multiple physical, chemical, psychological and/or hormonal factors,” says Braun-Falco. UV radiation, harsh climates, pollution, medication like antibiotics, allergies and cosmetic ingredients are just some of the factors that can make our skin reactive and irritable. “When the skin’s natural barrier function is compromised, it causes water loss and allows penetration of irritants.”
We’re aware of some of these, but we rarely think about ones like our diet, stress and hormones. “The saying ‘We are what we eat’ translates into food reactions and allergies, and how they’re connected to common skin conditions like acne, eczema, hair loss etc,” says Dr Sonali Kohli, an aesthetic integrative dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital.
The pH balance is also not something we pay much attention to. Industry professionals want us to be aware of the imbalance that products can cause, and read labels before buying. Especially if you’re shopping for skincare for sensitive skin.
Braun-Falco explains, “pH value denotes how alkaline or acidic a substance is on a scale of 0-14. Our acid mantle, which acts as the protective barrier of our skin, is slightly acidic with a pH of around 5.5. At pH 5.5 skin cleansing minimises moisture loss and inhibits the growth of bad bacteria by maintaining an optimal level of skin and scalp friendly bacteria. It supports natural defences against environmental factors which accelerate skin ageing.” Products which are highly alkaline or neutral can throw off this balance, damaging our natural protective barrier and leading to dryness and irritation.
You may be having flashbacks to your chemistry lab classes right about now. But you don’t need to be a scientist to understand skincare for sensitive skin. Our professionals explain how a few changes in the products we’re using and educating ourselves about what we’re putting on our skin can relieve our skin of sensitisation for good.
What sensitive skincare routines should avoid
- Harsh skin treatments: Physical scrubs, intense exfoliating treatments, retinol, high percentages of active ingredients. Let your skin focus on healing itself. High strength exfoliants work by compromising the skin barrier and speeding up cell turnover, and right now that can cause long-term damage to the skin. Introduce actives into your routine slowly at lower strengths once your skin starts to heal.
- Heavy fragrance: Synthetic perfuming ingredients or natural extracts and essential oils serve no function for skin betterment and are purely aromatic. Heavily scented products pose an increased risk of skin sensitisation and skin allergies in the long-run. Fragrances are largely tolerated, but if your skin is compromised, do not take any chances, at least for now.
- Prolonged sun exposure: The MVP of a sensitive skincare routine will be the sun protection you use. Think of the sun as the mean girl in school, and avoid prolonged exposure. You don’t need to be a shut-in — just ensure you’re layering a good amount of SPF 50 when heading out.
What every sensitive skincare routine needs
For irritated, redness-prone and sensitive skin, all you need is a three-step routine. Go back to basics with a gentle cleanser, a nourishing moisturiser with calming and soothing ingredients, rich in ceramides and fatty alcohols to restore your skin barrier. Top it off with a mineral or physical sunblock which uses zinc and titanium dioxide as key ingredients.
Find products with short ingredient lists. If it takes up more than half the packaging space then put it back on the shelf. Try and cut down on how much you’re washing your face. Try a water rinse in the morning and leave cleansing for the night.
You’ll find your skin coming back on track with a minimal routine in 1-2 weeks and you’re going to want to pick up your favourite actives again. Braun-Falco suggests using serums that support the healing process, “maintain the skin texture and help your skin be plumper and firm.”
If you’re planning to add actives then go slow, incorporating them one at a time into your routine.
Go for products with centella asiatica, locally known as gotu kola to calm the skin, colloidal oatmeal and panthenol to soothe, hyaluronic acid to retain hydration and niacinamide to boost skin’s strength and reduce redness. Aloe vera is every nani’s go-to skin soother, but it is also a common allergen.
For sensitive skincare, it’s important to patch test products. Apply a dab on your jawline or your neck, right behind your ear lobe. Wait 24 hours to check for any possible reaction before applying it to your face.
By now you’re going to be itching to pick up your favourite exfoliator, but as Braun-Falco says, keep it to twice a week, build up to it and use low-grade and gentler acids to exfoliate. Some good options are azelaic acid for spot treatment, mandelic acid and polyhydroxy acids.