Try This Not That: Effective Skincare Ingredients for Sensitive Skin

Aside from a severe dermatological diagnosis (which should be treated by a doctor), the most challenging skin type to treat in my opinion is sensitive skin. It is a dance of constant fluidity that requires a bit of taking an aggressive lead, and falling back to see where it takes you. The first step to treating sensitive skin is to admit that you have sensitive skin; this may mean that you need to provide restraint when seeing the newest high-powered exfoliant on the market that is proven to do wonders, or doing your own research before taking your friend’s advice on THE THING in their skincare arsenal that has changed their life.

A little patience and due diligence and your sensitive skin will thank you (and function better!).

What characterizes sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is highly reactive. It does not like to be ruffled. In a paper by Misery et al (2016) they describe sensitive skin as, “A syndrome defined by the occurrence of unpleasant sensations (stinging, burning, pain, pruritus, and tingling sensations) in response to stimuli that normally should not provoke such sensations.” In layman terms, it means that sensitive skin does not like to be disturbed, may get angry when it has, and should be handled with care.

Sensitive skin may look like the following:

  • General red or pink flush, particularly on fair skin (not caused by alcohol or other vascular issues). This may also show under a magnifying lamp as visible capillaries (particularly in areas prone to scrubbing like the cheeks and nose), raised texture due to inflammation, high-shine from overly tight/dry skin, or very combination skin (extremely dry with flakes, switching to extremely oily).
  • Easily flushes when touching or manipulating the skin. This can range from a pink to an inflamed red. It is important to note that all types on the Fitzpatrick Scale can be sensitive.
  • Itches, burns, tingles or is painful during a treatment or after a topical product. This is typically in a much shorter time frame and at lower percentages than non-sensitive skin . Oftentimes clients will experience small papules that look like a rash and feel like sandpaper covering an area due to an allergic or inflammatory reaction.
  • A feeling of heat or warmth from the skin. As a skincare expert I touch the back of my hand to someone’s face and compare that to their chest. In sensitive skin the face (or area I’m treating) is generally much warmer after minimal manipulation that another area.
  • Sensitive and sensitized skin are two different things. Sensitive skin is a long-term issue. Sensitized skin is an acute (short) issue related to too much of something that has disrupted the harmonious function of the skin (exfoliating, chemical burn, disrupting the pH, exposure to the elements). If you sensitized your skin, you should stop whatever the thing was that was causing the problem, let your skin heal, and adjust as needed. Some of the items on this list may prove to be helpful while you chill out from those high-powered actives.

I have sensitive skin. What can I do about it?

Sensitive skin requires extra TLC, in-depth knowledge about ingredients and formulations, and proper expectations. If you’re having issues with your skin, a reputable skincare expert can help get you on the right track. If you’re going out on your own: research, research, research.

It is best to start low and go slow. Know that there can be trial and error, and that a skincare expert will (and should) treat you conservatively particularly in the getting-to-know-your-skin phase. There are multiple reasons for this. First and foremost we want you to be safe, and happy with the results. Secondly highly sensitive skin can be uncharted territory, and we don’t want to cause any undo harm. This may mean less time under the steam, or less extractions. We are watching your skin as we go along and trust me, it will tell us when enough is enough. Unfortunately this doesn’t always align with the expectations of how long something during a facial treatment should be.

There are a few ingredients that you should definitely become familiar with so that you can read your labels with confidence. Three ingredients in your skincare you should cut out of your routine today are fragrance, alcohol (not all are bad!), beads/sugar/seeds or anything that can be used as a scrub.

Try this, not that

Here are some great staples in skincare and their sensitive, skin-friendly alternatives.

ConcernCommon IngredientsTry This Instead
Dry, dull and flaky skinAHAs like Glycolic or Lactic AcidsMandelic acid: it is the lowest percentage of strength

BHA/Salicylic Acid: great for acne-prone skin. Lightly exfoliates and salicylic acid (think aspirin) has anti-inflammatory properties
HyperpigmentationL-ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), hydroquinone Alpha Arbutin: safer, gentler option to hydroquinone for subtle lightening of hyperpigmentation

Azelaic Acid: anti-acne, anti-inflammatory and gentle lightning with exfoliation

Niacinamide: strengthens the skin barrier, calming and gentle lightning of hyperpigmentation

Wrinkles and collagenTretinoin, Retinol, SPFBakuchiol: a natural alternative to retinol.

*Retinol: a (very) low percentage may work. Go slow and I suggest buffering by waiting 30+ minutes after washing your face, applying niacinamide and a moisturizer first, and using no more than 2x per week. This should also be paired with skin building ingredients

SPF: try a mineral SPF vs. a chemical SPF
Red or flushed skinSee suggestionsThis is all about nourishing and calming. Oatmeal, avocado, cica, aspirin masks (in moderation as this does also exfoliate), niacinamide, cooling gel masks.

The color green is on the opposite side of the color wheel which is used to balance out reds. Dr. Jart makes a great Cicapair line that has calming ingredients with a green tint to help cancel out redness.

Avoid: foods high in niacin and lycopene (think tomatoes) which can cause a flush, spicy foods, extreme changes in temperature, alcohol (the type you ingest as well as in your skincare ingredients e.g. alcohol denat.), and excess sugar.
Extreme combination skinSee suggestionsSkin-barrier-builders and hydrators like ceramides, fatty acids, hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA, glycerin, niacinamide, snail mucin

There you have it, readers. I hope that you found some helpful items to help you along your skincare journey. As a fellow sensitive skinned person, I can understand how the world of skincare, anti-acne and anti-aging can be a confusing and frustrating place. It is important that you recognize that sensitive skin is OK to have. There is nothing wrong with having sensitive skin! It just takes a keen eye and some extra love to keep it happy. And who doesn’t love a little extra self-care time? I certainly do.

Have a favorite item for sensitive skin? Drop us a line in the comments.

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