Thursday, 16 June 2016

Sensitive skin: An owners manual

Pinpointing the problem
Trying to figure out what triggers sensitivity issues can be an enormous pain in the ass. There are just so many options!
  • Is it something in your diet? Gluten? Refined sugar? Lactose?
  • Is it hormonal? Stresse related? High insulin? Thyroid issues? High testosterone or low estrogen?
  • Is it an ingredient in skincare products? Alcohol? Retinoids? Alpha-hydroxy acids? Oils? Sodium lauryl sulfate? Ammonium laureth sulfate? Perfume? Mineral oil?
  • Is it your environment? Cold? Heat? Dry climate? Sun exposure? Long days of work with too little sleep?
Often your problem isn't in just a single factor but a combination of them. Of course this makes pinpointing the problem even harder.

TL;DR version: "Avoid eye area"
If a product is so harsh that it says on it to "avoid eye area", avoid it everywhere! In fact, avoid spending your money on it.

TL;DR version: Ingredients
Avoid adjectives in your skincare products. You want your products to add simple moisture. Products trying to multitask adds extra ingredients that might cause irritation. So avoid products that are anti wrinkle, anti aging, brightening, anti acne, firming, anti redness and botanical overload type products etc.

The simpler, the better.

TL;DR version: Products
Be cheap! Let's face it, there are actually only so many ingredients that can actually, truly do something for your skin. Like, really. So when you buy pricier products, they often add fancier, pricier ingredients of questionable value to your skin. Often these products contain colour or perfume to look and smell exclusive and worth the added cost. Don't fall for that.

Be cheap.

TL;DR version: Sun
Avoid sunlight: I've read that sun suppresses your immune system. Since skin redness is an immune response to inflammation, you notice less redness when out in the sun. Also, a bit of tan will help mask the problem areas. Sunlight dries out your skin, which will make the skin produce more oil to compensate, which may just cause further problems.

Nature knows best
Your skin is the largest organ in your body. Your skin is a waterproof, protective layer on your body's surface and protects your body against infections.

The top layer of the skin is called the epidermis. It contains no blood vessels to transfer nutrients to it and oxygen is supplied by diffusion from the surface.
Cell division happens at the basale layer (Stratum basale) and move up through the epidermis layer. On the way, the cells die as they are cut off from nutrition for the blood vessels. The cells change shape and composition as they die. The cells lose their cell organelles and a protein called keratin enters the cells. After about two weeks, the dead cells reach the surface of the skin (Stratum corneum) where they slough off.

The stratum corneum is the natural barrier to infections. This layer of skin containing keratin is what keeps the body's water from escaping, and keeps bacteria, virus, fungus and chemicals from entering the body. It is literally a dead, protective layer.
The stratum corneum has three lipid components: ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. This is called the acid mantle and keeps the skins pH at a slightly acidic pH, usually around 5,5. The pH is important because it keeps the skin an inviting home for the benign bacteria you want to have living on your skin: The kind that doesn't cause you problems and will out-compete the malign bacteria you don't want to have living on your skin.

What can we use this for?
To work with the natural function of the skin, there are three important points:
  • Exfoliating gently. Exfoliating is one of the quickest and easiest things you can do to make your skin glow. But exfoliating works exactly by removing the stratum corneum to let the lower layers "glow" through. It doesn't mean that exfoliating is something to avoid completely, but there are gentle methods to chose. If you have sensitive skin, a cleansing brush tools may offer you enough exfoliating. 
  • Protect your skin pH. Some products are well outside of the skin-friendly pH range. Look for the pH of the product on the label, or look it up. 
  • Beware of desinficering your skin. It might seem like a good idea to kill off bacteria, but you don't want to kill your friendly bacteria and invite unfriendly bacteria to take their places.
A side note: Skin care products to protect and support the stratum corneum to keep your skin healthy, is predicted to become "the next big thing" in Korean skincare.

TL;DR version: Clean the right stuff!
When you have sensitive and easily irritated skin, you will often subconsciously touch your skin. This is not something you can do anything about, short of tying your hands together or something. You feel the irritation, often subconsciously, and you touch the irritation, equally subconsciously. What you can do, is to limit the amount of dirt and bacteria you transfer from your surroundings to your skin via your fingers.
  • Clean your hands! Soap + water and a gentle hand cream. 
  • The amount of bacteria you carry with you under your nails is just crazy. Keep your nails short to literally limit how much room there is for dirt and bacteria. Clean your nails often.
  • Disinfect the surfaces you touch a lot: Keyboards, your mouse, work tables, phones, door handles (Especially non-metal door handles) the steering wheel of your car, remote controls etc. 

Hell is other people
There is a lot of truth to this if you have sensitive, troublesome skin. Everyone will want to fix you help you. They seem to fall in two categories:

The guru
"Why dont you just do what I do?"
The guru has good skin. Bulletproof skin. The kind of skin that can survive a high-perfume, abrasive, dehydrating, dye-full skincare routine. The guru gets their information from glossy advertisements and those totally real and totally not sponsored reviews she finds at mainstream sources. The guru barely even knows that there are different skintypes, and even if they do know, they think sensitive skin is something that can be cured(!). Since the guru has such naturally good skin, the guru never bothered to read independent, non-sponsored information about skin and skincare. The guru really, truly, honestly believed that if everyone just did what she does, no one on the planet would ever have any skin trouble.

The guru is a moron.

But if you can demonstrate that you actually really know what your're talking about, you just might get the guru to shut their face.

The scholar
"I just read about this thing....!"
Gosh. Aren't you lucky? The scholar just read about this thing and guess what? It totally fits you! That is totally that thing you have! Because the scholar totally thinks they found a symptom that matches! Lucky you! The scholar is just that smart!
Within a few minutes of learning about your skin woes, or having spotted this one symptom that totally fits you (Yes it does! It totally does!), the scholar has diagnosed you. Aren't you lucky the scholar is here to help you?!

The scholar is an idiot.

When you try to disprove the scholar, they take it as a personal offense. Because they totally just read the thing! And it had science in it! Made by real scientists!
The scholar completely and totally believes you will fall to your knees and worship them for how smart they are, and thank them for being there to rescue you.
Unfortunately I have no tips on dealing with the scholar. Where you can usually get the guru to shut up, there is nothing you can do against the scholar: The scholar strangely seems to take it as a personal offense that you disagree. Instead of understanding that you, the owner of the skin (Who knows what your skin likes and dislikes and how it reacts and have had years of experience dealing with it) disagree with their diagnosis, the scholar instead seems to think you object to the scholar having ever read the article in the first place.


  1. Thanks a million for that post! I, too am blessed with sensitive skin and you wouldn't believe the things I sometimes got to hear about it. Mostly from the "scientists" and it was everything from "don't eat dairy, don't wash with products, don't use products, use this, use that, it's your fault, yadda yadda...".

    I have, on good days, a lot of good skin on my face, but unfortunately, even at 26, I tend to get huge zits. I've always had a problem with my skin healing, so the zits will stay and stay and won't heal up and leave red marks. Not pretty, but I still don't know what causes them. Gentle exfoliation with mandelic acid every few days helps tremendously.

    My body has "good" areas like my stomach, but also really bad ones, as my legs: dry to the point of being scaly, and nothing, no amount of cream/oil/drinking water helps.

    I want to print you post and give it out to several magazines (hello, Instyle!) and pin it to the heads of several dermatologists and "nice" people, offering their science-y knowledge. It's nice they're blessed with good skin. I'm blessed with good, uncomplicated and thick hair. But I wouldn't dream of saying that what I do with my hair should work for everyone. I've been on hair forums long enough to know that even apparently "identical" hair types don't like the same stuff.

    1. A fellow sensitive skin sufferer, hooray! <3
      It sounds like you could have some sort of hormonal issue? I've been seriously considering that I could have something like that... PCOS or something similar. Ugh, that's another problem with sensitive skin: You start looking for "maybe's" everywhere...
      Right now I'm considering taking spearmint supplements like Tracey at fanserviced-B:
      Big hug to you!!

  2. I also think that I *might* have something hormonal. I used birth control pills and had bad skin (worse than nowadays) and switched to Mirena 6 years ago. It did get better, but it's still there. Using no hormonal birth control is no option for me right now, so I wouldn't know what I'd look like without. I had blood tests done a couple of months back because of a suspected thyroid issue, but they were negative.
    What's making think it might be hormonal is that I get really bad cysts a week before the lady in red kicks in. Once there, the spots clear up, but as my skin heals badly, I'm always left with marks.