Being more prone to irritation, sensitive skin reacts quicker to any stimuli and insults, whether it’s touch or exposure to environmental conditions or an irritant, resulting in symptoms typical for sensitive skin: tingling, burning, redness or stinging. A daily skin care routine and the use of appropriate cleansers and moisturisers can help sensitive skin maintain its moisture and to strengthen its compromised protective ability.
What is sensitive skin?
Sensitive skin displays a higher sensitivity and lower tolerance than non-sensitive (normal) skin, allowing the skin to easily become irritated and allergic. Sensitive skin is a very common complaint among both men and women, however, it is usually characterised as a subjective complaint of skin discomfort and tingling sensation without visible signs of irritation. Sensitive skin can occur on any body parts/areas but it is primarily found on the face and also often on the hands, feet and scalp. For example, the lips are less than half of thickness of normal skin which makes them more sensitive to environmental insults since the nerves are nearer the skin’s surface. Common symptoms associated with sensitive skin include stinging or burning of the skin, reddening patches of the skin, tightness, pain and dryness without the presence of skin lesions.
What are the causes of sensitive skin?
Even though sensitive skin is not caused by contact or reaction with any specific materials, the exact causes of sensitive skin are not well understood. Recently, it is becoming more apparent that exposure to environmental insults (sunlight, heat, cold, pollution and wind), damages to the skin’s structure, function and nerve sensations, and even genetic factors are the major contributors to sensitive skin.
The skin acts as a protective barrier that effectively prevents the invasion of external harmful factors and the loss of water and nutrients from the body. When compared to the normal skin, sensitive skin shows a weaker protective function of the outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum.
This leads to an increased penetration rate through the skin which in turn causes the skin to have higher reactivity and sensitivity, resulting in a poorer defence against attacks from outside factors, irritants and allergens compared to normal skin. As such, it is easy for sensitive skin to react to irritants or allergens that can further damage the skin’s barrier structure and nerve endings, resulting in a perpetuating cycle. As the causes of sensitive skin are complex, no fully effective treatments for sensitive skin have been developed. Therefore, the use of suitable skin care products and careful attention to daily skin care can play important roles in minimising the symptoms of sensitive skin.
Taking care of sensitive skin – gentle cleansers and triple moisturisers
It is universally agreed that skin care products such as cleansers and moisturisers designed to improve sensitive skin should be composed of ingredients that are carefully chosen to help minimise irritation and aggravation of existing sensitivity. To this end, these products should ideally be free from well-known common sensitisers such as fragrance, colour, soap and alcohol, and contain moisturising ingredients such as emollients, humectants and occlusives designed to support the skin’s barrier function and increase hydration.
A quality cleanser should use gentle surfactants (an ingredient that can aid in the cleaning of dirt and sweat from the skin) and moisturisers to cleanse sensitive skin and leave the skin hydrated and intact. The cleansing process can also help to promote the skin’s peeling and regenerating cycle. A quality moisturiser should contain a combination of emollients, humectants and occlusives to simulate the skin’s natural approach to maintaining good skin moisture. Emollients are substances that have the ability to fill any small gaps/cracks between skin cells and to improve the appearance of the skin in terms of softness, flexibility and smoothness. Humectants increase water absorption from the deeper skin layers to the skin’s surface. Occlusives serve as a physical barrier to help prevent water loss from the skin’s surface, while protecting the skin from irritants.
In addition, skin care cleansers and triple moisturisers should ideally also contain no irritants to help reduce stinging but should contain ingredients that can help to maintain the structural strength of the skin.
It is important to look after sensitive skin when it comes to UV exposure. Many sunscreens now also contain moisturisers, to help protect the skin from UV damage whilst also ensuring it is hydrated, especially on the face, lips and scalp.