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Sensitive or Sensitized? How To Know if You’re Winding Your Own Skin Up

Uh-oh. Sensitive skin is on the rise and it looks like we’re all making it worse.


Vogue Arabia, January 2020. Photo: Yulia Gorbachenko

The advancements in at-home skincare continue to give us greater access to high-strength acids, retinols and serums, with brands working to give us the most potent solutions outside the derms’ office. Despite a growing awareness around our skin barrier and delicate microbiome, we’ve already grown used to moonlighting as our own chemist and aesthetician, stringing together DIY skincare routines to tackle top issues from our bathroom cabinets. We have the power to treat our skin in our hands. The only problem is… Well, we don’t really know what we’re doing.

There seems to be a correlation between the advancement in home skincare and the prevalence of skin sensitivity. A recent study by Aveeno found that “the number of people who self-declare they have sensitive skin has increased 55% in just two decades”. Another study by Frontiers in Medicine noted that between 60-70% of women report having sensitive skin, characterized by “itching, burning, stinging, tightness or dryness.” Sound familiar? They add: “there is evidence that the reported prevalence of self-perceived skin sensitivity has increased steadily over time.”

Notice the phrases “self-declare” and “self-perceived,” though. Since sensitivity is so subjective, it isn’t easy to diagnose correctly. A third study into sensitivity in the UK, this time by La Roche Posay, found that over one in 10 women describe their skin as sensitive “without really knowing what it means.”

Experts are finding that what we believe to be sensitive skin may actually be sensitized skin and that we could be playing a more significant role in the reactivity of our skin than we realize.

What is sensitive skin?

“Sensitive skin is naturally reactive skin,” explains facialist and founder of eponymous skincare brand Kate Somerville. “If your skin flares because of certain foods, pollen and ingredients, it’s likely to be sensitive.”

The jist is, if you have sensitive skin, you’re predisposed to irritable and reactive skin. Usually, it has always consistently flared and caused discomfort.

What is sensitized skin?

Sensitized skin, on the other hand, is effectively injured. “Sensitized skin is the result of overstimulation,” says Kate. “Lasers, peels and even retinols can cause the skin to become injured,” she explains. Other environmental factors like extra hot showers can weaken our skin and create irritation.

Most of the time, it comes down to how sturdy your skin barrier is. “For example, when people use certain products on their skin that they can’t really tolerate, it feels dry or astringent or starts to sting the skin,” explains Dr Justine Hextall, La Roche-Posay consultant dermatologist.

“The interesting thing is a lot of people have learned to live with irritation and don’t realize that it’s an issue until it’s corrected. Your skin shouldn’t feel tight or uncomfortable,” she adds. “If you’re noticing your skin throughout the day, then there’s an issue.”

What causes sensitized skin?

While ingredients like acids and retinol can work magic at removing dead skin, increasing cell turnover and improving the look and texture of our skin, like most things, it’s about moderation. It’s worth building up your tolerance to punchy ingredients slowly and sensibly, pausing to see if your skin agrees with it.

If you’re using a retinol every day, chances are you won’t need a harsh exfoliator on top. And, if you’re using powerful formulas that effectively break down or weaken your skin barrier, you need to be building it back up.

“You can use actives, but you have to make sure that you start with robust, hydrated, calm skin,” say Dr Justine. “There is no point sticking on a load of retinoid if you have irritated skin. With actives, you need to take a low and slow approach and make sure there are always compensating ingredients such as glycerin there to repair. You can also try actives on your less sensitive areas or dilute them with your moisturizer,” she adds. “The best way to look younger is to make sure your skin is hydrated, so stay on top of that.”

What to do if you have sensitized skin?

If you do overdo it, reign things back in. “When skin is stressed, don’t use harsh detergents like SLS or fragrances that can disrupt the microbiome,” says Kate. Choose formulas with ingredients that are non-stripping and nourishing. These include ceramides, peptides, and omegas, says Kate, who created her DeliKate skin line specifically for skin that’s been riled up by overdoing it. “They can create a liquid second skin, building back up your barrier function and protecting your natural skin underneath,” she says.

Likewise, Dr Justine recommends La Roche Posay’s Toleriane Ultra Dermallergo Serum. “It’s going to calm and hydrate the skin, because it’s specifically tested on those with intolerant skin,” she says. The serum uses a sciency-sounding ingredient, neurosensine – a clinically proven peptide – to reduce signs of sensitivity such as dryness, tightness, and itchiness and provide relief.

The good news is that we’re getting wise to it. A whole movement has emerged in response to the problem. Hailey Bieber’s Rhode skincare line centres around “a daily routine that nourishes your skin barrier over time”. Peptides feature throughout in the Barrier Restore Cream, the Peptide Glazing Fluid and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Cerave’s ceramide-focused solutions have a cult fan following on TikTok, thanks to the barrier boosting formulas.

The main takeaway? We don’t need to bin our favorite retinols or AHAs immediately. Addressing skin gripes is all well and good, so long as we don’t overstrip it. Balance – as always – is key.

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