Clear skin comes easily to a few lucky people, but for most of us, getting our canvas to a blemish-free state is a constant battle. I am on a lifetime battle with hormonal acne (due to PCOS) and also skin sensitivity.
I never had sensitive skin until that fateful facial incident. From then on, my skin was never the same again. The acne remained, but because my skin barrier was so severely compromised and thereafter went through intense treatments to halt the allergy, my skin went from being pretty resilient to completely broken and sensitive to even the slightest things. I would break out from allergens in the air (this is what a dermatologist told me.
After years of research and experimenting, I realize it boils down to understanding what your skin really needs and that there is no one size fits all formula when it comes to skincare. What works for thousands of people might (and have) shredded my skin, and what works for me might not have any positive effect on others.
My skin, at its worst, when I was seeing this particular aesthetician that gave the most absurd skincare advice. He told me to "go out in the sun without sunscreen because sunlight kills bacteria." 😱 Please, NO.
My skin, today, unedited, straight out of camera. Sure, it's obviously not perfect and I still have clogged pores, closed and open comedones, and plenty of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. But I'm contented. Everyday I wake up, look at myself in the mirror and thank my skin. It sounds crazy, but for a person who has experienced immense skin trauma, I don't take my skin for granted. Any day is better than that day.
Causes of skin irritation
There are many reasons why our skin feels sensitive or is going through a sensitive period. It could be caused by something as straightforward like a sunburn, or a rash to jewelry, a reaction to certain medication, or skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis and eczema (atopic dermatitis).
What I'm going to talk about is skin irritation or allergic reaction, wherein a condition called contact dermatitis develops when something that touches your skin either irritates it or causes an allergic reaction. Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when a product irritates your skin and allergic contact dermatitis occurs when something you are allergic to touches your face eg. poison ivy, fragrances, latex, essential oils (source).
Contact dermatitis is actually pretty common and symptoms include redness, itching, and sometimes small bumps. It usually improves or clears up completely if the substance causing the problem is identified and avoided.
Overexfoliation and overuse of products can leave skin feeling irritated. (Reserve St Ives Apricot Scrub for your feet!)
My skin has a really bad temper. It is quick to flare up and stays annoyed for extended periods of time to get back at me. It took 2-3 weeks of intense babying to calm my skin that was irritated by a highly potent vitamin C serum. My skin stayed itchy, dry and felt like sandpaper. There were also orange and pink patches on my skin, which fortunately were not permanent.
My skin doesn't like anything too concentrated. So when I tried to emulate all the fancy stuff people did with products, like dripping Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster or Vitamin C15 Booster on my skin, I got slapped back in the face real hard.
If you have acne prone skin type there might be a high chance that your skin barrier is somewhat damaged or weakened by acne medication or any acne treatment that you might be going through.
I always roll my eyes when I see articles suggesting that the key to reducing acne, inflamed skin, or sensitive skin is to chug down two litres of water and have plenty of fruit and vegetables daily. I mean, I know proper hydration is important for overall health, but just drinking enough water doesn't ease the war that is raging on my skin.
I'm not talking about drinking enough water, since rehydrating your body is common knowledge, but about rehydrating your skin. Hydration is the basis of healthy skin and applying lost hydration directly to the skin does more wonders for the sake of your skin health and improving the appearance.
For many years, I thought moisturization was enough. I religiously applied moisturizer twice daily, yet my skin felt dehydrated. I had oily AND dehydrated skin. My skin was confused and so was I!
Hydrating products are formulated to help increase water content to the skin, ultimately resulting in a plumper appearance. Meanwhile, moisturizers help prevent the skin’s water content from evaporating into the air. Took me long enough to understand the difference.
Hada Labo Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Lotion is a great instant hydrator for the skin and a cult favorite. My skin LOVES NIOD Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex (MMHC2). Just a couple of drops to make my skin feel soft and supple all day.
One essential step I do after cleansing to reduce transepidermal water loss and before application of hyaluronic acid is liberally spritzing NIOD Superoxide Dismutase Saccharide Mist (SDSM2) all over my face. Remember, HA works best when it has something to hold on to first so you can pair them together for the ultimate hydrating and protecting combination.
How to calm down irritated skin
Sometimes, even when we've tried our best, sh*t still happens.
See! I woke up with red-orange patches and bumps when there was nothing the night before. I didn't even apply any form of actives and my skin just decided to react to... I don't know, AIR. *rolls eyes*
When your skin is freaking out, and so are you, stop everything fanciful that you're using.
Strip your skincare routine to the basics - cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen. Don't even go near direct acids or retinols.
Then rebuild your routine with the least complicated products, slowly one product at a time. When you run out and start buying more complicated products to fix the problem, sometimes it just makes it worse. I made the mistake of thinking that if my skin is going haywire, I should use a chemical exfoliator like a BHA to get rid of it. Sounds silly, I know! But one finds thinking logically difficult when one's skin is a mess.
Hands vs devices
I love using my ageLOC LumiSpa cleansing device for that extra cleansing and massaging effect, and it is especially helpful when chemical exfoliation is too much for the skin yet you still need some gentle exfoliation to get rid of dead skin build-up. If your skin is ultra-sensitive, super raw and painful, stop using both physical and chemical exfoliators, and stick to plain ol' water washing with your hands.
Reduce cleansing frequency
We are brought up in a culture where every single beauty company formulates its own cleaners and you'll see on every cleanser bottle the direction to 'use twice daily'. When I had much oilier skin in my younger days, it was impossible not to cleanse in the morning since I would wake up with so much oil on my face you could fry an egg with it. Cleansing morning and night was fine then.
These days, as my skin starts to produce less oil and is more sensitive, I don't cleanse every morning. If you don't feel you need to cleanse in your skin in the morning, skip it! You don't need to cleanse your face twice daily. Some mornings I just do a water wash, other days when I do reach out for a cleanser, I make sure to complete the cleansing under 15 seconds.
Soaping, lathering, cleansing can strip the natural lipids of our skin barrier, leading to dryness, irritation and heightened sensitivity. Especially during times of heightened sensitivity, splashing your skin with water alone is fine.
Find the right cleanser
One favorite cleanser of mine that I would recommend to all sensitive skin types is the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser. This is extremely gentle yet effective on the skin, containing no fragrance, colors, parabens, preservatives. When you need your skin to recover, the less the ingredients the better! This has a light, non-foaming, slightly creamy consistency that washes off easily. It says there is no need to rinse, but I use it in the shower and just rinse off with water. It is so gentle that you can use it around your eyes as well.
No matter how well a cleanser is reviewed to be, as long as it is a foaming cleanser, I will break out from it. You might be experiencing that too if you have sensitive skin, so opt for a cleanser that is gel-based, jelly-based, or even a milk cleanser.
The La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser claims to remove makeup too, but I only wear sunscreen these days (wrote this during covid times) so that's more than enough. It's great that I can skip a first cleanse too. If you do wear makeup, consider doing a first cleanse to remove all the makeup. My all-time favorite makeup remover is Heimish Cleansing Balm.
During times of skin sensitivity, even my favorite Krave Beauty Hemp Matcha Cleanser proves to be too much. I go back to that only when my skin has recovered from all that rawness and stinging.
Use a simple moisturizer
I know, simple sounds boring, right? Why go for boring when there are so many moisturizers out there that promise anti-aging, lifting, plumpness, and more?
But if you have sensitive skin or are going through a period of sensitivity, that's exactly what your skin needs. Give it the most basic moisturizer, with as little ingredients as possible, and give it time to heal before you progress to more complicated formulations.
My favorite boring and effective moisturizers are Klairs Rich Moist Cream and Avene Skin Recovery Cream (there's a rich version for dry skin. I use the light one).
Colloidal oat mask
Colloidal oatmeal’s unique chemical profile diminishes cytokines, a group of proteins that cause inflammation in your body (source). Colloidal oatmeal is used to treat the symptoms of many conditions, including eczema (source).
This DIY natural ingredient face mask contains just 2 simple ingredients that everyone has at home - oats and purified water. This is also the solution that calmed down my skin on the first application! By the fourth application, my skin rash and sensitivity had subsided 70% and was well on its way to healing.
Some recipes suggest to make it into a paste, but I prefer patting the residual water onto my skin.
Simply place uncooked rolled oats (I use this brand) in a container and add enough water to soak the oats through. You don't want to add too little water otherwise you will just be left with soaked oats, but you don't want too much water until the colloidal-oatmeal-water mixture is diluted.
Put a lid on and let the oats soak for about 30 minutes. Apply the residual water on your skin and pat till dry.
Hydrocortisone skin cream
Hydrocortisone creams are used on the skin to treat swelling, itching and irritation. They can help with skin problems such as eczema, psorioasis, contact dermatitis (source).
Steroid, prescribed by a good dermatologist, saved my skin. Steroid, prescribed by a lousy aesthetician, ruined it.
To tame the inflammation on my skin, the good derm gave me advice on how to use hydrocortisone cream, how much to apply and when to stop using it.
The lousy aesthetician prescribed hydrocortisone cream despite seeing my red, scaly, highly irritated, and flaky skin, and told me to continue using it for an extended period of time. Of course I trusted him, he's a licensed practitioner, right?
You may be able to purchase hydrocortisone over the counter, but I would recommend going to a GP or dermatologist for an assessment to determine what strength of steroid cream is suitable for your skin condition.
Mild topical hydrocortisone creams are very safe. Most people don't have any side effects when they use them for less than 4 weeks. Your skin should calm down with this anti-inflammatory treatment in 5-7 days, perhaps a little if severe. But because I was put on extended steriod cream prescription by the lousy esthetician, I still am suffering from long term effects of thinner skin and a weakened skin barrier.
Once you complete this anti-inflammatory treatment process, go off it and use a mild cleanser and moisturizer as mentioned above. I actually do love hydrocortisone cream for its instant calming effects on inflammation. Just be careful on how you use it.
I try to avoid taking medication as much as possible, but when I have dry and itchy skin from contact with an allergen or use of a product, antihistamine works magically for me. That being said, use it as a last resort, as the problem with antihistamines is that they may stop itching and reduce redness, but they do nothing about the underlying problem.
JUST FOR THE TIME BEING!
Sunscreen is important, but when irritated and sensitive skin needs to calm down and heal, sunscreen might need to take a backseat for a while until skin is healed.
Use physical sun blocking methods like using an umbrella, wearing a sun hat, sunglasses, mask, and staying away from direct sunlight. This is opposed to what my lousy esthetician told me to do. He told me not to apply sunscreen and to go under the sun as much as possible because sunlight kills bacteria. *shudders *
When I had a chemical burn with (self-inflicted) overexfoliation, my daily chemical sunscreen suddenly felt too stinging and irritating on my skin!
You might also want to consider switching to physical (aka mineral) sunscreens instead of chemical ones. I know, chemical sunscreens apply better, are more cosmetically elegant, and just work better for most people. And there's no white cast like in many physical sunscreens.
But in the context of sensitive or sensitized skin, go for mineral sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens contain two active ingredients - zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide is broad-spectrum protection, it will protect you from all the UVA and UVB rays. Titanium dioxide will mainly give you UVB rays protection. When skin barrier is compromised, it's always safer to go for products with less ingredients.
Read the ingredients list and try to avoid formulations containing Oxybenzone, Avobenzone and Octinoxate, which are the most common irritants, allergens and sensitizing ingredients to cause contact dermatitis or allergic reaction.
You can move on to a hybrid sunscreen or chemical sunscreen when your skin is more settled but a physical sunscreen is a safer option.
Mineral sunscreens actually work as well as chemical sunscreens, if not exactly the same. It's just that they don't apply as beautifully as their chemical counterparts. But skincare tech is improving all the time and many brands produce mineral sunscreens that are also cosmetically elegant.
Klairs Mid day Blue UV Shield Mild Sun Protector SPF50 PA++++ is a god-send for oilier skin types. It makes my combination-oily skin stay matte for HOURS. I can safely proclaim that this is the only sunscreen - ever- that has managed to do that for me. Purito Comfy Water Sunblock SPF 50+ PA++++ provides more hydration and doesn't leave a white cast.
When our skin looks like a patchwork blanket, the first thing we want to do is to cover it with makeup. I 100% know how that feels! But focus on healing first because if you don't heal, no amount of covering up will help and it will even exacerbate the condition.
If you must, opt for mineral makeup as mineral makeup sits on top of the skin, instead of going into the skin. Avoid powders. (I know, so hard when you have oily skin right?)
Treat one thing at a time
I understand the feeling of desperately wanting to do something for troubled skin. When my skin was on the road to recovery from sensitivity towards vitamin C, I applied benzoyl peroxide, THICKLY, on two acne marks. The next day the area around the two acne marks had turned dark brown, became dry, itchy and flaky. I had successfully created even more problems for myself!
Focus on tackling one skin problem at a time, and please don't apply BP like I did.
Use non-inflammatory, skin-calming products
Once your skin has passed the stage of ultra-sensitivity and is on the way to heal, you can think about introducing anti-inflammatory skin calming ingredients.
- Hyaluronic acid - attracts water from the air and bind it into the skin. If you want an extra boost to expedite the healing process, NIOD MMHC contains 15 forms of hyaluronic compounds to encourage your skin to product more HA on its own and make your skin look plump, heal faster and healthier. MMHC is considered a core serum in a NIOD regimen because hydration is the basis of healthy skin.
- Niacinamide - good for pigmentation, blemishes and helps boost barrier function. Recommendation: The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
- Azelaic acid - has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and can prevent future outbreaks and clean pores of acne-causing bacteria. Recommendation: The Ordinary Azelaic Suspension 10%
- NIOD Modulating Glucosides (MG) is great if you have eczema, rosacea, or sensitive skin that gets all red and irritated easily. If you are on retinol (or upped your dosage) and have some peeling or flaking, NIOD MG can make the transition much easier.
If you develop a reaction to your products, stop all of them and go back to basics - simple cleanser, boring moisturizer, physical sunscreen. Focus on healing your skin first, allow skin to recover from a sensitive period or the use of products that didn't suit your skin. If all else fails, see a dermatologist.
So those are steps to calm down and treat irritated skin. Now, how about doing all we can to prevent things from going wrong in the first place?
How to prevent skincare irritation
We all want bright, hydrated, glowy skin, and with products promising results that target our skin problems, we want to lather them all together and wake up the next morning with perfect skin. Here are some tips on how to prevent irritation from skincare products.
Do a patch test
I know it's hard to resist throwing them all on your face to experience the miracles promised when you have all these new and shiny bottles staring back at you, but doing so will only backfire. If you get an allergic reaction, it will be difficult to pin down which product caused it, and even more difficult to find out if there's any specific ingredient you're allergic to.
I don't patch test every single new product, especially not cleansers, but leave-on products like moisturizers, toners, direct acids, I will try to do skin patch testing since I have sensitive skin. Pick a spot near the face eg. jawline and apply the product there. If nothing happens after 24 hours, you can migrate on to the face.
Having no reaction during a patch test doesn't guarantee the skin on your face will not react negatively at all. It's not 100% accurate, but at least it's the first line of defence.
Start slow and low
Even if you have done a patch test and no negative reaction occurred, it is still advisable to introduce one new product at a time. You don't want to SHOCK your skin, especially if it's prone to sensitivity.
When it comes to acids and retinols, be as conservative as possible. I made the mistake of starting at concentrations of vitamin C and glycolic acid too high for my sensitive skin, and also skin that hasn't built up resilience towards actives.
If you tend to have highly reactive skin, be cautious about products with high concentrations of ingredients like niacinamide, retinol, vitamin C, BHA (salicylic acid), or AHA (glycolic or lactic acid). While these ingredients are brilliant for skin, when you have sensitive skin, you want to start by using products with lower concentrations and alternate the days you use them. You can use BHA/AHA on one night and a retinol the next night.
Niacinamide can cause skin irritation when used in high concentrations, so you might want to mix it with moisturizer. Ultimately, when it comes to using actives for sensitive skin, practise caution and use one active at a time.
Listen to your skin
Some people can exfoliate their skin every single day. Since learning the hard way that my skin can only take exfoliation max twice per week, I have conceded that that's the maximum my skin can tolerate, and will take a longer time to finish using up my skincare products. Which is great!
At the moment, my threshold is 0.1% differin (Adapalene, a retinoid) and 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, the lowest available percentages in the market.
Keep it simple
For a good fews years everyone was into the whole 10-step Korean skincare routine. Sure, it works for many people, especially those who want to emulate the 'water skin' of Korean celebrities and managed to attain clear and glowy skin.
Many people don’t think that layering on too many products can be the culprit of sensitized skin until they’ve simplified their routine. Using too many products, especially with active ingredients, can have the potential to counteract each other or irritate skin. Other times, they may not absorb properly, causing clogged pores or breakouts.
For me, the 10-step skincare routine was not only expensive, too time-consuming, and did more harm than good for my sensitive skin. My skin's threshold is 5 steps. Any more, and it goes cranky.
Avoid acid cocktails
Unless you have worked your way up to a certain degree of tolerance over months and years and know exactly what you are doing with active ingredients and retinols, I suggest sticking to just one active ingredient in a skincare routine, especially if you have delicate skin.
When I first started my journey on chemical exfoliation, I was too excited and uneducated about the dangers of combinining actives. Even something as friendly as Niacinamide, which everyone says goes well with any other active, doesn't work in harmony with anything else I put on my skin. My skin is repulsed by Niacinamide. As long as there is this active ingredient in the list, even way down in the sequence, my skin breaks out.
Something like the SOME BY MI AHA, BHA, PHA 30 Days Miracle Cream sounds incredibly horrifying and dangerous, but because it's so well-balanced and formulated, it actually works for my sensitive skin. As the actives are formulated and packaged together in a moisturizer form, it is less irritating and actually rather soothing and hydrating for sensitive skin.
Purchase from trusted retailers
It's not worth scrimping on a couple of dollars buying from an unauthorized reseller and then spending thousands of dollars later on to fix the damage fake skincare products did to your skin. I unknowingly bought a fake and wrote a post on how you can spot fake The Ordinary products.