What is the ‘skin barrier’ and why is it so important?
We don’t often think about it like this, but the skin’s main role is to provide a barrier between us – or more specifically our delicate insides — and the outside world. The skin is an organ, the largest organ that we have as it covers the whole body, and like every other organ of our body, it can do with some nurturing to keep it functioning at its best.
In its role as a barrier, the skin is meant to hold moisture inside the body, to stop us shrivelling up and drying out, and to repel dirt, water and bacteria that we may come into contact with. If the skin is in good health and functioning properly, then it feels comfortable, does its job well and all is fine. It is when it becomes damaged that the problems start.
What causes sensitive skin?
Skin becomes sensitive when the skin’s barrier is damaged and the skin cannot protect itself and its nerve endings. The reasons this happens, however, are diverse, and figuring out what’s irritating your skin can be a challenge. Here are some of the classic triggers of skin irritation:
- Environmental factors: The ultraviolet light in the sun’s rays can damage the skin barrier; harsh wind or cold weather can dry out the skin as both create conditions of low humidity; and pollen can irritate the skin in people with a sensitivity to this.
- An irritant contact dermatitis reaction: This is a sudden reaction to something you’ve put on your face or have washed with—or washed your clothes with. There are many ingredients that can cause this; these are a few of the most common ones:
- Fragrance ingredients in skincare or personal care products
- Strong doses of skincare ingredients such as retinol or glycolic acid
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate – a widely used foaming ingredient
- Over-exfoliation: This is a major one. We’re told so much how beneficial exfoliation can be that the temptation can be to overdo it, whether physically or chemically. Too much exfoliation can really damage the skin barrier.
- Food and drink: Some people find that spicy food or alcohol can set their skin off and cause it to flush, or become more sensitive to other aggressors.
- Hormonal fluctuations: These variations in the levels of key hormones, such as those occurring during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy, affect the amount of sebum that the skin secretes, which can weaken the skin’s barrier capability.
- Age: the amount of sebum – oil – that our skin produces dwindles with age and the skin gets thinner, which together makes the skin more easily irritated by external factors. (You might think that producing less sebum is a good thing, especially if you have had oily skin, but sebum has a really important role in maintaining the skin barrier and keeping the skin flexible and when it’s not there, the skin misses it).
- Medication: Some medications make the skin more sensitive to UV light, or cause an inflammation-like reaction in the skin, causing redness.
Further to this, there are some underlying skin conditions that make your skin more sensitive as a symptom. These include eczema, rosacea, hives and PLE.
Why is my skin suddenly so sensitive?
Skin can react very suddenly to the triggers mentioned above, and become sensitive and irritated. When identifying triggers, it’s useful to think about where on your body you’re experiencing the reaction, and what was most recently in contact with this. If nothing is obvious and you’re not living in harsh weather conditions, it might be an internal cause such as something you’ve consumed (food, drink or medication), or something going on with your hormones.
Does make-up cause sensitive skin?
Make-up won’t cause your skin to become sensitive, but your skin might become irritated or have an allergic reaction to one or more ingredients in your make-up products. Because of this, and because ‘sensitive’ skin can react even to ingredients generally considered to be non-harmful, it is wise to avoid common irritants such as fragrance, and that includes essential oils. Make-up can also trap whatever’s caused the irritation on your skin, so it might make the reaction a little bit worse.
All this said, even the most sensitive skin can usually tolerate a little bit of make-up, particularly something pure like mineral make-up. Formulations called ‘hypoallergenic’ are less likely to irritate your skin, but it’s not totally guaranteed that they won’t.
Also, a note on labelling: all products have to be ‘dermatologically tested’ and say this on their packaging, because it’s a legal requirement. Because of this, it doesn’t actually mean anything when comparing different products, so don’t take it into account when considering whether a product is more or less likely to be tolerated by your skin.
What skincare is good for sensitive skin?
You may need to become a bit of a detective to work out if there are particular ingredients that your skin doesn’t like (and you may need a magnifying glass, because the ingredients list, printed on the packaging of any product, is always in really small print).
The first thing to avoid is fragrance (listed as ‘parfum’ on most products), so look for products that announce that they’re ‘fragrance-free’. It is also worth checking whether products contain the common fragrance ingredients linalool (derived from lavender oil) and limonene (coming from lemon essential oil). These find their way into 95% of personal care products and can be irritating to the skin, so they’re worth watching out for.
Look for skincare that is specifically formulated for sensitive skin. Dermatologists generally recommend those with sensitive skin use a fragrance- and soap-free cleanser, moisturise twice a day with a gentle moisturiser, and wear a sunscreen with UVA protection. Moisturising is especially important because it rebuilds and reinforces the skin barrier, which helps to calm and repair sensitive skin.
Some people like to look for skincare with a short list of ingredients – reasoning that the fewer ingredients there are, the fewer potential trouble-makers there will be among them. That rather depends on the ingredients. A product with a longer list of carefully balanced, soothing ingredients may be just what your skin needs.
Two types of skincare ingredients you should be cautious with are retinoids and alpha-hydroxy acids:
- Retinoids are by and large good for everything, including sensitive skin, if you can find a way for the skin to tolerate them— but they work by stimulating the skin to regenerate, so it is a delicate dance to get them to stimulate your skin into repairing itself without irritating it too much along the way, particularly when you first start using them. You can help the skin along here by using a barrier-repairing moisturiser, preferably one with ingredients such as ceramides, essential fatty acids and cholesterol, to strengthen and calm the skin and buffer the impact of the retinoid.
- Alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, exfoliate the skin and stimulate hydration in the skin, so they can help to improve the condition of sensitive skin. But given that over-exfoliation is a major cause of skin irritation, it would generally be a good idea to be careful with these while your skin is sensitive. That said, they do have a role in moisturising and improving the health of the skin—so if you want to use one, choose a milder type of AHA, like lactic or malic acid. A little harder to find, but easier on the skin, are PHAs (poly-hydroxy acids).
How can I prevent irritating sensitive skin?
Try not to physically irritate it—avoid touching or scratching at the sensitive skin, as this will make it worse and compromise the skin barrier even further. If your skin is feeling really on edge, even using a face flannel to wipe off your cleanser can be irritating, so splash your face with cold water to rinse instead. It’s also advisable to take short showers with water that is warm, not hot, and to gently pat your skin dry with a towel instead of rubbing it.
It is also important to figure out which ingredients or triggers you have a sensitivity to, and avoid these. This means checking ingredient lists on products, learning the patterns of your skin’s reactions, and using a minimal skincare regime of products chosen with care. You want to cleanse, calm and protect the skin, and be gentle with it. Try using a fragrance-free, kind-to-skin laundry detergent.
If you have tried excluding ingredients and minimising triggers, but you’re still experiencing issues with sensitive skin, you can have a patch test—a process whereby lots of irritants and allergens (more than 40 of them) are taped to your back and the reaction analysed a couple of days later. If you’re suffering from contact dermatitis and can’t find the trigger, then talk to your GP about getting referred to a dermatologist for a patch test.
As part of your skin protection, wear a high-factor sunscreen, as ultraviolet light will irritate the skin further. UVA rays penetrate through cloud cover and glass, so they’re present year-round and even when you’re indoors. So it’s very important to protect against these even on days when wearing a sunscreen feels a bit frivolous and unnecessary.
Lastly, when planning to use a new skincare product, test how your skin is likely to respond to it by dabbing a small amount behind your ear for a few evenings in a row, and leaving it on overnight. If the skin does not become irritated, do the same but near one of your eyes. This is a pretty good way of gently testing if your skin can tolerate this new product without risking your entire face becoming irritated.
How do I soothe sensitive skin on my face?
If you have sensitive skin you may be wary of using any products on your face, but the right products can help steer your skin towards being more comfortable and behaving more normally. Along with reducing triggers to prevent a flare-up, here are some ideas for what you can do to help.
- Hydrate – use a fragrance-free hyaluronic acid serum to pack extra moisture into the upper layers of the skin. Extra hydration helps the skin feel happier and function better.
- Seal this moisture into place with skin-friendly lipids and emollients. Lipids are types of fat, and the three key ones for keeping the skin in good shape are ceramides, essential fatty acids and cholesterol. If you think of the skin cells as being stacked up like bricks in a wall to form the skin barrier, these lipids are like the mortar that surrounds the cells. Together, they keep the membranes of the skin cells healthy, so that each cell holds onto moisture, and enable the skin to rebuild the barrier. Emollients (a type of ingredients such as shea butter, lanolin and plant oils) sit on the surface of the skin and seal in moisture.
- Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is a useful soothing ingredient, as it acts to counter inflammation and prompts the skin to make more ceramides (skin lipids which help to reduce water loss across the skin) which will help to reinforce the skin barrier.
- Azelaic acid can also help with inflammation—this is one of the reasons that it’s used to help treat rosacea.
- You can soothe and tone down the look of reddened skin with a calming, green-tinted primer or concealer. These products are often made to be highly compatible with sensitive skin, so they’re a great option if you want to conceal the colour of red skin and calm it down at the same time.
- If you insist on ‘natural’ products, aloe vera gel is known for being soothing and healing. Ideally, you would have an aloe plant and snap off a leaf for a natural solution, but that’s not always that practical. Generally, a well-formulated cosmetic product will deliver the healing properties of aloe in a skin-friendly way.
How do I heal sensitive skin?
‘Heal’ is possibly a misleading word here. If you have sensitive skin, it’s not really possible to stop it from reacting ever again. What you can do, however, is figure out your triggers and avoid them as far as possible and be gentle with your skin—that means keeping it hydrated, sealing in that hydration with skin-friendly lipids including essential fatty acids and ceramides, wearing sun protection and not over-exfoliating. The best thing you can do, however, is to maintain the integrity of the skin barrier by moisturising and reinforcing the barrier with appropriate skincare.