One of the few downsides of being a beauty editor is developing a ‘touchy’ complexion, due to the need to put countless new products through their paces. It’s part of the job – but skin doesn’t like to be ‘confused’, and it doesn’t generally like being assaulted with a sequence of ‘active’ ingredients – to which the response is, all too often, a ‘reaction’.
But in reality, countless non-beauty editors also suffer from sensitive skin to a greater or lesser degree – as many as 63% of us, according to one study. As a result, because it’s such a common problem, sensitive skin has even been described as ‘the PMT of the millennium’ – and I was once asked to write an entire book (now sadly out of print) about the phenomenon.
So: sensitive skin – also called ‘reactive skin’ – can strike at any time in our lives, at any age. At certain times, we’re more vulnerable than others. As winter winds sweep in, so do allergies. The sun triggers sensitivity, too. Pregnancy sets off reactions in some women. Others find that they are more likely to suffer a flare-up at particular times in their hormonal cycle. And men, increasingly, are reporting sensitivity, too.
So if your skin’s acting up – with red patches, flakiness, pimples, itching, swelling or soreness – you’re certainly not alone. But the good news is that by following some simple steps sensitive skin can be calmed, controlled and even prevented altogether, when you know how…
Moisture is a must-have… Healthy, resilient skin has a good ‘barrier function’ – and, as a result, is more efficient at keeping irritants out. Sensitive skin is therefore often dry skin: ensuring optimum moisture levels is important for maintaining that barrier function – but if your skin is sensitive, use your nose and avoid moisturising creams that are obviously fragranced, and may irritate. Remember: your body needs generous moisturising, too: sensitivity doesn’t stop at vest-level. Baths – and even clothes themselves – are drying to skin (just think of how towels work…) But forget those tips you’ve heard about applying moisturiser when skin’s wet; that doesn’t ‘lock in’ moisture, but just dilutes the cream/lotion so that your skin isn’t getting all the hydrating benefits.
Keeping skin ‘squeaky-clean’ isn’t necessarily the best thing for it… Yes, it’s important to swipe away the day’s grime and make-up, to keep the complexion clear. But over-zealous toning and too-vigorous exfoliation – in the hope of revealing ‘newer, brighter’ skin underneath – strips away the skin’s vital natural protection. Alcohol-based toners are a prime culprit: one knock-you-sideways whiff should alert you to the fact that these are too strong, even for oily skins.
The answer to skin sensitivity, though, isn’t to go cold turkey and start to face the world bare-faced. (Phew.) There are some sensible rules to follow which should help your skin to regain its equilibrium. ‘Never introduce more than one new product at a time,’ advises my make-up pro friend John Gustafson. ‘There is a tendency to go out and buy a whole new skincare regime at one go. You make all these changes to your routine overnight – and then can’t identify which of the products is making you react, or whether it’s a response to the cocktail of new products your skin’s encountering, so you have to ditch the whole lot.’ Certainly, learn to ‘just say “no” to cosmetic sales people trying to sign you up to a whole new beauty regime when all you did was pop into your nearest department store for a nail varnish remover or a lip liner.
Simplify, simplify, simplify… In reality, most women could cut down dramatically on the number of products on their shelves. All you really and truly need is one good cleanser and one great moisturiser that can be used day or night. A toner/freshener – crucially, formulated without alcohol (which strips the skin, impairing that essential barrier function, see above), is optional – I’d go so far as to say unnecessary. Add to that one dual-purpose eye and neck product, because the skin around the eyes and the neck is very similar, with few oil glands. (Use the eye product on your neck, rather than vice versa.) Sun protection, obviously, is also must for summer months. And if ageing is a worry, a lightweight, serum-style product is often a better choice than a mega-rich cream – or better still, why not try a facial oil, which can take the place of moisturiser at night? Just be sure it’s not over-fragranced – and if in doubt, do a patch test behind the ear 24 hours before using a new product, to check for redness/irritation.
Your skin is what you eat… It’s important to make sure your skin’s getting the benefit of ‘healthy’ fats and oils, to maintain a healthy ‘barrier’ function: olive oil, or oily fish, in place of saturated fats (like butter), or hydrogenated fats (in some margarines), or a supplement containing fish oils (I swear by Power of Krill) or other Essential Fatty Acids. (Essential Oil Formula is also – well, ideal…!) If you start to eat more regularly and more nutritiously, you may find that your skin stops being so reactive.
Reduce your stress… Minimising ‘skinquakes’ – skin flare-ups – needs a holistic approach. That means looking at what’s happening in your mind – because when you’re under stress, one of the first places it shows up is on your skin. Dermatologists identify stress as a contributing factor in adult-onset acne cases – and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that ongoing anxiety robs skin of its healthy glow. Yoga, aromatherapy, reflexology, relaxation techniques and exercise (walking is ideal) are all great stress-busters. Try to identify what it is in your life that is stressing you – and change it, because even small changes can make big differences. Personally, as I’ve written about before, Headspace meditation (www.headspace.com) has made a massive difference to my stress levels – and I swear my ‘beauty editor’s skin’ is less reactive, too.
Watch what you wear… If you have sensitive skin, you may find that certain textures (e.g. rough wools) can irritate vulnerable areas. And of course, what you wash your clothes in can also affect your skin. Look for a non-enzyme washing powder, as the enzymes can trigger sensitivity.
As a beauty editor who tries dozens of different products, these tactics have all helped my sensitive skin settle down – and I’m confident they’ll work for you, too…