If you characterize your skin as “sensitive,” you aren’t alone. Today, an estimated 51% of women and 36% of men in the United States perceive their skin as such, and that number appears to be on the rise.
Consider this: with one simple modification to their skin care routine, many of these individuals could dramatically decrease, or even eliminate, their sensitive skin symptoms.
Before we get to that, though, let’s put sensitive skin into two different buckets. First, there are those who have always had sensitive skin due to genetics or have sensitive skin characteristics due to a skin condition, such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. Typically, individuals in this group experience severe symptoms such as redness, flaking, rough texture, burning, itching and even prickling.
In the second bucket are those whose skin is sensitive to certain ingredients, experience seasonal or situation-dependent skin sensitivity or have developed skin sensitivity in their lifetime that is unrelated to a diagnosed skin condition. While they may experience the same symptoms as the first group, flaking is uncommon and symptoms are less severe.
Generally speaking, we consider just the first group to have truly sensitive skin. Those in the second bucket likely have skin that is showing sensitive skin symptoms because it is reacting to a stimulus, which may include a skin care product or ingredient, change in weather conditions, even something in the diet. (We call this "reactive" skin.) Those in the second bucket comprise a large portion of the population who characterizes their skin as “sensitive” and it is this group that can find relief the easiest.
The Essential Skin Care Step for Sensitivity
It may sound counterintuitive but sensitive skin can overwhelmingly be improved through chemical exfoliation. (Not mechanical exfoliation – e.g. scrubs, polishes, etc. – which can make sensitivity much worse.) Despite the impression it gives, chemical exfoliation is actually a gentle form of exfoliation.
When skin is properly exfoliated, the keratin layer of dead skin cells is thinned, which, in turn, encourages the skin to increase its production of collagen and elastin and causes the dermis layer of the skin to thicken. When performed consistently, chemical exfoliation can reduce skin sensitivity because its overall function is improved. As Lexli founder Dr. Abdullah likes to say: “sensitive skin is often unhealthy skin!” (Check out this video where Dr. A answers the question of “what do exfoliators do” while talking more about how they improve skin health.)
So what do we mean when we say "properly exfoliated?" Here are some guidelines:
1. Look for a product that is formulated with an alpha-hydroxy acid. Dr. Abdullah highly recommends glycolic acid, in particular. (Learn about the difference between alpha and beta hydroxy acid.) Whenever possible, utilize a product with a therapeutic base ingredient, like Lexli AloeGlyC®, to nurture the skin. AloeGlyC utilizes pharmaceutical-grade aloe vera as its principal ingredient, which helps to keep inflammation at bay.
2. Work up to the suggested usage of the product. Since the skin is showing sensitive characteristics, begin by diluting the product with moisturizer or using it less than the recommended frequency until the skin adjusts. AloeGlyC can eventually be used up to twice daily. (Learn more about how to adjust skin to use of AloeGlyC.)
3. While exfoliating skin to decrease sensitivity, keep the rest of the skin care routine simple. In other words, use a nurturing but basic cleanser, like Lexli Cleansing Lotion, and an effective moisturizer that is free of active ingredients, like Simply Hydration aloe vera moisturizer. Be sure to apply sunscreen daily, as exfoliation makes the skin more at risk for sun damage.
As the skin adjusts to exfoliation, it may actually get worse, with breakouts, dryness and redness being common side effects. If symptoms haven’t improved within three weeks or if symptoms are causing discomfort, use of the exfoliator should be discontinued.
Other Ways to Improve Sensitive Skin
Beyond exfoliation, there are other things that can be done to lessen skin sensitivity:
- Get Back to Basics. Use too many skin care products and the skin is exposed to a large number of ingredients, making it hard to know what is causing the issue. Implement a simple regimen focused on proper skin cleansing, use of a simple moisturizer and use of sunscreen when going outdoors. Bonus: keep a log to document how your skin responds with these basic products and sloooowly introduce additional products – one at a time.
- Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! Most of us will develop sensitivity if we allow our skin’s acid mantle to become compromised, which can happen with use of harsh skin care products and allowing the skin to become dry. This is why gentle moisturizers are key and should be applied regularly.
- Protect from Environmental Factors. Sensitive skin tends to act up in extreme weather conditions. Therefore, as a rule, always apply sunscreen before going outdoors and, in warm weather, use protective clothing like wide-brimmed hats. In the winter, cover skin to protect it from the wind.
While it's easiest to just stock up on products formulated for sensitive skin, those products aren't truly benefitting you if your skin is actually reactive, not sensitive. Rather, try to remedy the situation first using the tips above and, if that doesn't work, see your dermatologist who can determine if there's a bigger issue at play.