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 skincare routine, many of these individuals could dramatically improve their sensitive skin symptoms.
Before we get to that, let’s look at the two types of sensitive skin:
First, there are those who have chronic 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.
Alternatively, those with reactive skin experience sudden flares that cause redness, itching and other characteristics associated with sensitive skin. Reactive skin isn't considered truly sensitive skin, as symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction to certain ingredients or changes in weather patterns. While these individuals may experience many of the same symptoms as those in the chronic group, flaking is uncommon and symptoms are typically less severe. Most often, individuals with reactive skin can avoid flares by determining the factors that trigger sensitivity and avoiding them.
Recommended Sensitive Skin Treatment
For those with chronic skin sensitivity, improvement can be found through a skincare step that may sound counterintuitive but has actually been shown to produce a dramatic improvement in skin quality. The secret? Exfoliation. We aren't talking about mechanical exfoliation in the form of skin polishes and scrubs. Using these types of products on sensitive skin can actually make matters worse. Rather, we're talking about chemical exfoliation, which, despite sounding harsh is actually a very gentle form of exfoliation.
What makes exfoliation a successful treatment for sensitive skin? 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 explains the exfoliation process in a bit more depth.)
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 like glycolic acid. (Learn about the difference between alpha and beta hydroxy acid.) Whenever possible, utilize an exfoliation product with a therapeutic base ingredient that nurtures the skin and helps reduce inflammation, such as aloe vera.
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. For example, Lexli's exfoliator, AloeGlyC, can be tolerated daily by some individuals. (Learn more about how to adjust skin to use of AloeGlyC.)
3. While exfoliating skin to decrease sensitivity, keep the rest of your skincare routine simple. Use a nurturing but basic cleanser, like Lexli Cleansing Lotion, and an effective but simple moisturizer like Simply Hydration aloe vera moisturizer. Be sure to apply sunscreen daily, as exfoliation puts 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. These side effects will subside as the skin adjusts. However, if you find that exfoliation is causing side effects that aren't going away or that are painful, stop using the product and see a dermatologist. It's possible other factors are at work in your skin, which may require medical intervention.
Other Ways to Improve Sensitive Skin
Beyond exfoliation, there are other things that can be done to lessen skin sensitivity:
- Get Back to Basics. Using too many skincare products simultaneously exposes the skin to a large number of ingredients, making it hard to know what is causing sensitivity. 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 skincare 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. Skin that becomes dry due to trans-epidermal water loss is at increased risk of sensitive skin characteristics.
While it's easiest to just stock up on products formulated for sensitive skin, those products may not benefit you if your skin is reactive, not sensitive. Rather, try the sensitive skin treatment suggestions above and, if these don't work, see your dermatologist who can determine if there's a bigger issue at play.