Super Sensitive Skin - Why it's on the rise and best tips on how to deal with it
The concept of sensitive skin isn't new. Some of us just have more temperamental skin for better or worse. Your skin is your body's first defense against the exterior world and it takes a lot of abuse. It's no surprise that sometimes it reacts with a bit of irritation. It has a big job to do.
What is new though is the increase in severe sensitivities and the overwhelming number of people dealing with them. I thought when we designed our initial Blissoma collection that we had done a good job of targeting very sensitive skin. We eliminated nut ingredients, petrochemicals, parabens, sodium laurel sulfate and so many other commonly identified irritants. What I found as the years progressed is a significant enough number of people who were still having trouble with our formulations that included essential oils. Essential oils are generally one of my absolute favorite skin healers, detoxing helpers, and especially acne fighters. But many clients couldn't even use a product with a natural scent.
That led us to introduce our new yellow coded collection for Ultra Sensitive Skin which has absolutely no scents and was specifically designed for these most reactive people. In the process of creating these products I had to do a lot of research into the herbs I wanted to use. I didn't want to make a product that was so neutral it did little besides moisturize. That meant a lot of experimentation and reading to figure out which herbs would specifically offer anti-irritant properties and not be tagged by any particular group for allergen issues.
Skin comfort and allergic reaction is a very real issue for those dealing with it on a daily basis. Over 50% of women in a 2001 study described themselves as having sensitive skin. Men, as well report a high incidence with that trend increasing after shaving irritation occurs. Herbs are powerful, and even natural products can indeed be a culprit for reaction, which is why it is important to choose the right ingredients for your skin.
Do you have sensitive skin?
A list of common sensitive skin symptoms:
- Stinging when products are applied
- Redness and flushing, rashes
- Inflammation and swelling
- Excessive dryness, tightness, soreness and uncomfortable sensation
Skin aggravation and sensitivity can be merely topical or it can have its roots internally as well. Lifestyle choices and your environment contribute too. You may develop new sensitivities with age or even with changes in the weather.
Causes of very sensitive skin:
- Genetics - You may have simply inherited a predisposition to skin sensitivity. Interestingly Asian and White skin types have been reported to have thin skin barrier function, while African American skin types are thicker. This means sensitivity may be more prevalent in Asian and White skin types. Dehydration is very common with African American skin types, however which can contribute to sensitivity.
- Irritating Cosmetic Products - Some products may contain acids that are simply too challenging for your skin, or may block your skin's natural respiration and toxin release processes. You can develop new sensitivities with overuse of some ingredients or just as you age, so the products you used to use may not always be good for you as your skin changes.
- Detergents and Synthetic Fragrances in Cleaning Products and Laundry Soap - It's not just skincare that touches your skin. The detergents used to wash your clothing and household cleaners are not required to declare ingredients, meaning they can contain any number of unknown ingredients. Some of these detergents are quite strong and may break down your skin's defensive barriers, causing irritation.
- Extreme Weather - Very hot, cold, and dry conditions all stress your skin. It is already working hard to keep hydrated and at a proper temperature and may become more reactive.
- Dryness - Dryness breaks down your defensive mantle, causing the nerve endings in skin to be more exposed and prone to react. Very dry skin is one of the top causes of skin reactions as reported to us by estheticians that see clients with severely dehydrated skin on a regular basis. Dryness is caused internally as well as externally through lack of proper fluid intake. If you are drinking only caffeinated beverages like coffee and soda throughout the day you may be causing your own dehydrated state.
- Age and Hormonal Fluctuation - New sensitivities may crop up as you get older. Your body is less efficient about general maintenance and slower to repair as you age. Hormones shift especially for women in pregnancy, each month with our cycles, and make a huge change in menopause. Your body is not static by any means, so watch for problems related to your natural body rhythms.
- Stress - Studies with mice have shown eczema, dermatitis and general skin aggravation triggered specifically by stress and the "fight or flight" chemical response in the body. Blood flow to skin is decreased and the steroidal hormones released to fuel muscle reaction and overall survival degrade the skin's barrier function.
- Poor Diet and Food Allergies - If you eat low nutrient foods and lots of sugary, empty calories you fuel inflammation in the body. Specific allergies to foods can also make you predisposed to rashes, hives, flakiness, and sluggish cell renewal.
- Overall Body Toxin Load - This is one of the primary factors I see affecting the increasing number of people reporting sensitive skin. Much like increases in internal allergies to nuts, milk, fish, strawberries, tomatoes, food colorings, and too many other foods to count external allergies are increasing in commonality and severity. Allergies are an improper immune system response. The overabundance of foreign chemicals in our air, food, water, and everywhere around us is giving us quite a load to process on a daily basis. Special circumstances like chemotherapy for cancer patients can trigger excessive sensitivity as well as the body tries to deal with being flooded with what is essentially a toxic cocktail of chemicals.
When thinking of the toxin load your body is bearing on a daily basis I'd liken this to a stack of books. Put one book in your hands and you're fine. Two, three, four... maybe even 10 you can balance quite well. But as the stack gets higher it gets heavier and harder to hold for a length of time. It also just gets more difficult to balance. Eventually as more books are added your arms get tired, you get overwhelmed, lose control and the stack comes tumbling down.
This is like the load of foreign chemicals our bodies process each day and throughout our lifetimes. A few here and there are not a big deal. We have detox systems in our bodies that convert and handle unhealthy chemicals. Our liver is a major detox organ, and cleans many substances out of our blood each day. However if the system is overloaded it starts to behave in unexpected ways. An allergic response may occur because your body is so burdened it is having trouble telling the difference between friendly and toxic substances. By reacting it is forcing you to limit the variety of chemicals you are exposed to each day. Your "stack of books" has started to topple, and it wants you to take a few off the pile so it becomes bearable again.
I also believe many people actually have sensitive skin but are ignoring the symptoms or just proceeding with routine as usual because they don't know what else to do. If you are suffering from breakouts, redness, and skin that is not smooth and supple you may actually be reacting to the products you are applying.
So what can you do?
Steps to heal and minimize sensitive skin reactions:
- Put your skin on an elimination diet.
Strip your routine down to the simplest possible elements. Reduce your skincare to single ingredients. Use unblended oils such as organic jojoba, grapeseed, or tamanu for moisturization, perhaps a bit of oat flour made into a paste for cleansing, and aloe vera to calm and hydrate irritations. Give yourself several weeks on an incredibly basic routine like this. Sometimes if your skin has gotten into a place of perennial reactivity it may take some time for it to settle down. Start adding ingredients back in once your skin isn't raw and broken, red, or stinging when something is applied.
- Eat nutritious foods and drink plenty of water.
Get rid of excessive caffeine in your diet and drink plenty of water. Focus on consuming a majority of organic produce, only whole grains (and consider limiting wheat), and lots of healthy fats with plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids. Because gluten allergies can cause rashes and skin breakouts for some people you may wish to try a diet that focuses on brown rice and non glutinous grains.
- Start slowly adding simple products back to your routine.
Once your skin is past the initial stage of elimination consider adding organic, truly natural, and very mild products back to your routine.
- Avoid acids like AHAs and glycolic acid and even Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) as acids cause exfoliation of the skin and may irritate you all over again.
- Avoid retinols, as these are irritating for even normal skin types.
- Avoid propylene glycol and butylene glycol. These substances break down your skin's barrier and increase how much other ingredients penetrate the deeper layers of your skin. For sensitive individuals this is not an advantage as irritants will travel further in.
- Avoid products with even natural scent or ethyl alcohol. While these can be fine in small amounts for "normal" or even healthy sensitive skin they carry too high a probability of reaction for individuals with severe sensitivity.
- You may wish to skip using a toner initially, or if you do consider just apple cider vinegar.
- Use products with plenty of healthy, organic plant oils and butters. Part of reactivity comes from environmental stimulation like pollutants or things that inadvertently touch your skin. The better lipid barrier your skin has the more ability to repel foreign substances it will have. As well, since dryness is a cause of sensitivity you may short circuit one cause just by keeping your skin well moisturized.
- Look for anti-reactive herbs like Comfrey, Calendula, Plantain, Heather Flowers, Marshmallow, and Self Heal in the products you choose. These contain mucilage that soothes skin and substances that spur skin to rebuild cells faster.
- Add products to your routine slowly and one at a time so your skin isn't overwhelmed.
- Keep your stress level down.
Stress is the enemy of healthy skin. Get more sleep, make yogic deep breathing a part of your day (love me some pranayama!), stretch, consume less caffeine, take a walk, laugh with a friend, and make time to be kind to yourself. Incidentally this is great for your overall health as well, not just skin.
- Don't go back to whatever you were doing before.
It's tempting once the reactivity has subsided to think your problem is solved. Maybe it is for the moment, but your long term reactivity and skin problems should stay improved if you don't backslide. It may seem tempting to just purchase a cheap bottle of cleanser or creme from the local drugstore. We tend to so easily forget problems once they heal, and re-irritate our bodies. What I know for sure, though, is that petrochemical ingredients are not helping your skin, not one iota. At best they may be neutral. At worst you may cause yourself a whole new round of problems. Mass market products often contain hidden preservatives and undeclared ingredients, as well, even hidden fragrances in "unscented" products (they still use a "masking" scent to make base ingredients smell better). You honestly just don't know what you're putting on your skin when you purchase a synthetic-packed product, making it even harder to determine your actual sensitivity triggers.
Wishing you the best of luck and comfort finding solutions for your sensitive skin!