Q: I’ve never suffered from skin sensitivity before, until recently when my skin reacted to a cream. What causes sensitivity, especially when it’s sudden? 

A: Understanding the way your skin works is the first step in improving its overall health. When we talk about sensitive skin, the first thing that comes to mind is a breakout or rash as a result of coming into contact with certain stimuli. But it’s actually much broader and a bit more complex than that. Your skin could be perfectly fine one day, and suddenly start peeling or chapping the next.

So what really causes skin sensitivity?

Sensitivity happens when your skin’s natural barrier function becomes compromised, allowing irritants to penetrate. Sensitivity can be caused by genetics and hormonal factors, having overly dry or injured skin, and excessive exposure to damaging environmental factors such as sun, wind and heat. However, a lot of skin irritations can also be self-inflicted. Excessive cleansing with the incorrect products may also trigger skin sensitivity. Exfoliators containing alphahydroxy acid, for example, may overstimulate the skin and cause microscopic cracks that allow toxins and irritants to enter. Typical breakouts that result from skin sensitivity include eczema, rosacea, primary irritant dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis or dry flakey skin.

Soothe the situation

To care for sensitive skin, go the extra mile in finding products that don’t aggravate the problem. Avoid anything that contains sodium lauryl sulphate, retinoids, salicylic acid and alphahydroxy acid, to name a few. Instead, opt for soap-free cleansers, non-irritating moisturisers and emollients, and daily sun protection. The best buys should contain active ingredients that are nature-derived, for example dexpanthenol, which is synthesised from vitamin B5 and helps to strengthen the skin’s natural protection barrier. Glycerin is another ingredient to look out for, as it helps the skin to retain moisture. Dietary-wise, include foods that are rich in natural oils and antioxidants, as well as vitamins A, C and E, to help restore your skin’s condition.

The stress test

Not sure how sensitive your skin is? You can do a crude sensitivity test to find out. Try rubbing your fingers across the side of your face with light-to-medium pressure. If your skin turns red, it’s probably sensitive.

Always test your products, too. Apply a small amount of product to one localised area to see if you react to it.

Products to try

  1. AVÈNE Thermal Spring Water R150

This spring water has been clinically proven to soothe irritation and reduce redness, plus its compact size makes it great for on the go.

  1. ESSE Hydro Moisturiser

Esse’s Hydro Moisturiser is formulated to keep the microbiome in your skin balanced. The result – soothed, smooth and hydrated skin.

  1. LA ROCHE-POSAY Soothing Repairing Balm

This multipurpose balm can be applied to the body, face and lips, and works perfectly under make-up.