Easy beauty solutions to treat sensitive skin

What causes sensitive skin and exactly how you can fix it...

woman applying face cream
(Image credit: Getty)

If you've got sensitive skin, you don't need me to tell you how uncomfortable it can be.

Studies show that 1 in 2 women identify as having sensitive skin, which can range from reactive redness and a mild intolerance of strong products to skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Despite these seemingly swelling numbers, sensitivity doesn't have to be a terminal problem - once you understand your skin, you can help it to heal itself and feel more comfortable every day.

I caught up with top consultant dermatologist Justine Hextall, who works with sensitive skin experts La Roche-Posay, to find out more...

What causes sensitive skin?

Genetics play their part when it comes to sensitive skin, but so much comes down to the outermost layer of your skin, the skin barrier.

This layer is made up of brick-like skin cells, and mortar - like lipids that hold them together, when everything is sitting nicely this barrier stops hydration getting out and nasties getting in, so your skin stays supple and stress free.

The problems only start if this layer can't do its job properly.

"A healthy skin barrier underpins good skin health, and can help prevent sensitivity," says Justine. "When the skin barrier is compromised, everything can get in - infection, irritation and allergens."

So, what are the triggers? Well it can have to with your mix of skincare ingredients. "Sometimes, it's products like gels, alcohol-based skincare, AHAs and Retinoids can leave the skin really sensitised and dehydrated. You know if something doesn't feel right, if you immediately need to reach for your moisturiser after cleansing, your cleanser is doing something wrong. This can mean trans-epidermal water loss" (where moisture is lost through the barrier being compromised) "and the dryer the skin, the more the inflammatory response. So it's a real cycle. "

Your skin's PH level is one to watch too, it's normally a slightly acidic 5.5, but many soaps, skincare products and household detergents are far too alkaline and can bring on a reaction.

"Bacteria love alkaline skin PH, they will bind to the skin so your natural fats," (those 'mortar' lipids) "don't sit so nicely." says Justine.

You might also have sensitised yourself to a particular ingredient, like the preservative methylisothiazolinon, or MI, which is found in many shampoos and body care products (legally it has to be in a rinse-off product) and had the dubious honour of being crowned 2013 Contact Allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

How to calm sensitive skin

Sensitivity is a complex problem, but according to Justine the best things you can do are actually very simple.

  • Hydrate - "Repair your skin barrier with a good moisturiser containing ceramides for the lipid layer and humectants to hold onto water"
  • Shower carefully - "Keep your face away from hot shower water, the heat can dissolve the natural moisture layer of your skin, while hard water minerals can affect the skin's PH and shampoo can drip down to your eyes. Wash your face once you get out of the shower to get of the things you might be sensitised to"
  • Balance your skincare - "Find a balance between active ingredients, like retinoids and ascorbic acid that are very effective, then in between use a really gentle cleanser and moisturiser"
  • Ditch the wipes - "I'm not a fan! In order to keep wipes not covered in bacteria they have to have preservatives, which can be very sensitising."

Best products to treat sensitive skin

Best sensitive skin cleanser

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser

(Image credit: Look Fantastic)

Best sensitive skin serum

Elizabeth Arden ceramide capsules

(Image credit: Look Fantastic)

Best sensitive skin moisturiser

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare C + Collagen Deep Cream

(Image credit: Cult Beauty)
Fiona McKim
Beauty Editor, womanandhome.com

 As woman&home's Beauty Channel Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about brilliant finds on womanandhome.com or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair experiments and cute shih-tzus). Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013 under industry legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know (learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism). She has since covered every corner of the industry, from interviewing dermatologists and celebrities to reporting backstage at Fashion Week and judging the w&h Beauty Awards.