"I've noticed more patients complain of irritated skin," says Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, M.D., a dermatologist and researcher at Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami.
Research seems to back her up. In the early 2000s, surveys reported in The British Journal of Dermatology and Contact Dermatitis found that just more than half of women surveyed said they had at least slightly sensitive skin. Less than a decade later, new surveys put the number between 68 and 87 percent.
A DELICATE BALANCE
So what exactly is sensitive skin? There's no clear-cut diagnosis, says Amy Wechsler, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and author of "The Mind-Beauty Connection."
Unlike contact dermatitis, which is an allergic reaction (usually a rash) to something that touches your face, the condition we call "sensitive skin" is more subjective. Your skin may burn, sting, or itch to varying degrees, or simply get red or dry after you apply a product, signaling, "Hey, I'm not happy with that."
What makes it harder to pin down is that your skin might react only to some products at certain times. And what sets you off might be perfectly tolerable to another sensitive type, or vice versa.
Experts, however, do have a pretty good idea of why some of us are prone to sensitive skin.
For a small percentage it may be genetic, but most people likely experience sensitivity because of a weakened skin barrier. In normal, healthy skin, lipids and keratin form a protective seal on the surface that keeps moisture in and blocks out irritants, allergens, and bacteria.
But exposure to harsh skin-care products, stress, cold weather, and UV rays can erode the barrier, making it about as penetrable as pumice. When that happens, moisture escapes and irritating additives in skin creams, chemicals in air pollution -- even allergens like pollen can sneak in and wreak havoc.
Whatever the cause, prolonged inflammation produces free radicals that can break down collagen, potentially speeding up the aging process, Wechsler says.
So setting your sights on a calmer, clearer, and more even-toned complexion will also improve your skin's health and longevity. Here's how to get started.
TAKE AN INSIDE-OUT APPROACH
If your skin is feeling temperamental, it may be mirroring your mood. "When you're stressed, you've got more [of the hormone] cortisol circulating in your body, which can break down the skin's barrier," says Wechsler, who is also board certified in psychiatry. "You might all of a sudden be sensitive or get red." Try to minimize stress and get enough sleep.
Take a peek in your medicine cabinet and count the bottles and jars. Are you hitting double digits?
"Too many women use tons of products rather than just a few essentials," Wechsler says. This can cause trouble for a couple of reasons.
First, if they're overused, foamy cleansers, scrubs, retinol, and hydroxy acids can strip away the oils and cells that fortify the skin's barrier.
Second, since every product is a unique cocktail of ingredients, the more you use, the more likely the additives won't agree with you (or one another). Not to mention that the slew of new products means your skin is encountering ingredients your grandmother never knew existed.
Step one of a sensitive-skin treatment plan should be to detox, Blyumin-Karasik says. Quit most or all products cold turkey and start from scratch with a simple regimen of only three essentials -- cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen.
When choosing your trio, think plain and mild; the fewer ingredients, the better. Look for the term "hypoallergenic," and be a label sleuth.
Weed out products containing irritants like added fragrance, alcohol, acids, retinol, chemical sunscreen ingredients, and even some stimulating naturals such as menthol, peppermint, tea tree oil, and witch hazel. Also steer clear of foaming cleansers, which can be drying.
What you do want to look for are anti-inflammatory and moisturizing ingredients, such as aloe, soy, glycerin, chamomile, green tea, and calendula, plus natural plant oils and shea butter, which can supplement the skin's own oils.
If your skin is red or inflamed, Wechsler suggests adding a milk compress once or twice a day to your routine or a soothing mist that contains minerals to calm the skin.
After about two weeks, you can introduce new products one at a time. But do a patch test first, Blyumin-Karasik says.
Rub a dab on the side of your face right in front of your ear every day for three days. If things don't clear up despite all the extra care, underlying factors like rosacea could be at play. In that case, the best Rx is to see your dermatologist.
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
These ultra-simple picks will help your skin stay balanced and healthy.
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