Sensitive skin is one of the hardest skin types to deal with. Like a temperamental toddler, one minute it can be calm and cooperative, and the next it can be throwing a tantrum.
Especially as the dry-skin season is in full motion, factors like a cold spell or increased central heating can challenge a sensitised complexion. So, with lots to protect your skin against this winter, finding the right routine to soothe sensitivity feels more important than ever.
First and foremost, it’s worth arming yourself with the best tips and skincare products. That’s why we called upon Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Self, to share her sensitive skin rulebook, which you should follow with precision.
What is sensitive skin?
Are we stating the obvious here? Well, not really. It turns out there’s more to sensitive skin than just redness and irritation. ‘Skin sensitivity is a common problem which affects about 40% of the population, mainly in women,’ says Dr Mahto.
She explains that sensitive skin is usually associated with how your skin feels, compared to what it is: ‘sensitivity mostly affects the skin on your face and is characterised by sensations of burning, stinging, tightness, pain or itching. The skin may also look red when symptoms appear,’ she explains.
What causes sensitive skin?
Sensitive skin is very reactive and can be triggered by predisposing factors that are often out of your control. There are environmental influences, like pollution, UV rays or a temperature change, or alterations in your stress levels, hormones or sleeping pattern.
Another common factor: skincare products. What’s inside the cleanser and moisturiser you’re using may cause irritation – fragrances, dyes and soaps are common culprits.
It’s suggested that sensitivity can arise when the nerves on the top layer of your skin become irritated, which happens when the skin’s barrier becomes compromised.
‘When you have sensitive skin, it’s important to understand whether there may be an underlying skin condition that’s causing redness and irritation – such as rosacea, eczema or an allergy,’ says Dr Mahto.
‘You’ll find that the treatments for these conditions are different to that of sensitive skin, so it’s crucial to get the right diagnosis first,’ she adds.
Dr Mahto advises that if you’ve noticed sensitivity and redness that has lasted for more than two weeks then see your GP or derm to rule out any underlying causes.
What is the difference between sensitive skin and a damaged skin barrier?
To put it simply, sensitive skin is a skin type whereas a damaged skin barrier is a temporary result – usually to do with over-exfoliation or going too hard and fast with active ingredients.
‘Those who have damaged their skin barrier will find that if you use the right routine, it will revert back to normal after a little while,’ says Dr Mahto. ‘However, if you have sensitive skin, you’re likely going to have ongoing sensitive skin issues,’ she adds.
How should you treat sensitive skin?
As a general rule, keep things simple. Strip back your extensive collection of oils, acids and peels and build a three-step routine that will strengthen your skin barrier.
All you need is a cleanser, serum, moisturiser and an SPF. Consider introducing emollients, like squalane and shea butter, to hold moisture in, and ceramides (the glue that holds your skin cells together) to bolster your barrier.
‘Ensure that you’re using fragrance-free and non-perfumed products and keep away from physical forms of exfoliation – such as scrubs or cleansing brushes – as this can exacerbate irritation,’ says Dr Mahto. ‘Also, steer clear of ingredients like witch hazel, essential oils, camphor and menthol as these can raise levels of inflammation further,’ she adds.
If you’re into your acid exfoliants, it may be a wise idea to put those bottles down, as it could trigger sensitivity. Retinol and AHAs (alpha-hydroxy-acids) are common red-list ingredients, but that doesn’t mean you need to forgo them altogether – simply make sure the products you reach for are gentle and made with sensitive types in mind.
So, now you’re clued up on the best practices to treat sensitive skin, it’s time to get personal with the best skincare products.
From moisturisers to cleansers to serums, we’ve rounded up our favourite gentle formulas that will save your skin. Oh, and there are a few expert recommendations from Dr Mahto, too.
The best skincare products for sensitive skin...
Every skincare routine must start with a good cleanse as this will clear impurities and dirt that can cause congestion. The best formulas for sensitive skin will lather lightly and will wash away unwanted residue without stripping your skin.
A favourite of Dr Mahto’s, the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, turns into a creamy lather that feels comforting on stressed-out skin. It contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid to condition your barrier, while washing away unwanted residue in the process.
Garnier's Hydrating Deep Cleanser may look like your bog-standard face wash but, as the saying goes, it's what's inside that counts.
The milky formula transforms into a delicate lather as you massage it into your skin, working to cut through makeup and grime without disrupting your skin barrier. As for the ingredients, it's packed with hyaluronic acid and ceramides which will help mollify areas of dryness and keep sensitivity at bay.
La Roche-Posay is a stalwart in the sensitive skin category. Turning to its Toleriane range when you have reactive skin is like turning on Friends when you’re sad – an instant reliever.
The Hydrating Foam-in-Gel Double Cleanser cuts through dirt and excess sebum to deeply cleanse your skin, while ceramides and glycerin keep hydration loaded.
Beeline for a creamy cleanser when you're battling with a tight and dehydrated complexion. Rather than using cleansing agents and alcohol, they're often loaded with comforting ingredients to nourish and clean the skin.
A great example is First Aid's cleanser: it's strong enough to slough away dead skin cells, excess sebum and pollution, but boasts a soft and velvety texture that melts away makeup too. A small dollop lathers with ease and will leave the skin feeling supple and plump as you wipe the residue away.
A serum will deliver a concentrated dose of ingredients that can help treat a whole host of skin concerns – from pigmentation to fine lines and dehydration. When you have sensitive skin, you can’t pick up any ol’ serum and hope for the best: it takes a little more consideration.
Look for something containing hydrating ingredients, rather than ones that contain acids or chemical exfoliants. When you’ve got sensitive skin, your top priority is to maintain and hydrate your skin barrier so look out for ingredients that will help reinforce it – like hyaluronic acid, lipids, peptides and squalane.
If you suffer from sensitivity and you're dealing with dark spots, your skin needs to meet La Roche Posay's MelaB3 Intense Anti-Dark Spot Serum. It's one of the most innovative formulas to come from the dermatologist-backed brand, hence why it's been in the making for 18 years.
The serum is fuelled with the brand's patented Melasyl which essentially intercepts the production of melanin to prevent dark spots and hyperpigmentation from forming in the first place.
Alongside the work of niacinamide, it also reduces inflammation and encourages cell renewal for a more unified complexion. Hand's down, it's one of the most advanced serums to sit over-the-counter today.
Ceramides are emollients that support your barrier – and this serum is packed full of them. Seen as the grout that holds your skin cells together, they work to keep moisture in and harmful bacteria out. So, without them, your skin would be in quite a pickle.
Apply this formula before you go to bed, and it’ll feed your skin with ceramides (and hyaluronic acid) as you get some shuteye. At £15, talk about bang for your buck.
If your sensitive skin presents itself via dehydration, this hydrating serum is one we’d highly recommend. It’s rich in hyaluronic acid and the brand’s signature mineral-rich water to help your skin retain moisture and soothe dryness.
Plus, if thick textures tend to cause some controversy on your easily-triggered complexion, you’ll love the lightweight, gel-like consistency of this serum.
The Ordinary's Soothing and Barrier Support Serum looks as though it's been sponsored by Barbie (once you dip inside the hot-pink formula, you'll understand why). But funky colour aside, this serum leans into one of the biggest skincare convos around: barrier support.
It's formulated with fatty acids and vitamin B12, which will restore the integrity of the skin barrier, helping to subside irritation and dehydration. It's a real SOS serum for anyone with dry or retinol-ragged skin.
To seal the deal, use a moisturiser to keep your skin hydrated and to lock in the ingredients from your serum. Dealing with a tight and dry skin barrier is a very real thing for those with sensitive skin, so look for a moisturiser that’s going to deeply hydrate, without clogging your pores.
For a daytime moisturiser, use a gel-like formula that’s fragrance- and oil-free, and for the night, find one that's thicker in consistency (ideally containing ceramides) to reinforce your skin barrier as you snooze.
If you’re dealing with all the usual symptoms of sensitive skin – dryness, tightness, redness and inflammation – this nourishing formula will work hard and fast to restore some order.
It contains Avène’s signature mineral-rich spring water to calm irritation, plus it’s free from fragrance – a welcome addition for us sensitive souls.
You may associate the word ‘probiotics’ with your gut health; however, Cultured is the brand that has brought them into the skincare conversation. While bottles labelled as probiotic rarely contain live organisms, they are packed with pre- and post-biotics that 'feed' the good bacteria on your biome.
Cultured’s Calm Cream is a great introduction into the world of biome-boosting skincare. With regular use, your barrier will stay resilient against infection and inflammation.
Can you tell we love La Roche? Yup, it’s the GOAT (greatest of all time). As far as its moisturisers go, we love them all. But if you’re dealing with dryness, this one is our favourite.
It boasts the perfect INCI list – containing glycerin, squalane and neurosensine – which works like an instant skin-soother to hydrate tight and irritated areas.
CeraVe's Healing Ointment should be a non-negotiable treatment if you have chronically dry skin. Packed with ceramides and hyaluronic acid, it instantly provides solace to angry, chapped and dehydrated skin.
It has a similar consistency to petroleum jelly, so you may not want to slather it all over your face, but it's a brilliant occlusive to protect your skin barrier or to apply onto chapped lips.
We can’t hammer it home enough – using SPF is the most crucial step in your skincare routine, no matter your age or skin type. Not only will a high-factor sunscreen protect your skin from UV damage, but it will also help to delay the ageing process.
When you have sensitive skin, it’s recommended to use a mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide (rather than a formula with chemical fillers) as they sit on the surface of your skin to reflect UV rays. Apply a dollop size (usually about the length of two fingers) as the last step of your skincare routine – and even if the sun isn’t shining, that’s no excuse.
Finding an SPF that doesn’t irritate sensitive skin isn't as easy as it sounds. The right one will have a delicate, breathable consistency but still offer high-factor sun defence.
One brand that has nailed the tough task is British skincare company Olivanna. Its Sun Defence Drops feel featherlight on the skin, blend without a white cast and deliver brilliant UV protection.
Using SPF every day is vital, but it's no sworn secret that some formulas can gunk up pores and encourage breakouts. So, if congestion is your main concern – especially if you're oily-prone – may we shine the light on this formula (don’t worry it will reflect it right back). The zinc-based cream leaves a matte finish to dull shine and is formulated with kakadu plum – a potent antioxidant – to protect and hydrate.
Another expert choice from Dr Mahto, this broad-spectrum SPF offers reliable protection against both UVA and UVB rays while also providing a weightless, matte finish (great if you battle with an oily t-zone). Plus, we love that it has a water-resistant formula, making it ideal for the summer season ahead or if you’re hitting the gym extra hard ATM.
We can't talk about SPF without mentioning Supergoop! The Mineral MatteScreen boasts factor 30 protection, with a zinc-based formula that will defend the skin from UV rays without clogging pores. It also works to smooth the appearance of texture and mattify oily zones, so it can moonlight as a primer too.
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