My sensitive skin is the bane of my existence. I’ve always somewhat suspected that my skin was an incubator of inflammation, but it wasn’t until recently, when a friend couldn’t gauge whether or not I was burning up at the beach (“But you’re always pink!”), that I was really compelled to get off my butt and do something about it. Like sharp, mysterious tummy pains during hangovers and looming tax time, my skin is something I’ve always consciously and blissfully decided to ignore. That method works for a while, but we all know you can’t bury your head in the sand forever (because sand is incredibly aggravating to the face).
I’m a classic millennial in my desire for a quick fix. Once I decided to do something about my skin, I immediately looked for shortcuts, even though I had an inclination that it was going to be a long road to recovery. When the quick fixes inevitably failed me, I sought the help of two skincare gurus: Chiza Westcarr from All Saints Skin Clinic, and Emma Hobson, Dermalogica’s own skin expert.
First up, I asked both experts what they believed the causes of redness and sensitivity to be. Both noted the broadness of the question and the multitude of factors that can make our complexion comparable to Freddie Kruger’s. The first culprit is climatic condition—pollution, UV exposure, and extreme temperature. Conditions like these can break down the protective barrier of the skin, allowing antigens and irritants access to its various layers and resulting in irritation and sensitivity. The second biggest cause is adrenal (endocrine) stress, as disruption to our hormones can make the skin reactive. Incorrect use of products (excessive exfoliation, using products with artificial fragrance, over-cleansing), a poor diet, and certain medications were also cited.
What I’ve deduced from my chats with both Chiza and Emma is that lifestyle has a lot to do with skin redness, and that we’re probably already aware of what’s causing us inflammation. I’d already clocked that dairy, gluten, and alcohol a) made me feel like a sad sack of bricks and b) flushed my skin a fiery shade of red, but sometimes you just need to hear it from an expert to push you to make some positive changes. Here goes!
EH: Stress can play havoc on the skin, and in many forms, including breakouts (especially on the neck and sides of the face), the development of hyperpigmentation, the coarsening of skin, and an increase in facial hair and fine facial lines. In the long-term, stress is also responsible for premature ageing. Stress can commonly cause an increase in skin sensitivity. Our bodies produce millions of chemicals that initiate responses, including neurotransmitters, which pass messages between nerve endings. When the body is under stress for long periods of time, these chemicals increase in the body, leading to the disruption of the immune system.
Smoke less, too
EH: The impact smoking has on the skin is huge. Every inhalation increases the hit of ROS (reactive oxygen species, or free radicals) to the body. Every gene in every cell sustains an estimated 10,000 free radical hits each day. However, one to five million (depending on the study) extra free radicals per inhalation are produced when smoking. Basically, smoking ages the skin prematurely and leads to the formation of wrinkles. Skin cells exposed to smoke cause a drop in the production of fresh collagen by up to 40% (source: Nagoya City University Medical School in Japan). Also, wound healing is twice as long for smokers (think prolonged breakouts that won’t go away). Smoking causes surface dehydration resulting in fine lines and rough skin texture. Capillary damage is caused by the depletion of vitamin C from smoking, resulting in weaker capillaries as well as lines and wrinkles. Smoking robs the skin of oxygen, causing a sallow skin tone. Nicotine constricts blood vessels in the face, decreasing circulation and making the skin look yellow. It’s difficult for nutrients to access living cells, and so collagen and elastin break down more readily.
CW: Smoking is a big, big player. Our cells—especially our little blood vessels—have receptors for nicotine on them. When you smoke, the receptors from the cigarettes actually cause an increase in blood capillaries. Because you are starving the cells of oxygen, the body tries to grab hold of whatever oxygen it can by increasing the capillary networks. Smoking can cause new capillary networks to develop, which are referred to as ‘broken capillaries.’
Listen to your gut
CW: Any kind of inflammation that is within the body and shown on the skin is usually a reflection of gut health. Whenever you see that flush, go back to have a look at how the gut is functioning—you’ll find that things like sugar, refined carbs, and processed foods are problematic. The first thing you want to do is repair the gut, and that’s where your good fats are fantastic. You want to seal the gut lining, and then you want to repopulate the gut with good bacteria—that’s where your probiotics come in. When someone comes in to All Saints with red skin, I tend to do a proper consultation to get to the bottom of what’s causing the redness. Probiotics are going to inoculate the gut with good flora.
Avoid inflammatory foods
EH: Gluten, dairy, and egg whites can aggravate the skin for some people, as can processed or sugary foods, stimulating foods containing spices, monosodium glutamate, soy, food colouring, preservatives, alcohol (wine in particular), and caffeine.
CW: When someone comes in to All Saints with some sort of inflammatory condition, we always do a process of elimination. What’s interesting is that they’ll usually put their hands up and say, “Yes, I do love my pasta. I do like my bread. I do like my alcohol. I do like my soft drink.” It’s very much to do with denial—they suffer, but will persevere, because they enjoy the taste of these things. When this occurs, I look for substitutes, so I’m not just telling them to cut out the things they love without suggesting anything to replace them.
Eat more of these
EH: Foods that assist the circulatory system, as well as natural anti-inflammatories, will aid in reducing redness. These include red berries, ginger, chamomile, omega oils, and essential fatty acids. Incorporating dark green and orange vegetables and fruits is also helpful, as these contain carotenoids and vitamin C. Vitamin B-rich foods are also great, as they help to alleviate dry, itchy skin.
Indulge in moderation
CW: If you want to indulge, you’re going to indulge. Just don’t make it a daily thing. Sensitive skin calls for moderation. Rather than drinking every night, go easier on the alcohol—don’t drink as much as you commonly would. If you’re going to drink, I don’t think there’s any rule of thumb on how many glasses you can have. If you have sensitive skin and you get that alcohol flush, one glass is going to do it. You just want to reduce the amount and regularity. The ideal is not to drink, but who’s going to listen to that? You don’t want to be a party pooper, after all.
Fine-tune your skincare routine
EH: For cleansing, choose a mild, cream cleanser. Ensure it has calming, soothing, and anti-inflammatory ingredients and is soap free. If your skin is really sensitive, even to water, choose a cleanser that can be tissued off and leaves absolutely no residue behind. When it comes to toning, there are some fantastic facial mists and toners designed to reduce redness and flushing. They work quickly to calm the skin, boost hydration, and protect the skin against the environment—a must for sensitive skin. For moisturising, it’s imperative to find a gentle, lightweight, fragrance-free moisturiser that contains soothing anti-inflammatories. The best moisturiser for an impaired barrier (common in sensitive skin) is any therapeutic balm that will help shield the skin from the environment and protect against further moisture loss. Daily use of a sunscreens is essential, too. Applying at least SPF 30 every day—to protect against UV damage and help control the sensitivity aggravated by UV exposure—is crucial. However, some people with sensitised skin can only tolerate the use of physical sunscreen. Choose a sunscreen that is designed for sensitive skin that contains calming and soothing anti-inflammatories and is packed with antioxidants. Chemical sunscreens can cause the skin to react in some rosacea-sufferers, so it is always advised to patch test before use.
[ed. note: THE FILE recommends NIOD’s Sanskrit Saponins to cleanse, pure witch hazel to tone, and Josie Maran’s 100% Pure Argan Oil (and Dr. Jart’s Cicapair Night Re.Pair cream at night) to moisturise.]
CW: The treatment I most recommend is laser genesis, which we do here at All Saints. What’s lovely about laser genesis is that it strengthens the capillary walls, so you don’t have that flushing as much. It’s the perfect treatment for rosacea and for that reactive, red skin. Coming in and having a series of laser genesis treatments will support the flushing. When you see that improvement, that should be an incentive to ease back on other areas. Correct what you have through a series of laser genesis treatments, and then cut back on any lifestyle and diet factors that might exacerbate your sensitivity.
Words, Madeleine Woon. Photography, Magdalene Shapter.