What causes sensitive skin and how to treat it

Q: What causes skin sensitivity and how can I treat those who suffer with it?

Nearly half of the global population describe their skin as sensitive, yet sensitive skin looks and feels different for everyone. Some people experience mild, occasional flare-ups, while others deal with constant redness and discomfort.

Clinically speaking, sensitive skin describes a predisposition you’re born with. Your protective barrier is less efficient at blocking irritants and, therefore, you may be prone to reactions and allergies. Sensitised skin is a term used to describe fluctuating sensitivity that can affect any skin type and is caused by internal and external factors.

Some of the most common triggers for sensitivity are lifestyle choices such as diet, alcohol and smoking. However, stress – both physical and emotional – can elevate specific hormones that cause inflammatory reactions too. Skin can become itchy and wound healing inhibited.

Many clients will be inadvertently sensitising their skin by using incorrect skincare products, over-processing their skin with acids or retinoids and using drying soaps, alcohols and other irritants such as perfume or drug and cosmetic colours.

Whatever the cause, sensitive skin symptoms typically manifest as redness – flushing, blotchiness and heat; a compromised barrier – itching, tingling or stinging; and dehydration – rough, tight and flaky.

When treating sensitive skin, less is more, so recommend clients use products that actively treat the symptoms, reducing inflammation, building the skin’s barrier and replacing lost moisture. Sulphatefree cleansing with a cooling gel or cream consistency will help minimise barrier stripping.

Include a barrier-building oil to restore lost lipids and protect from environmental aggressors, and ensure intense yet weightless hydration by using a moisturiser with hyaluronic acid to relieve dehydration. Make sure clients stock up on the right homecare too.

Sally PenfordSally Penford is director of education for The International Dermal Institute and professional skincare brand Dermalogica