“I’m scared to try new products incase my skin reacts”
“My skin doesn’t like perfumed products”
“My skin gets red and itchy when touched”
“I suffer from eczema”
“My skin can only tolerate soap and water or face wipes”
“My skin gets very red and irritated when I’m stressed”
Do any of these sound familiar…? I hear these concerns on a daily basis, and so it seemed only fitting that I tackle sensitivity for my first skincare blog post.
Usually our initial reaction to any sensitivity in our skins is to stop what we’re using, scale right back and just keep it simple with water and ‘gentle’ products. In some instances you would be correct. But what if I told you that in some cases you could actually be sensitising your skin even more…
Before we go too far into the various triggers that can cause sensitivity and inflammation in our skins, we need to understand a bit more about what it is that’s happening to our skin in the first place to cause these visible responses that we see on the surface.
All of our skins have a ‘barrier’ and this barrier function is something that we are all born with and this is how our skin protects itself.
Our barrier function is like a brick wall. It is well structured, strong and protects our dermis (skin) to the best of its ability, until it gets damaged. Once damage has occurred, our barrier function becomes impaired and therefore easier to penetrate and disturb, like water seeping in through the cracks of a brick wall. By sustaining our bodies’ natural pH balance, our barrier is able to recover and protect itself to its optimum capacity.
Our skin barrier is made up of 3 key elements, or ‘building bricks’; tough keratinised cells, barrier lipids and natural moisturising factors.
Barrier Lipids (oily substances) are comprised of:
- 50% ceramides
- 25% cholesterol
- 10-15% fatty acids
- >5% other lipids
Natural Moisturisation Factor (water based) is comprised of:
- Amino Acids
Now unfortunately it is easier to impair our skin’s barrier function than we may realise. Disruption and damage can be caused by many things such as stress, hormones, our environment, climate changes and pollution. It can also be inherited, making us predisposed to skin sensitivity and reactions at any time. We don’t always know we are sensitive to something until a trigger causes even the slightest shift in pH levels resulting in a reaction that could have in fact been laying dormant for years.
Even though the root causes can be very different, how they then manifest themselves within our skins and how they can be treated, is very similar. There is just one critical difference. If you have genetically, inherited ‘sensitive’ skin then the tendency cannot be erased. It’s in your DNA. The good news is, there are things you can do to help control the symptoms. Alternatively, ‘sensitised’ skin, an acquired condition, is a response to external factors generally triggered by lifestyle choices such as alcohol consumption, living a stressful life, exposure to environmental chemicals, even the products that you are using on your skin can trigger this condition. Because it is not programmed in our DNA it is possible that sensitisation may be corrected with changes in environment, habits and the products we’re exposed to.
Regardless of if your skin is sensitive or sensitised, the common thread among these conditions is inflammation. This may manifest itself as a thinner appearing skin, dehydrated tissues, broken capillaries, erythema or redness, blushing, itching, stinging, and even burning sensations all on our skin.
In order to understand how to care for sensitive or sensitised skin, it’s important to understand 3 key contributing factors. These include:
- Immunogenic Inflammation
- Neurogenic Inflammation
- Compromised Lipid Barrier
We know that the body’s immune system helps to protect it from disease. The immune system has different components and different cells, all of which work together to fight against infection and foreign invaders. When the body is injured or irritated it activates mediators that attack and destroy the invaders causing inflammation in the skin. This process results in pain, redness, swelling and heat that is often associated with an inflammation or infection. In other words, the skin attacks the intruding force as though it were a pathogen which must be eradicated from the body, much the same way that your body would fight off a virus like the common cold.
An acne lesion is a classic example of immunogenic inflammation. Whereas immunogenic inflammation is triggered by the immune system, neurogenic inflammation is triggered by the nervous system.
Chemicals and pollutants in our environment, as well as stress hormones in our brain can all stimulate receptors in the skin to release substances that we call neuropeptides. These trigger the inflammatory response. In addition to allergens or pathogens that may stimulate an immune response, or chemicals that stimulate a neurological response. When inflammation occurs it often causes psychological stress, which in turn can also induce a neurogenic response, resulting in skin itchiness, inhibition of wound healing and aggravated inflammation.
This critical layer not only contains water balance in the skin, by inhibiting trans epidermal water loss (the loss of our skins naturally produced moisture), it also protects against environmental stimuli such as microbes, chemicals and physical factors. In essence, the barrier lipid layer is responsible for policing what gets in and our of your epidermis (skin). Anything that compromises the integrity of the barrier lipid layer such as alkaline soaps, can lead to a sensitised skin condition, which ultimately can evolve into severe inflammation, and even disease. Because of its protective role, maintaining the integrity of the barrier lipid layer is an important factor in controlling skin sensitisation. Once the lipid layer is compromised, the skin dehydrates causing microscopic damage in the epidermis. This creates the perfect portal into the skin for potentially irritating substances and is why dehydration is often seen in a sensitised skin condition.
Here are some Pro Tips for restoring your skin’s barrier:
- Use a gentle, acid balanced cleanser and an emollient moisturiser.
- Avoid mineral oils. These act like cling film, stopping your skin’s barrier from functioning properly as it cannot get the oxygen it needs. This therefore inhibits the natural production of lipids for repair and your skin will then start to rely on that ‘artificial’ barrier and not repair itself.
- Reduce the use of active products.
- Restore critical hydration with ingredients like Hyaluronic Acid and Squalene. These two elements naturally occur in our skin, so we see great benefits from ‘topping up’.
- Take Omega-3 and -6 supplements.
Now that we have a better understanding of the different types of sensitivity and how our skin responds, let’s take a look at some of the most common triggers…
Climate and Environmental Changes
As seasons change and climates adjust, the skin will respond to fluctuating temperature and humidity. Travel and visiting new places are considerations as the skin may be in unfamiliar climate and subject to altitude changes. Environment is not only about climate; also consider air quality and pollution the skin is exposed to. All of these factors can affect our skin health as they impact the vital barrier function I mentioned earlier in this blog.
- Humidity – Reduced moisture levels in the air dehydrate the skin, i.e. in offices and kitchens as well as on holidays.
- Temperature – Circulation changes may increase redness or reduce barrier recovery.
- Pollution – Poor air quality increases ROS, which damages skin barrier and increases sensitivity.
- Altitude – Thinner air at high altitudes increases damaging UV exposure.
**Fun fact – The most polluted place globally at this current time is Dubai **
** Fun activity – why not visit www.skinpollution.com to find out the level of pollution in your area, or anywhere in the world **
Stress and Hormones
Stress and the skin
Now this is a common one. Let’s be honest, we all have to deal with stress and hormones throughout our lives at some time or another so this is one relevant to everyone.
While the reasons for our stress could be varied, the skin response will be directly related to the brain and its chemical changes during stress.
The nervous system, which is controlled by the brain, triggers neurogenic inflammation by releasing neuropeptides that result in inflammatory symptoms, such as redness, welts, flare-ups and itchiness. Conditions may be worse for inflammatory skin disorders like rosacea, eczema and psoriasis.
- Release of inflammatory neuropeptides CGRP and Substance P.
- Raised cortisol, which causes delayed barrier recovery.
Changes to hormones may also influence increased redness or reactivity in the skin. Both pregnancy and the menopause result in increased blood flow, and this means increased heat to be dispelled by the skin. The result can be persistent flushing. Due to increased heat and sweating, huge benefits can be found from wearing lighter layers of products that rehydrate the skin and relive redness. (Try pressing products into the skin, rather than rubbing them in). Also, don’t exacerbate the skin with heavy oils that trap the heat.
These are common irritants that are often found in skin care products:
- Fragrance – there are no proven benefits to fragrances in skincare products.
- Low pH acids
- High pH cleansers – Products like soaps can make the skin too alkaline, which inhibits the skin from repairing itself and causes it to become stripped of natural moisture.
- SD alcohol
- Chemical sunscreens – SPF in ‘chemical’ sunscreens absorb UV rays and converts them into heat, before spreading the heat out on the skin, therefore stimulating a reaction in some skins. Try opting for a ‘physical’ sunscreen, containing Titanium Dioxide. This will cause the UV rays to ‘bounce’ off the skin instead.
So what can we use to help our skins? There are a few beautifully natural ingredients that are clinically proven to aid barrier defense and calm inflamed skins.
Let’s start with an oldie but a goodie…
Oats – Add a spoonful of pure, ground oats into a bath to help chicken pox and eczema. They are even fine to use on babies of 6 months +
- Naturally soothe itches, relieve redness and dryness
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
- Emollient lipids restore the barrier
Phyto Oils – A blend of avocado, sunflower seed oil and evening primrose oil actually mimics you skin’s barrier lipids.
- Replenish and preserve lipid barrier integrity
- Optimise hydration and provide antioxidant protection
- Reduce trans-epidermal water loss (the loss of natural moisture).
Botanical Extracts – These can include aloe vera, cactus pear and lavender.
- Provide a range of barrier restoring and sensitivity reducing benefits.
- Inhibit neurogenic inflammation, reduce redness and irritation.
- Boost hydration and support moisture balance.
Hyaluronic Acid – There are 3 different forms of Hyaluronic Acid; dual weighted which has tighter molecules working on the upper epidermis layer and heavier molecules that work down through the deeper dermal layers. Cross-linked Hyaluronic Acid, which can hold 5,000 times it’s weight in moisture, and Standard Hyaluronic Acid that holds 1,000 times it’s weight in moisture.
- Provides immediate hydration.
- Locks in moisture for sustained protection and to relieve tightness.
- Dual Hyaluronic Acid Technology and Cross-linked Hyaluronic Acid can deliver long-lasting and deeper hydration.
So there we have it. A quick insight into our skin’s inner workings. I hope this will help some of you to understand your skin a bit better, and give you an idea of why you may find reactions occurring at different times.
There is, of course, no rule book to the skin and sometimes it just likes to throw a curve ball, so if you’re ever suffering with sensitivity of any kind I would always recommend booking in an appointment for a quick consultation (offered free here at Bella Beauty Skin Centre both in person and over Skype), so we can have an in-depth chat, I can take a look at your skin and together we can determine what has triggered your individual concerns and how best to tackle them. Moral of the story – don’t fret, there are always options!! 🙂
Please feel free to get in touch with any questions, and keep your eyes peeled for my next blog coming soon 🙂
Owner and founder of Bella Beauty Skin Centre