Is our skin really becoming more sensitive to environmental aggressors and toxins?
“Sensitive skin” is a phrase we’ve come to use as a catch-all for any number of complexion problems, from general irritation and dryness to specific conditions like eczema and rosacea. But overusing the word “sensitive” to describe these and more isn’t always accurate, says Dr. Craig Kraffert, dermatologist and president of Amarte skincare. “Everyone has sensitive skin at a certain point—and sensitive can mean different things for different people, so it tends to be an overused adjective,” he explains.
Dryness, redness and itching are typically the most common characteristics of sensitive skin, but the causes are as diverse as the symptoms themselves. Sensitive skin is caused by factors that include genetics (some research suggests that conditions like rosacea are hereditary), a negative reaction to topical treatments and even environmental aggressors, says Dr. Julie Karen, a dermatologist at CompleteSkinMD in New York City.
“More and more, we’re hearing about how pollutants, alone or a combination of smog and exhaust and other elements, irritate skin and cause free radical production,” she says. “Free radicals are unstable molecules that occur in response to exposure to certain pollutants, and they can create a cascade reaction that’s responsible for the breakdown of collagen, less elastic production in skin and general aging.”
Dr. Julia Hunter, dermatologist and founder of Wholistic Dermatology, in Beverly Hills, CA, likes to say that skin is a window to what’s going on inside the body. “Most times sensitive skin is caused by an inflamed gut, which means you need to look at the cause of that. Likely, it’s something you’re eating or taking in that doesn’t agree with your body,” she says.
If you suffer from symptoms associated with sensitive skin, it’s important to see a medical professional who can determine whether you have a specific condition or just general irritation—and prescribe the appropriate treatment, whether that’s a change in diet, skincare and behavior or an applied medicine.
But there are general, everyday tips that can provide relief, too. Dr. Hunter says it is important to not use really hot water to wash skin because it strips the epidermis of its natural oils. Drying elements like glycolic acid, salicylic acid and Retin-A, found often in acne and anti-aging treatments, should also be avoided.
Sunscreen, on the other hand, is a must, says Dr. Karen, who also recommends an antioxidant serum. These are packed with vitamins that repair damaged skin and boost overall moisture. And no matter the kind of product you’re searching for, look for fragrance-free options to reduce any additional risk of irritation.
Try a Little Kindness
Dermatologists and skincare experts agree: The best way to heal skin that’s been compromised by smog, car exhaust and harsh treatment is to look for gentle but effective products like these.
Dr. Hauschka Soothing Mask Made with anthyllis to balance redness, this mask nourishes with macadamia nut and coconut oils. $52.95; store.drhauschka.com
Everclen Facial Cleanser Light and creamy, this fragrance-free and hypoallergenic cleanser removes dirt without stripping skin’s natural oils. $15; everclen.com
Decléor Aromessence Rose D’Orient Soothing Serum A silky-smooth elixir made of 100 percent natural oils designed to disinfect and soothe irritated skin. $68; decleor.com
Dr. Spiller Biocosmetics Mild Cleansing Foam Certified by Cosmos Organic, this gentle cleanser features soothing rose water, linden blossoms and edelweiss. $39; spillerus.com/certifiedorganic