Your skin is the largest organic of the body with the important tasks of protecting the inner organs and eliminating toxins from within. On a regular basis the skin performs an intricate balancing act. It protects us against environmental pollutants, while regulating internal moisture levels. These functions are controlled by the skin’s outermost layer, or stratum corneum. This layer is made up of tightly packed cells and lipids (fats within and between cells). The lipids are like the ‘cement’ to the cells’ ‘bricks’. Together the bricks and cement create the skins wall – which protects the bodies inner structure while aiding them in eliminating waste materials.
When the skins wall is damaged in any way, the skin’s barrier function becomes compromised. This causes transepidermal water loss (TEWL) – loss of water through the skin and enable the irritants to permeate into the skin. Compromised barrier function can be even more pronounced in facial skin because it is where the outermost layer (epidermis) can be as thin as 0.02mm, compared to an average thickness of 0.1mm elsewhere. Our face is also regularly exposed to UVA, UVB rays, environmental pollutants and harsh chemical skincare.
Symptoms of sensitive facial skin may be:
- Flaking, redness, rashes, swelling, scaling and roughness.
- They can be accompanied by sensations of itching, burning, tightness and prickling.
The Skin´s Protective Functions
The skin has multiple systems in place to ensure it stays healthy.
- A hydrolipid film composed of water, fatty acids and lipids safeguards the surface. This hydrolipid layer has a pH of around 5. This means that the surface of the skin is slightly acidic. This mild acidic layer protects skin from bacterial invasion. and alkaline extremes, like soap for example. It neutralises the alkaline through buffer substances, which make sure a balance is restored and made stable.
- A physical barrier which is called the horny layer, or stratum corneum. This layer si composed of cells and lipids. The lipids work like cement, filling the spaces between the cells and preventing impurities from entering. This physical barrier prevents fluid loss and excessive absorption. It plays a key role in maintaining the moisture that makes skin feel soft and smooth. This horny outer layer of the skin stays healthy through skin shedding, or desquamation. This process if encouraged and regulated by skin’s natural regeneration process.
- The above two processes are dependent on enzyme activity of the skin. In sensitive skin, this activity can become inhibited, compromising the natural barrier function, and reducing lipid synthesis. As a result, water loss increases and irritants are able to penetrate skin.
What causes Sensitive Skin?
- Although sensitive skin can occur at any age, it is particularly common in babyhood and as skin age. Baby skin is around one-fifth the thickness of adult skin and has a limited barrier function, making it highly sensitive to chemical, physical and microbial influences, as well as UV rays. On the other hand the barrier function of adult skin increasingly weakens with age and metabolic inefficiency. Aging skin becomes lipid deficient, making it more easily irritated by alkaline substances such as soap or alcohol.
- Hormonal changes due to the puberty, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and the menopause can all affect skin’s resistance to irritants.
- Prolonged periods of stress and lack of sleep are both known triggers of sensitive skin.
- Poor nutrition and low hydration levels, both can exacerbate already dry and irritated skin.
- People with type I allergies are more likely to experience skin sensitivity, due to the penetration of allergens like pollen through the skin.
- Existing facial skin conditions ranging from dehydrated and dry skin to atopic eczema and acne can all cause skin sensitivity to colorants, perfumes and alcohol.
Environmental Effects on Sensitive Skin
Facial skin is exposed to all weathers, and almost every season brings with it factors that can trigger sensitivity.
Excessive cold reduces the secretions that maintain the hydrolipid film, while heat encourages sweating, which then evaporates, causing skin to become dry and more prone to irritation. Low humidity, prevalent in airplane cabins or even caused by central heating, dehydrates skin and can trigger sensitivity.
UV radiation, ozone and environmental pollutants have all been shown to place skin under stress through the creation of free radicals, weakening its natural defences. In particular, prolonged exposure to the sun can cause skin to dry out and become irritated.
Ingredients that are added to skin care products and cosmetics can cause facial skin to become sensitive. Some, such as conventional surfactants that remove dirt, can also remove surface lipids. Others, like ingredients in fragrances, some colorants or alcohol, may be in some cases irritant for skin that is prone to sensitivity, and in some cases they can trigger an allergic reaction.
What Aggravate Senstive Skin
Once skin has become sensitive, certain events and behaviours can exacerbate and prolong the condition.
- An inappropriate skincare routine.
- Washing too frequently in water that is too hot can strip down the skin of its protective lipid layer and cause it to become more sensitive.
- Some cleansers also contain harsh ingredients that harm the natural protective barrier making the skin susceptible to irritation. If a person then applies a moisturiser or make-up that contains irritants, sensitive skin may experience discomfort or even redden and sting.
- Chemical peels and granular exfoliators not only strip the hydrolipid film from the epidermis, they can also remove some of the horny layer too. While this can be helpful in removing dead skin cells and reducing lines as wrinkles, it can cause considerable irritation in already sensitive skin.
- Shaving can lead to skin irritation both from the exfoliating action of shaving itself, and from irritants in the foams, creams and aftershaves used.
- Research has shown that smoking is associated with numerous skin conditions and disorders, including acne, delayed wound healing and skin cancer. As with environmental pollutants, the chemicals in cigarettes act as free radicals, attacking skin’s cellular structure and reducing immune activity.
Diet for Sensitive Skin
Introducing a diet rich inantioxidants such as Vitamins A, C and E helps improved antioxidant enzyme activity of the skin.
Eating natural plant oils or oily fish can help return skin to a healthy condition.
Simple Ways to Reduce Skin Sensitivity
Small changes to bathing habits can help restore skin’s protective barrier. Reduce the temperature of water in your bath or shower. Do not take long showers or baths (especially in an area with hard water). Use mild tensides cleansers or gentle soals instead of soap containing SLS. Pat skin dry – do not rub harshly especially if the towel is rough.
Recent research has shown that increasing food high in antioxidants and Vitamin C and decreasing carbohydrates and saturated fats can help stressed skin recover and heal. Alsp get tested for food allergies or intolerances. Visit a nutritionist or your doctor if you think this might be the case. Also drink enough water – hydrated skin functions better.
Stress management can also play its part in reducing skin sensitivity. Proven methods include taking regular exercise and practicing relaxation techniques.
It can be tempting only to respond to sensitive skin when it flares up. However, if you have a good skincare routine in place skin sensitivity may reduce and even disappear.
- Choosing skincare products
Dry sensitive skin is easily irritated by environmental triggers, making it even more sensitive. It requires more than gentle cleansing and moisturising to become less sensitive.
- Cleansing dry sensitive skin
Many cleansers are so powerful they clean away not only the dirt on our skin but also the hydrolipid film that protects it. Look for products that contain mild surfactants that protect skin’s natural defenses and prevent it from drying out. Dry sensitive skin also benefits from ingredients that help to restore skin’s optimum pH.