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Is your skin truly sensitive or is there something else going on?

People with sensitive skin often feel that this is just the way their skin is, as there are no other symptoms, unlike in acne or rosacea. However, it is worth visiting the dermatologist and running an assessment to ensure there is no underlying issue. Getting the right diagnosis is the first step to cure the problem!

What might be happening? Some people apparently have a subclinical barrier disruption, a condition that can be treated with a proper dose of corticosteroids.

However, another reason could be an overuse of skincare products, including peels, acids and retinol. There is a scientific term for it: “iatrogenic sensitive skin”, but some refer to this issue as “polypharmacy” – artificially created increase in adverse reactions by overusing the over-the-counter beauty products.

Sensitive skin might also be a symptom of a contact dermatitis, which many people with sensitive skin already intuitively know and manage by avoiding certain ingredients they’ve noticed they have been sensitive to. In this case your dermatologist will probably come back with what you have already known: continue avoiding certain ingredients in your skincare. But which ones? Internet seems to be full of opinions and it seems that almost every ingredient is under suspicion now.

Besides the specific ingredients you might have already identified as irritating, here is the checklist provided for cosmetic formulators in the “Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products” book. This is a great look behind the scene of marketing statements into what actual industry knowledge is and we can translate it into the guidance for the consumers:

Select products from a reputable manufacturer that uses high-quality pure ingredients free of contaminants.

From a consumer standpoint, it means the larger the company, the better access to the high-quality ingredients they typically have. A cheaper brand that belongs to a large beauty conglomerate and is present in every drug store might have quality ingredients and reduce its costs due to the “economy of scale” while an expensive line with only 3 products that sells 500 units per month might be purchasing smaller quantities of ingredients from unverified resellers. Many ingredients that were considered to be sensitizers or comedogenic in the past (like petrolatum) happened to have impurities, and today are no longer an issue when purchased from a reputable manufacturer.

Products should be well-preserved to prevent the formation of auto-oxidation byproducts.

Choose tinted, airless bottles or tubes and make sure you are buying a fresh product! It is also worth noting that mineral oil and petrolatum are also less susceptible to oxidation compared to natural oils. When dealing with natural products, knowing its true shelf life is critical.

Paraben preservatives have proven to be the least problematic.

Surprise! After all of the fearmongering, right? Apparently, parabens are also sensitive skin’s best friends. Part of the reason is that they are effective at a low concentration and are rarely added beyond 0.04% while “natural” preservatives might need to be incorporated at almost 4% level to be effective.

Avoid solvents, volatile vehicles, vasodilatory substances, and sensory stimulators in all products.

These are our typical sensitizing suspects: alcohol, acetates, propanediol, and glycols as solvents; essential oils as volatiles and sensory stimulators; niacinamide & caffeine. One thing to note: solvents are necessary when incorporating various active ingredients which often come in a powder form. Water is not an efficient solvent for many of them. Therefore people with sensitive skin are limited in what active ingredients they can use as part of their routine.

Minimize the use of surfactants and select minimally irritating emulsifier systems.

One way to minimize surfactants in your skincare is to stick to “water only” or “oil only” products: gels, oils, and balms. You can just layer them up to get the benefit of a traditional moisturizer. It is hard to avoid the surfactants in cleansers, as they are the ones responsible for the cleansing part, but you can choose mild surfactants, preferably sugar-based.

Avoid botanical extracts and anti inflammatory ingredients.

Botanical extracts have questionable value and unpredictable variety of ingredients that differ with every new crop. Also counter intuitively, ingredients that are supposed to reduce inflammation and calm the skin, can act as sensitizes for the same reason, since they are naturally derived: bisabolol and allantoin. Overall, the rule of thumb is: the fewer ingredients the product has, the higher chances are that it will be compatible with your skin.

If you have a sensitive skin and you can’t live without makeup, here are the tips on selecting non-sensitizing cosmetic products:

1. Select powder or cream cosmetic products or, if liquid, silicone-based products 

2. Cosmetics ideally should be water removable

3. Carefully track and discard old cosmetic products

4. Avoid bright colors: eyeliner and mascara should be black, eye shadows should be earth-toned (tan, beige, light pink, cream)

5. Use pencils for your eyeliner and eyebrow makeup

6. Go for the “physical” protection in sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide

7. Select cosmetic products with as few ingredients as possible. 

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