Decoding sensitive skin

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  • Tuesday, 31 Mar 2015

Dermalogica offers Face Mapping, a zone-by-zone skin analysis that provides insight into the skin’s past and present. The 10-minute skin analysis eliminates guesswork when selecting products for the skin. Photo: Esthetics International Group

Get to the root cause of your skin problems.

Does your skin feel dry and becomes inflamed easily? Do you often experience redness, skin irritation and a prickling sensation? If you’ve ticked all those boxes, chances are you’ve got sensitive skin. And yes, it’s the skin type that everyone dreads!

Ingredients such as cinnamon, lemon, chamomile and ylang-ylang can cause sensitive skin to react. 

People with sensitive skin have a problem selecting products as everything and anything might trigger a reaction. Will oily or dry skin products solve your skin sensitivity problem? It all depends – a mistake could cause the skin to break out in a rash, itch or ugly zits!

Touchy subject

Sensitive skin is a state of hyper-reactivity, which generally means, “easily irritated”.

Consultant dermatologist Dr Lee Yin Yin says there are several causes of sensitive skin: physical weather changes (heat, cold and ultraviolet radiation), chemicals in personal care products and stress.

“To diagnose skin sensitivity, doctors look at various aspects, including getting a complete patient skin history to determine skin condition, and narrowing down the personal care products that might be causing the allergic reaction,” explains Dr Lee, adding that some of the medical causes of skin sensitivities include contact dermatitis, urticaria, rosacea, eczema and photodermatitis.

‘I avoid brands with synthetic fragrances, petrochemicals and synthetic colours,’ says Nicole Hoh, 22, referring to her sensitive skin. Photo: Kens Apothecary

The skin’s epidermis layer protects us from a spectrum of external aggressions. If the protective layer is impaired, irritants can penetrate and disrupt nerve endings, triggering symptoms of discomfort.

Although sensitive skin may seem like a complex problem, it’s a common enough problem for many people, regardless of race, colour or creed.

The 2012 International Journal Of Cosmetic Science states that 90% of Asian women have sensitive skin. The Indian Journal of Dermatology’s 2012 research, The Sensitive Skin Syndrome, states that in a British study, 51.4% of women and 38.2% of men were reported to have sensitive skin.

“Skin sensitivity can be detected in approximately half the world’s population,” says Dr Lee.

While some people may be perceived to have sensitive skin, they could really be suffering from sensitised skin instead. Lee describes sensitised skin as skin that has developed an allergic reaction (such as inflammation and itchiness) as a result of exposure to a particular substance. This reaction will escalate with subsequent exposure to the same substance.

In this instance, normal skin becomes inflamed due to various factors such as ageing (which causes thinning of the epidermal layer leading to dry skin), smoking (drains skin of vitamin A), over-cleansing (loss of sebum due to harsh soaps) and astringent-type products (impairs skin’s lipid barrier protection).

“Normal skin can become sensitive if they are exposed to a variety of chemicals and substances, and become sensitised. Upon exposure again to the same substance or stimulus, the skin will evoke an allergic reaction.”

Many of us have probably experienced sensitised skin in some way or other. Ever used an anti-bacterial shower gel, which caused your skin to itch? How about a dermatologically tested moisturiser which made you breakout in a rash?

Products containing witch hazel extract (an astringent to tighten skin) or calamine lotion may leave your skin too dry. When the skin’s lipid barrier is compromised, skin becomes vulnerable to triggers.

NEXT: Redness, breakouts and flare ups. -->>

Sensitive skin is a common problem. It can be detected in nearly half the world's population. Photo: Filepic

Leonard Heng, 32, account director with a public relations company, had perfectly normal skin till he started to develop redness, breakouts and tightness of skin. The culprit, he reckons, was alcohol-based skincare products.

“I didn’t understand my skin issues and didn’t know which product best suited my skin. Some products were fine while others caused a flare up,” Heng, 32, lamented.

He then sought professional treatment and learnt that he had sensitised skin. To desensitise skin, he used calming products to relieve his skin inflammation, flare-ups and discomfort. He diligently follows the three-step regimen (washing, toning and moisturising) and went for monthly skin treatments.

“Skin has different needs so you have to treat it with the right products. Read labels too. Facials are important to boost hydration and improve skin health,” says Heng, who now avoids non-dermatologically tested products.

Undergraduate Nicole Hoh, 22, has had delicate skin since young. She is careful with her personal care product choices and avoids products that are too greasy or contain a high percentage of active ingredients.

“I tend to develop rash and redness around my cheeks after applying products that are too rich for my skin. Products with AHA (alpha hydroxyl acid) are a no-no as it’s highly irritating to my skin,” says Hoh.

In despair, she consulted dermatologists to solve the problem.

“Skin specialists recommended antihistamine pills and steroid creams. While the treatments helped, they were merely temporary fixes.”

Left with no choice, Hoh turned to products formulated with plant and mineral-derived actives. Since converting to skin-friendly formulae, her complexion is better and her skin rarely breaks out in a rash.

“I avoid brands with synthetic fragrances, petrochemicals and synthetic colours,” says Hoh, who gleaned her knowledge on skincare through online research and reading beauty magazines.

While organic personal care products and skincare with natural ingredients may seem like the safest option, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the better choice for fragile skin. Organic enthusiasts take note: skin can react to natural oils and plants too.

Beauty website states that when skin comes into contact with an ingredient which you’re allergic to, your immune system responds by releasing histamines, which in turn causes the dermis to become inflamed. Essential oils like chamomile, calendula and botanical ingredients found in natural beauty products can also cause allergic reactions.

Author Paula Begoun (The Beauty Bible and Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me) on her beauty website,, said that many natural ingredients can cause allergies, irritation and skin sensitivities. Irritation or inflammation of any kind causes collagen breakdown, impairs the skin’s ability to heal and reduces its ability to defend itself from environmental damage.

“What’s troubling is that your skin is very good at hiding the fact that it is being irritated. Just because you’re using a product with irritating ingredients, but not seeing any immediate signs of irritation, doesn’t mean it’s not taking place beneath your skin,” she explained, citing almond extract, angelica, fennel and rosemary as some of the more common natural ingredients that can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions and skin sensitivity.

Analyse your skin type

Now that you have a better understanding of sensitive skin, you should determine your skin type before purchasing skincare products.

Dermalogica offers Face Mapping, a zone-by-zone skin analysis that provides insight into skin’s past and present. The 10-minute skin analysis eliminates the guesswork when selecting products for skin, says Dermalogica group education manager Jesie Hong.

“Many consumers self-diagnose their skin type and condition incorrectly, resulting in inaccurate self-prescribed products. The best solution is to consult a skin therapist for a proper skin analysis. Otherwise it may cause further complications, such as sensitivity or breakouts,” says Hong.

Like any other form of diagnosis, it’s important to understand the state of your skin and use products according to what your skin actually needs. Sothys performs SkinScope for every new customer who undergoes its programme so that they will be able to see the progress of the skin after six months, depending on how long the programme is prescribed.

“SkinScope reads the skin’s hydration level, sebum, elasticity and melanin which the Sothys skincare solution specialist will further analyse. She then comes up with a synergistic skincare programme tailored to the customer’s skin needs to achieve optimum skin health and ultimately preserve skin’s healthy, youthful glow,” says Sothys Malaysia’s group marketing manager Joanne Teo.

While skin analysis may help to determine products suited to your skin type, a 2014 study conducted by L’Oreal Research and Innovation (France) and Nestle Research Centre (Switzerland) discovered that daily supplements of probiotics may reduce skin sensitivity from within.

Dr Lee also advises patients to avoid products that can aggravate skin, and keep products clean and simple.

Watch out for volatile solvents (such as ethanol and volatile propellants), aromatics (menthol and benzyl alcohol), penetrants (hydroxy acids and retinoids), harsh surfactants (lauryl sulfates and quaternary ammonium compounds) and irritating active ingredients (benzoyl peroxide and urea).

“The secret is to purchase products with less than 10 ingredients. The fewer the ingredients, the better. Find products without chemical sunscreens (titanium dioxide or zinc oxide), parabens and anti-irritants like aloe vera and chamomile.

“Patients may need to change to milder products that are soap-, fragrance- and colourant-free, with minimal preservatives,” concludes Dr Lee.

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Decoding sensitive skin


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