Skincare trends come and go, but it’s the creams, balms and lotions that we turn to year after year that paint the clearest picture of our collective beauty needs. And it seems our skin is having a bit of a hard time. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, 23 per cent of skincare products launched in South Korea between January and October 2017 were designed specifically for sensitive skin, compared with 11 per cent in 2014.
Meanwhile, UK e-commerce platform Look Fantastic has seen a 71 per cent rise in searches for sensitive skin and sensitive skin products since this time last year, and Google searches for “sensitive skin” have more than doubled in the last five years worldwide. But when did we all get so sensitive?
What is classified as sensitive skin?
The defining features of sensitive skin may look similar – think redness, discomfort and inflammation – but the reasons behind these conditions can vary enormously. “I’m seeing more and more patients in my clinic who consider themselves to have sensitive skin,” says cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. “The hallmark of skin sensitivity is inflammation. It can be a feature of a number of different skin conditions including acne, rosacea and eczema, or it can be associated with ‘normal’ skin that burns and stings in response to common triggers like certain skincare ingredients.”
Identifying the source of your skin sensitivity is crucial when it comes to treating it, according to Dr Stefanie Williams, dermatologist and founder of London-based clinic Eudelo. “‘Sensitive skin’ is actually not a defined entity, as it can have different underlying causes which need very different therapeutic approaches,” she says. “The best option is always to see a cosmetic dermatologist, if possible, to get diagnosed properly.”
What are the contributing factors to sensitive skin?
Dr Bunting points the finger at our increasingly complicated, multi-step skincare routines for putting our skin into a spin. “So many women complain of having a cupboard full of creams they’ve used once. Or else they’re so scared of changing their routine, they have been using the same regime for a decade, despite their skin’s changing appearance and needs,” she says. “What’s important to remember is that skincare is not an exact science because individuals are just that: individual. What works for your friend or that blogger/model/actress you follow on Instagram has almost no bearing on what will work for you.”
Dr Howard Murad, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Murad skincare, adds that the environmental aggressors of daily life only worsen the problem. “Our modern lifestyle means we are surrounded by skin aggressors daily, from car exhausts, smoke, pollution, free radicals, sun exposure, even devices such as mobile phones,” he warns. “Sensitive skin concerns such as inflammation and irritation can easily be triggered by stress, medication, environment, hormones and overstimulating the skin, and this can be worsened with inappropriate skincare.”
Of course, the source of your sensitivity makes a big difference. Dr Williams says that while issues in rosacea-type sensitive skin can be triggered by overly rich skincare, atopic-type (eczema-prone) sensitive skin can actually benefit from the same lipid-rich creams. Similarly, hot weather can exacerbate the former, while sunshine might improve matters for the latter. Just as the triggers differ, so should the treatment.
How can you identify the correct products for treating sensitive skin?
When choosing the best products to treat sensitive skin, it’s best to go back to basics. It then becomes easier to identify the products that are exacerbating the problem. Start with a gentle cleanser and moisturiser, free from potentially irritating fragrance – search for the term non-comedogenic. Korea-born cica creams have also recently gained popularity among those with stressed-out skin. Then start to incorporate other products.
“An all-physical SPF is best if your skin is super-reactive, so look at those formulated with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Wait a week and if all is well, it’s time to consider your actives. There is one key message here: one at a time,” advises Dr Bunting, who suggests niacinamide as a good starting place, as it’s known to improve skin’s protective barrier function. “Start using smaller amounts less frequently (applied over moisturiser, if you’re worried) and build up the amount and frequency gradually, until you’re at your skin’s limit, or you’re using it daily.”
And whatever new products you’re trialling, Dr Murad has one useful tip to ensure you avoid a skincare disaster. “If you have sensitive skin, I recommend spot-testing any topical agent to the inside of your upper arm first before applying it to your face,” he says. “This area mimics the skin on the face in terms of sensitivity, but it can also be discreetly hidden if there is some sort of a visible reaction.”
Scroll down to see Vogue’s pick of the best products for sensitive skin