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Sensitive Facial Skin Understanding Its Causes and How to Protect It

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

While sensitive skin can appear anywhere on the body, it is at its most obvious on the face. It occurs when skins natural barrier function is compromised, causing water loss and allowing penetration of irritants. Symptoms are exacerbated by factors that facial skin is most exposed to, from the sun to some ingredients in cosmetics and cleansers.

Having a greater understanding of the causes of sensitive facial skin, and the factors that can worsen it, can help reduce its impact and lessen occurrences.

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Signs & Symptoms

How to recognise sensitive facial skin

Healthy skin performs a delicate balancing act, protecting against external influences, while regulating moisture levels. Much of this is down to the processes taking place in skins horny layer, or stratum corneum, which is made up of cells and lipids. These lipids are like the mortar to the cells bricks, providing stability and permeability, regulating fluid and maintaining elasticity and firmness.

Their effectiveness, however, is dependent on enzyme activity, which is often weaker in sensitive skin. As a result, skins barrier function becomes compromised, leading to excess transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and enabling the penetration of irritants. This can be even more pronounced in facial skin, which is not only most exposed to factors like UV rays, pollutants and chemicals, but is also where the epidermis can be as thin as 0.02mm, compared to an average thickness of 0.1mm elsewhere. Read more about skin structure.

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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.

These symptoms can appear anywhere on the face. They share similarities to those presented by other skin conditions, especially symptoms associated with moisture deficiency.

Dehydrated facial skin manifests at the surface as fine lines caused by dryness and tends to look dull. It also feels tight and uncomfortable. These symptoms can be caused by a decrease in the number of skins own moisture distribution channels, known as Aquaporins, which transfer water between cells in deeper epidermal layers. When Aquaporins decrease, the skins natural moisture balance suffers and its protective barrier is compromised. As a result, it is less resilient to external aggressors such as a dry and cold climate or irritating substances and may become increasingly sensitive. Ingredients such as Gluco Glycerol help to reactivate Aquaporins, intensively and long lastingly rehydrate skin and support its natural barrier function.

Dry facial skin can range from roughness to chapping and redness, and is caused by the loss of surface lipids that form a natural barrier, and of natural moisturising factors (NMFs) such as Urea and Lactate reducing moisture loss. Once this balance is compromised, moisture is lost through the skin.

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Both conditions can lead to skin becoming sensitive to irritants.

Reactive hypersensitive facial skin is more common in women than men, and may be related to cosmetic practice and age, and goes along with an increased transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Symptoms occur after applying products to skin and may be experienced immediately, or be noticed hours or days later. These unpleasant sensations have been subjectively described as, among other things, stinging and burning, and can be accompanied by redness (erythema), scaling and pustules. Using products with very few, well-tolerated ingredients is key to reducing the impact of this condition.

Ageing skin is also prone to sensitivity, as thinning of the epidermis and reduced lipid synthesis can result in the barrier function being compromised. Declining levels of substances like Hyaluronic Acid, which hydrates the skins layers, and coenzyme Q10, which energises cells to improve their regenerative function, then exacerbate this situation. The result is a combination of fine lines and wrinkles with dry, reddened skin, and itchiness.

Facial skin can be affected by sun allergies. These share some symptoms with sensitive skin, including redness and itchiness, but also manifest as raised bumps, rashes, blisters and pustules. While most sun allergies, including Polymorphous Light Eruptions (PLE), are caused by UV radiation, ingredients of cosmetic products can be a factor, too. Find out more about PLE and other sun allergies or how sun affects skin.

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If you are unsure about what type of skin condition you have, our online skin test may be able to help. Sensitive skin can be a symptom of a variety of diseases, so if you are at all worried about your condition, consult your doctor or dermatologist for a diagnosis and recommendation.

Causes & Triggers

What causes facial skin to become sensitive

Skins protective functions

The skin has a plethora of systems in place to ensure it stays healthy. A hydrolipid film composed of water, fatty acids and lipids safeguards the surface. This has a pH of around 5, which is slightly acidic, protecting 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.

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The physical barrier is the horny layer, or stratum corneum, where lipids work like cement, filling the spaces between the cells. Their permeability means that they regulate fluid loss and uptake therefore play a key role in providing the moisture that makes skin feel soft and smooth. This is also achieved through skin shedding, or desquamation, which again is encouraged and regulated by skins natural regeneration process.

All of these processes are dependent on enzyme activity. 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.

Internal causes of sensitive facial skin

Although sensitive skin can occur at any age, it is particularly common in babyhood and as skin ages. Babies 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 higher age, as well as metabolic processes slow down. Ageing skin gradually becomes lipid deficient, making it more easily irritated by alkaline substances such as soap. Read more about skin in different ages.

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Hormonal changes due to the puberty, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and the menopause can all affect skins resistance to irritants.

Prolonged periods of stress and lack of sleep are both known triggers of sensitive skin. These are often accompanied by 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 result in skin becoming sensitive to irritants such as colorants, perfumes and alcohol.

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External causes of sensitive facial 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. Read more about factors that influence skin.

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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. Read more about factors that influence skin.

Contributing Factors

Factors that can increase facial skin sensitivity

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.

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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 and 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 skins cellular structure and reducing immune activity.

Solutions

Relieving and helping sensitive facial skin

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Helping sensitive skin through lifestyle

Introducing a diet rich in antioxidants such as Vitamins A, C and E, and natural plant oils or oily fish can help return skin to a healthy condition.

Even in cloudy conditions, facial skin may be exposed to UV rays. Regular application of sunscreen is now recommended to avoid their harmful effects, while direct exposure should be avoided between 11am and 3pm. When choosing sun protection, it is important to avoid products that include irritants like certain perfumes.

Important Information

Before choosing and using cosmetics in sensitive skin, it is worth doing a test application first (e.g. in the crook of one arm) and assessing the area after 24 hours.

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Active ingredients

Research has shown that a number of active ingredients, which are largely nature-derived, can provenly reduce skin sensitivity. These are available in skin care products, making it possible to follow a regular cleansing and moisturising routine, while also protecting the skin.

  • Dexpanthenol is a derivative of Vitamin B5, and helps to reduce transepidermal water loss through the acceleration of skins own healing and renewal process. It stimulates regeneration and strengthens the natural protection function of the skin to keep it healthy and resilient.
  • Similarly Glycerin helps maintain skins moisture levels by acting as a humectant, which means that it attracts and then holds on to water.
  • pH5 Citrate Buffer restores skins natural pH levels so skins enzyme activities can return to normal, enabling moisturisation and strengthened resistance to irritants.
  • Nature-identical Gluco Glycerol stimulates the skins own moisture distribution channels the Aquaporins. It hydrates the skin and improves its barrier function.
  • Coenzyme Q10 is a substance found naturally in skin that helps to re-energise cells, making them stronger and helping them to function more effectively. It is also a potent antioxidant, working to neutralise free-radicals that damage cell structure and skins protective function.
  • Biotin, (also known as Vitamin B7) is a water-soluble vitamin that strengthens skin, nails and hair. Biotin activates skins own production of lipids (fat), which helps it to return to its natural, healthy looking condition and act as a protective barrier against the outside world.
  • Ceramide-3 is biologically identical to the Ceramides produced by well-balanced skin. Ceramides are key to natural protective barrier that prevents moisture evaporation and blocks out irritants that can cause inflammation and itching. When the skins ceramide levels fall, dryness and irritation can result.

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