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Sensitive or sensitised? Here's a simple guide to why your skin is playing up

Uh-oh. Sensitive skin is on the rise and, it looks like we're all making it worse.

The evolution of at-home skincare has given us high strength acids, retinols and serums. We've become our own chemists and aestheticians, stringing together DIY skincare routines to tackle our top issues from our bedrooms. We have the power to treat our own skin in our hands – or at least in our bathroom cabinets. The only problem is... Well, we don't really know what we're doing.

Worryingly, there seems to be a correlation between the advancement in our home skincare and the prevalence of skin sensitivity. A medical study published in 2019 noted that between 60-70% of women reported having sensitive skin, characterised by itching, burning, stinging, tightness or dryness.

If this sounds familiar, join the club. "There is evidence that the reported prevalence of self-perceived skin sensitivity has increased steadily over time," the study says. Notably, it affects women (whose skincare regimens traditionally tend to be much more stringent and potent) more than men.

Notice the phrase "self-perceived," though. Since sensitivity is so subjective, it isn't easy to diagnose correctly. A recent study into sensitivity in the UK by La Roche Posay found that over one in 10 women will describe their skin as sensitive without really knowing what it means.

Experts are finding that what we believe to be sensitive skin may actually be sensitised skin and that we could be playing a more significant role in the reactivity of our skin than we realise.

"Sensitive skin is naturally reactive skin," explains facialist and founder of eponymous skincare brand Kate Somerville. "If your skin flares because of certain foods, pollen and ingredients, it's likely to be sensitive."

Sensitised skin, on the other hand, is effectively injured. "Sensitised skin is the result of overstimulation," says Kate. "Lasers, peels and even retinols can cause the skin to become injured," she explains.

Most of the time, it comes down to how sturdy your skin barrier is. "For example, when people use certain products on their skin that they can’t really tolerate, it feels dry or astringent or starts to sting the skin," explains Dr Justine Hextall, La Roche-Posay Consultant Dermatologist.

"The interesting thing is a lot of people have learned to live with sensitivity and don’t realise that it's an issue until it's corrected. Your skin shouldn’t feel tight or uncomfortable," she adds. "If you're noticing your skin throughout the day, then there's an issue."

While ingredients like acids and retinol can work magic at removing dead skin, increasing cell turnover and improving the look and texture of our skin, like most things, it's about moderation. It's worth building up your tolerance to punchy ingredients slowly and sensibly, pausing to see if your skin agrees with it.

If you're using a retinol every day, chances are you won't need a harsh exfoliator on top. And, if you're using potent formulas that effectively break down or weaken your skin barrier, you need to be building it back up.

“You can use actives, but you have to make sure that you start with robust, hydrated, calm skin," say Dr Justine. "There is no point sticking on a load of retinoid if you have irritated skin. With actives, you need to take a low and slow approach and make sure there are always compensating ingredients such as glycerin there to repair. You can also try actives on your less sensitive areas or dilute them with your moisturiser," she adds. "The best way to look younger is to make sure your skin is hydrated, so stay on top of that.”

If you do overdo it, educate yourself on what to do next. "When skin is stressed, don't use harsh detergents like SLS or fragrances that can disrupt the microbiome," says Kate. Choose options that are non-stripping and nourishing. These include ceramides, peptides, and omegas, says Kate, who created her DeliKate skin line specifically for skin that's been riled up by overdoing it. "They can create a liquid second skin, building back up your barrier function and protecting your natural skin underneath," she says

Likewise, Dr Justine recommends La Roche Posay's Toleriane Ultra Dermallergo Serum. "It's going to calm and hydrate the skin, because it's specifically tested on those with intolerant skin,” she says. The serum uses a novel (and sciency-sounding) ingredient, neurosensine – a clinically proven peptide to reduce signs of sensitivity such as dryness, tightness, and itchiness and provide relief.

And new brands are emerging in response to the problem. Oodee, the world's first allergen neutral skincare brand, just launched onto Victoria Health. The founders recognised that one of the significant obstacles to tackling sensitive and sensitised skin is that often, we have no idea what triggered it in the first place.

An independent study found that 90% of Brits don't know which specific skincare ingredient causes irritation or skin flare-ups. So the brand's removed 14 major food allergens, 26 fragrance allergens and a whole host of other known irritants to create an ultra-gentle, ultra-nourishing stripped-back skincare routine complete with cleanser, serum and moisturiser.

Alongside identifying ingredients we should avoid, it's essential to know the ones worth seeking out. Cica has experienced a massive boom in popularity thanks to its ultra-soothing properties. And probiotics are the big buzzword in skincare thanks to the microbiome-friendly approach they take to balancing our skin's naturally protective eco-system of good bacteria.

The main takeaway? Addressing our skin's issues is all well and good, so long as we don't over strip it. Balance – as always – is key.

This article was originally on Glamour UK.

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