Publication: A2 Aesthetic & Anti-Ageing Magazine, issue 19
Author: Ingrid Katz (Pure Aesthetics)
In order to treat a sensitive or reactive skin we must first clarify the meaning of “sensitive skin”. Sensitive skin is inherited. Sensitised skin is acquired. The two are similar in appearance and present with redness, itching, heat, flushing and reactions to name a few. They can also be treated in similar ways. The crucial difference lies in the DNA.
Genetically inherited sensitive skin can be treated but never cured. The good news is that sensitised skin is a result of external factors and can thus be treated with greater long-term success. These aggressors often come from various lifestyle choices, including stress and exposure to toxins in various form. Changes in lifestyle to reduce or remove these aggressors can, and will, stop the sensitisation.
The primary indication of sensitivity is a breakdown in the skin’s protective barrier, which is made up of lipids (oil) and water. This will lead to dehydration, redness, broken capillaries, rough patches, stinging or tingling and/or flushing of the neck and cheeks. These symptoms not only look and feel horrible, but can indicate a more serious concern that needs to be treated. We must remember that the skin is the first line of defence for the body and if this natural suit of armour is compromised, so too is the body.
A person suffering such a breakdown should be encouraged to embrace treatment to slow or halt this cascade of symptoms as quickly as possible. On this note, treatment of the symptoms is ideal in acute cases where itching and redness are unbearable, but... and this is a big BUT, treatment of only the symptoms, will not fix the problem. One should always look to treat the cause as much as is possible in order to ensure it doesn’t become a recurring concern.
While visibly red, irritated skin may be the end result of two different types of inflammation, that being immunogenic and neurogenic. These are two primary processes that contribute to sensitised skin. One can also have these types of inflammation without visible signs (i.e. redness) associated with it. The inflammatory process is still occurring but it is invisible to the eye and may only result in stinging, burning or itching. In this case the skin is sensitised. If not kept under control it may lead to visible inflammation associated with redness and the typical symptoms.
Immunogenic Inflammation occurs when the skin responds to an introduced irritant with an immune-system response. Pollen, bacteria and artificial fragrances are common triggers. In other words, the skin attacks the intruder as though it is bacteria which must be eliminated from the body; much like the way your body would fight off a common cold. However, in the case of sensitisation; pain, redness and swelling are common responses.
Neurogenic Inflammation begins in the nerves and nervous system. Chemicals and pollutants in the environment stimulate receptors in the skin to trigger inflammation. This results in the release of substances called neuropeptides, which trigger the inflammatory response. Under normal conditions, these substances play a highly useful role in tissue repair i.e. wound healing. However, neuropeptides also trigger and aggravate sensitisation, as well as a variety of painful inflammatory conditions such as urticaria (itching), psoriasis, dermatitis and rosacea.
Combine either or both of these above factors with a compromised barrier and you have the perfect canvas for an inflamed, reactive skin, that will trigger a cascade of negative responses.
We must at this point also make mention of “stress” and the role it plays in exacerbating these conditions. Stress can present itself in many different forms and is often overlooked when dealing with skin conditions:
- Life stress – family, relationships or work
- Physical stress – fatigue, poor nutrition, recovery from illness, rigorous training or travelling
- Environmental stress – toxins in the air, water or environment that challenge the immune system
These will each contribute greatly to sensitisation and should be taken seriously when dealing with a reactive skin.
The first step in breaking the cycle of sensitisation, is removing as many contact triggers as possible.
- Lifestyle choices which are under your control are an obvious place to start, such as smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption.
- Stress management differs for everyone and can be challenging, but should be taken seriously – whether it be reading a book, taking a run, doing yoga, meditation or having a massage. Find something that works for you.
- Supplements and vitamins will assist the body in coping.
- Probiotics will help strengthen the immune system and decrease allergic or inflammatory reactions.
- Fish Oil or Omega 3 will assist in making the skin’s barrier stronger and again, decrease inflammation.
- Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and so strengthens the skins immune system.
- A Vitamin B complex is essential for skin health and circulation.
- A deficiency in Zinc will lead to increased chances of skin rashes and so should be checked.
The other aspect of environmental sensitisation over which we all have less (if any control) is the presence of irritants in our environment. These irritants may be natural, like pollen, but most are manmade. They’re present whether we want them or not. Dealing with the effects of these chemicals upon the skin requires a regimen of care, based around ingredients which stop inflammation and restore damaged tissue.
- Cleansing the skin correctly is the first and probably most important step in caring for an irritated skin. A pH balanced cleanser that keeps the lipid barrier in tact is vital.
- Calming the inflammation is the second most important step in a strategic home care plan. A skin in a constantly inflamed state will never be able to function optimally, which means it cannot heal itself. Look for soothing, anti-inflammatory serums or active gels.
- Mechanical exfoliation (granular scrubs, micro-dermabrasion) should be avoided at all costs and gentle enzymatic exfoliation should be used in its place.
- Hydration is important in order to avoid further irritation of the skin. A dehydrated skin is almost always sensitised to some extent. A moisturiser that provides adequate hydration and ensures the lipid barrier is maintained, should be used.
- A sun block should be used on a daily basis and should not be compromised. Sun exposure causes another inflammation process which can and should be avoided.
- Lastly, carefully selected in-salon or professional treatments can reduce or alleviate the inflammation cascade. In this case, the concept of “less is more” should be followed. Some treatments, while results driven, can be more harmful for a reactive skin. Find a salon and therapist or Doctor that you trust and be patient with the process.