Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of people with sensitive skin issues and skin allergies. A 2011 survey of 36,500 Canadians revealed that 56% were concerned about chemicals in skincare products and nearly half felt they had sensitive skin. A 2007 US study produced similar results. Women were more concerned than men (50.9% vs. 38.2%).
Just What is “Sensitive Skin” Anyway?
Dermatologists define sensitive skin as reactions where patients may experience redness, pustules, bumps, and sometimes erosions. Common sensitive skin conditions include acne, rosacea, psoriasis, eczema and skin allergies.
However, many individuals consider themselves to have sensitive skin because they experience stinging, burning, redness or tightness after exposure to an irritant or due to overly dry skin that can no longer protect nerve endings.
Sensitive Skin Causes
There is no single root cause of sensitive skin. Age, gender and genetics may all play a role in your skin’s sensitivity. Environmental factors like sun, wind, heat and cold can trigger outbreaks, as can pollutants and chemicals in our daily lives. As well, lifestyle factors like diet also contribute.
People suffering recurring or painful skin conditions should consult a physician or dermatologist. Allergy testing may also be helpful, especially when eating a particular food or coming in contact with a particular substance triggers symptoms.
The Hype About Hypoallergenic
As there is no official definition, the only thing that “hypoallergenic” means is that the manufacturer has used ingredients with minimum potential for causing allergy. Hypoallergenic formulas tend to be milder and gentler than others, which cuts down on irritation.
So while a company may have conducted patch tests, everyone is different and has reacts differently to ingredients. For people with sensitive skin, hypoallergenic products may help, although it may not be the solution in all cases.
Ingredients For Which to Watch
Phthalates and Fragrance: Phthalate exposure in early childhood has been associated with altered hormone concentrations as well as increased allergies, runny nose, and eczema. Phthalates are commonly hidden on ingredient labels under the term “fragrance.” Look for shampoos, lotions and skincare products that are labeled “Fragrance-Free” not “Unscented.” Often fragrances (which can contain phthalates) are used to mask the scent in products and are found in “Unscented” products. Products labeled “Fragrance-Free” are free of artificial or synthetic fragrances.
Methylisothiazolinone (MI): The American Contact Dermatitis Society dubbed this preservative, found in cosmetics and moisturizers, the 2013 Contact Allergen of the Year.While Health Canada's Hot List limits the amount that can be in a cosmetic formulation, if you have sensitive skin, you may wish to avoid it altogether.
Certain Essential Oils: While essential oils are natural, there is a chance that some people may experience skin irritation to certain types of essential oils. For example, a study by the National Rosacea Society found that peppermint and eucalyptus oil triggered irritation. As well, essential oils may trigger skin allergies or cross-sensitivities – for instance, if you are allergic to ragweed, you may also be allergic to chamomile essential oils.
Some Alcohols: Commonly used in toners and astringents, alcohol can be used in a wide variety of other skincare products as well. However, not all alcohol ingredients are created equal! The type of alcohol that can dry and irritate skin is the “ethanol” type of alcohol. This can irritate by over-drying the skin, so look out for ingredients like ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and SD alcohol on labels. Other alcohols are “fatty alcohols” a waxy solid used as an emollient thickener that can be beneficial to skin.
Gluten: The rise of gluten-free skincare products has been phenomenal. Many people with wheat and/or grain intolerance are eliminating gluten from their diet as well as their skincare regime. Gluten can't be absorbed through the skin, but people may accidentally ingest small quantities of lotion, lipstick, or other products if they have the product on their hands or use it around their mouth. If you have Celiac disease or intolerance to gluten, you may want to switch to gluten-free skincare products and cosmetics.