Do you have sensitive skin or has your skin become sensitized, is your barrier function damaged or are you the reactive type? Here we take a deep dive into what this all means for your skin and what the heck you should or could be doing differently. By the very nature of this complex issue, I have decided to split this post into two parts, in part one we look at “What Can Cause Sensitive Skin and in part 2 “How To Treat Compromised Or Sensitive Skin”
what is sensitive skin?
If your sensory perception of your skin feels something like this – tightness, burning, tingling, pain, dryness, stinging and pruritus (itching) then you would be classed as having sensitive skin. Environmental factors play a role, as does having fair skin, lifestyle choices, stress, and hormones – throw rosacea, atopic dermatitis or psoriasis into the mix equals complete CHAOS! This is a complex issue and we can see that sensitive skin may be triggered by hypersensitivity to a range of stimuli which can be physical, chemical, psychological, and/or hormonal, multiple factors such as age, skin pigmentation, anatomic region, cultural factors and pre-existing diseases all have an influence. Now let’s unpack all this information and look at each different aspect to understand what is potentially happening to your skin.
What leads to Sensitive Skin?
1. SKIN REACTIONS
- Irritation – Is caused by a chemical compound, the skin will react as soon as it is exposed to them, and the concentration of the chemical irritant will dictate the severity of the skin reaction experienced.
- Sensitization – This is a type of allergic reaction that you may not notice upon immediate exposure to the chemical compound, further exposure to the compound will cause an inflammatory response by your immune system causing further sensitization. In other words, this has been acquired over time and by repeated exposure and can happen to anyone. It’s a never-ending cycle, too – once you’ve had a reaction to a product, your skin’s uppermost layer (stratum corneum) is compromised, giving way to the potential for even more problems.
- Phototoxicity (PT) – Also known as photosensitivity, is a skin reaction that occurs in the presence of Ultra Violet (UV) light. Certain compounds found in essential oils are capable of absorbing energy from UV light much more effectively than skin. The application of the Essential Oil itself will not cause PT unless the skin is exposed to the sun or another UV light source. PT agents are known as ‘Bergapten‘ or ‘furocoumarins’ these are polycyclic molecules whose structure gives them the ability to absorb ultraviolet photons, store them for a while and then realize them in a ‘burst’ onto the skin.
2. ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS
- Air Pollution – The generation of free radicals that may oxidize amino acids in tissue proteins and initiate lipid cell damage of polyunsaturated fatty acids, resulting in dermatitis and atopic eczema [when exposed to high levels of traffic-related air pollution] Particles in the nanosize range, especially those from traffic sources, are considered among the most harmful components causing oxidative stress in skin meaning premature aging – pigment spots and wrinkles. Pollution breaks down the acid mantle of the Stratum Corneum and damages the barrier function.
- Exposure to UV rays – has been linked to skin photoaging and to the development of skin cancers. UVA penetrates deeply into the basal layer of the epidermis and dermal fibroblasts. UVB has also been linked to the development of skin cancers. UVB is largely absorbed by epidermal cellular components.
- Adverse Climates
Dry – Sucks the moisture from your skin by literally drying it out, this climate can also induce and/or worsen some skin conditions – such as eczema and psoriasis.
Humid – Humidity often causes your pores to go into overdrive producing sweat to cool your body – which leaves you more prone to breakouts.
Cold – Exposure to cold air strips the skin of moisture and dries it out.
3. LIFESTYLE CHOICES
- Alcohol – Dehydrates your body generally, including the skin. This happens each time you drink. Drinking too much is also thought to deprive the skin of vital vitamins and nutrients. Over time, drinking heavily can have other, more permanent, detrimental effects on your skin. Rosacea is a skin that is linked to alcohol.
- Caffeine – Is highly acidic, high doses of acidic caffeine disrupt your stress hormones, which control your skin’s oil production. Caffeine can act as a diuretic, dehydrating your skin if you drink too much.
- Sugar – Breaks down collagen, the springy substance that makes your skin look plump, youthful, and lifted, it can weaken the immune system, and a suppressed immune system is bad at fighting off bacteria. Bacteria = clogged pores = pimples. Sugar triggers insulin production, which triggers protein-utilization malfunctions affecting the production of the proteins and amino acids that build up collagen and elasticity. It also creates more testosterone, which makes pores larger and skin oilier.
- Cosmetics – Soaps, perfumes, stripping ingredients, excessive cleansing, and excessive exfoliation.
- Smoking – Chemical substances from cigarette smoke activate transepidermal water loss, and degeneration of connective tissue, causing deeper wrinkling, premature facial skin aging in smokers along with orange-purple skin discoloration. Free radicals from cigarette smoke are associated with oxidative stress resulting in lipid cell damage. A higher occurrence of acne among smokers and a correlation between the severity of acne and the number of smoked cigarettes has been shown also cigarette smoke is associated with psoriasis.
- Medications – Steroid creams that are often prescribed for severe irritations, eczema and allergic reactions cause a thinning of the skin which, while reducing the inflammation, leaves you vulnerable to further irritants.
4. ENDOGENOUS FACTORS
- Hormones – Estrogen levels decline as we age, to create significant changes in how the skin looks and feels. It becomes dry, less elastic and more fragile. In humans, over age 40 the biggest culprit of dry and sagging skin is declining estrogen. Skin appears thin and sallow, with fine lines turning into deep creases. The areas around the eyes and lips may droop slightly and lose firmness and because of less blood flow and circulation, skin starts to appear less vibrant.
- Testosterone – It stimulates the sebum-producing glands, which are important for protecting skin with natural oils, but overproduction can lead to acne.
- Thyroid – This is a hormone that influences your skin’s appearance. An overactive thyroid can cause warm, sweaty, and flushed skin, while an underactive thyroid can lead to dry, coarse skin with a reduced ability to perspire.
- Stress – Is proven to slow down the skin healing process, including skin barrier recovery, daily stress or poor stress management can leave the skin barrier in a permanently weakened state.
5. CUTANEOUS FACTORS
- Atopic Dermatitis – This is the genetic form of eczema, which affects about 10-20% of people worldwide. Eczema is a chronic, long-lasting form of dermatitis.
- Rosacea – This is an oxidative stress condition – this is due to an imbalance between antioxidants and reactive oxidizing species within the skin. The phenomenon is identical to what is known as free radical damage and underlies the worsening of rosacea through inflammatory pathways.
- Psoriasis – Is characterized by skin cells that multiply up to ten times faster than normal. As underlying cells reach the skin’s surface and die, their sheer volume causes raised, red plaques covered with white scales.
- Genetic – You’re born with certain skin characteristics: thinner / delicate / possibly translucent skin /skin tends to be redder due to blood vessels being close to the surface of the skin with visible capillaries on the rise and across the cheeks – this is common for Northern European ancestry.
- Disturbed Barrier – Studies suggest that sensitive skin is the result of the impaired barrier function of the stratum corneum (SC), this is the very outer layer of the epidermis, therefore, the body’s first defence against the environment, sun damage, penetration of foreign matter toxins and microorganisms. A healthy functioning SC is key to healthy robust skin. Research suggests a link between atopic dermatitis and sensitive skin.
- Sensory Nervous System – A Disturbed Barrier of the SC can lead to the exposure of immune system cells and sensitive nerves, resulting in marked cutaneous responses (sensitive skin) to otherwise harmless stimuli.
- Age – Your skin barrier weakens with age, generally the whiter or paler the skin, the thinner the barrier, which means you’re more prone to rashes, redness and irritation.
- Hydration – The body is composed of 75% water, as we age this gradually reduces until we die when we are close to 0% (harsh but true..)
Skincare Products and the Overuse Issue
Overuse of certain cosmetic ingredients can indeed disturb the skin barrier function and lead to various skin issues. The skin barrier is essential for maintaining hydration, protecting against external aggressors, and preventing the loss of essential substances. Overuse of certain ingredients can compromise this barrier, leading to dryness, irritation, inflammation, and other skin problems in other words your skin has now become sensitive!
Here are some examples of specific cosmetic ingredients that, when overused, can disturb the skin barrier function:
- Retinoids (e.g., Retinol) – Retinoids are commonly used in anti-aging products for their ability to promote skin cell turnover. However, excessive use can cause redness, peeling, and increased sensitivity, disrupting the skin barrier function.
- Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) – AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid are exfoliants that can help improve skin texture. But overuse can lead to excessive exfoliation, disrupting the skin’s protective layer and causing irritation.
- Benzoyl Peroxide – Benzoyl peroxide is used to treat acne due to its antibacterial properties. However, excessive use can strip the skin of its natural oils and compromise the skin barrier, leading to dryness and irritation.
- Essential Oils – While some essential oils can have beneficial properties, overusing them can irritate the skin and disrupt its barrier function. Examples include lemon oil, lavender oil, and tea tree oil.
- Alcohol – Alcohol is commonly found in toners and astringents. While it can help remove excess oil, overuse can lead to dryness and disrupt the skin barrier.
- Cleansing/Exfoliating – It is easy to over cleanse and we have been conditioned to think clean means squeaky clean. No!!!! this is stripping your skin barrier – also known as stratum corneum — the outermost layer of your five epidermis layers. Your skin barrier is composed of 3 main elements, The microbiome, The acid mantle and The Lipid Barrier. (I will address this in another blog post!)
Final thoughts – everyone’s skin is different, and what may be considered overuse for one person might be well-tolerated by another. Essential Oils for example are highly concentrated extracts from plants and can contain various compounds that may trigger allergic reactions or irritate the skin, potentially causing skin irritation and sensitivities due to their chemical composition, which can be irritating to certain individuals.
The European Union (EU) has strict regulations in place to ensure the safety of cosmetics, including those containing essential oils. According to this regulation, cosmetics manufacturers must conduct safety assessments for their products, including those containing essential oils. The safety assessment process involves evaluating the potential risks associated with the ingredients used in the cosmetic product, including essential oils, and considering potential adverse effects, such as skin irritation or sensitization.
The EU Cosmetics Regulation requires the mandatory labelling of 26 specific fragrance allergens when they are present in cosmetic products at certain concentrations. These allergens are known to be potential sensitizers and are often found in essential oils used as fragrance components in cosmetics. The list of these 26 fragrance allergens can be found in Annex III of Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009.
Some examples of common essential oils containing these allergens:
- Limonene (CAS No. 5989-27-5): It is a common component in citrus essential oils like lemon, orange, and grapefruit.
- Linalool (CAS No. 78-70-6): Present in essential oils like lavender, rosewood, and coriander.
- Geraniol (CAS No. 106-24-1): Found in rose, geranium, and palmarosa essential oils.
- Citral (CAS No. 5392-40-5): Typically found in lemon, lime, and lemongrass essential oils.
These allergens must be listed on the product’s packaging whenever their concentration in the cosmetic product exceeds certain thresholds set by the EU regulation. The expansion of Annex III Regulation 1223/2009 is set to cover 82 allergen substances.
So many cosmetic products contain essential oils and/or “perfume”, why? because a pleasant aroma sells! it is part of the overall experience of product use and application. My personal concern is the lack of worldwide standards in cosmetic regulation in general with each region/country having its own standards/regulations.
FIFTY7KIND products are EU Certified and have undergone Safety Assessments ensuring the highest standards are met and maintained. The essential oils incorporated into FIFTY7KIND products are GCMS tested ensuring their efficacy, purity and safety, are Certified Organic or Certified Wildcrafted, traceable to source, and used in micro-dose amounts.
TANU Skin Affinity Coactive Serum – Blue Tansy, Turmeric Co2 Extract, Roman Chamomile and German Chamomile Co2 Extract.
NADI Innate Flow Quell Balsam – Blue Tansy, Rain Forest Blue, and German Chamomile Co2 Extract.
LUCA Lipid Ferment Vitamin C Serum – Essential Oil Free.
Until next time, be human, be kind, be you.
Dreno, B., & Fischer, T. C. (2013). Perceived safety and efficacy of cosmetic products: balancing regulatory demands and people’s needs. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 27(S1), 2-6.
Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., & Hearing, V. J. (2010). Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 3, 135–142.
Burkhart, C. G., & Burkhart, C. N. (2003). Microcomedone formation: a new concept in acne pathogenesis. Cutis, 71(2 Suppl), 2-7.
De Groot, A. C. (1996). Side-effects of cosmetics and toiletries. The British Journal of Dermatology, 135(6), 859-865.
Haftek, M., Mac-Mary, S., Le Bitoux, M. A., Creidi, P., Seité, S., Rougier, A., … & Humbert, P. (2008). Clinical, biometric and structural evaluation of the long-term effects of a topical treatment with ascorbic acid and madecassoside in photoaged human skin. Experimental Dermatology, 17(11), 946-952.
Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council on cosmetic products: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:02009R1223-20190711
Safer cosmetics for people in the EU