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Sensitive skin problems and how to solve them

Pinpointing the cause of sensitive skin care issues and learning how to treat them isn’t as hard as you think. Skin care experts give us the lowdown on common sensitive skin problems and their treatments.

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Photo credit: Annie Engel/Getty Images

Typical signs of sensitive skin

According to Dr. Purvisha Patel, owner and dermatologist at Advanced Dermatology & Skin Cancer Associates, it’s important to identify your skin type in order to treat it properly. Some of the signs that point to sensitive skin are:

  • Redness or rashes, particularly related to specific products or ingredients
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Dryness
  • Peeling
  • Varied reactions depending on the product

Common skin problems

Dr. Debbie Palmer, dermatologist and founder and creator of REPLERE, a natural, antioxidant-based skin care line, says, “Three of the most common skin problems in my patients with sensitive skin are dryness, rosacea and contact dermatitis. I advise these patients to avoid products with synthetic fragrance, alcohol and chemicals like parabens.”

Dr. Susan Stuart, dermatologist at La Jolla Dermatology, says people with sensitive skin can reduce rosacea flare-ups, which include “excess flushing and redness of the skin [and] face” by avoiding red wine and extreme temperature changes. She suggests seeing your dermatologist for a topical treatment to alleviate redness temporarily or laser treatment, which can seal broken blood vessels to permanently improve the condition. Dr. Stuart notes that flare-ups of psoriasis, another common skin care problem and a “lifetime disease,” can be reduced by reducing stress and using light treatments prescribed by a dermatologist.

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According to Dr. David Bank, dermatologist, author of Beautiful Skin: Every Woman’s Guide to Looking Her Best at Any Age and founder and director of The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Mt. Kisco, New York, “Dry skin/eczema is an extremely common skin issue for people of all ages. It often presents, as the names imply, with dry, slightly scaling skin. If it is eczema, there is often associated redness, and it is frequently itchy. One important thing in treating eczema is to break the itch-scratch cycle, as rubbing the skin makes it more inflamed and itchy. This can be achieved with moisturizers and hydrocortisone.”

Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, co-founder of Specific Beauty, adds to the list of common skin care problems pityriasis alba, which is defined by faint white patches on the skin that are more common on the face during the summer. She adds, “This is a mild form of eczema that responds to over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1 percent ointment. Gentle cleansers and regular use of a facial moisturizer are also helpful to prevent this form of eczema.”

Dr. Bank also notes that people with sensitive skin often suffer from keratosis pilaris, which is defined by cells overlying hair follicles becoming too “sticky” and therefore are retained on the skin instead of being shed. He says, “The treatment is with gentle exfoliation, but the condition returns if the patient stops the treatment.”

He also treats impetigo in his patients with sensitive skin. He says, “It is a common bacterial skin infection, usually caused by strep or staph bacteria passed by direct contact through touching. It usually presents with itchy, honey-colored crusted plaque in the exposed area. Mild cases can be treated with topical antibiotic creams, like bacitracin or Neosporin. More severe cases may require prescription creams, or antibiotics by mouth in which case you should definitely see a dermatologist for the correct and most effective treatment.”

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Nix foam face washes, toners and astringents

Dr. Debra Jaliman, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Skin Rules, advises, “If you have sensitive skin it’s important to use a non-foaming cleanser. Choose ones with glycerin or ceramides. Don’t use toners or astringents and avoid exfoliants, products with grains.”

Avoid irritants

Dr. Jaliman also advises to avoid harsh items or products that could irritate sensitive skin such as abrasive skin cloths. She says, “It’s best to wash the face with a soft washcloth or cotton pad. Use lukewarm water instead of steaming hot water. Avoid all acids [including] glycolic acid, salicylic acid and retinol. The best types of anti-aging products to use are ones with antioxidants, for example, vitamin C or green tea which are not irritating to the skin.”

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Take caution with sunscreen

Dr. Bank says, “People with sensitive skin often find that some sunscreens can cause skin irritation or will even develop dermatitis — this can be a reaction to either fragrance, a preservative or a chemical sunscreen in the product they’re using. I suggest that [you] test any new product on a small area of your body, such as your forearm, before applying all over to see if you have a reaction.”

More tips for those with sensitive skin

He says, “For people with sensitive skin, I recommend the following steps for healthy skin:

  • Use very gentle cleanser to avoid stripping protective oils.
  • Use moisturizer even in the summer or in sunny weather. This will work to keep the skin’s barrier intact to protect against wind, sun, sweat and salt water.
  • Use mineral-based sunscreen for broad-spectrum protection and reapply every two hours.

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