Get pro tips on caring for sensitive skin | 9Lives
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Like all Capetonians I was overjoyed when we got our first proper rain in ages. But while I love the chilly season (it really is the most beautiful time of the year in the Western Cape) my skin is not a huge fan. Between dry, cold air outside and the constant drone of heaters indoors, my already-dehydrated skin becomes patchy, flaky and overly sensitive.

Luckily I’ve learnt to take preventative measures, stocking up on skin-barrier-boosters that will help to calm inflammation, moisturise and strengthen.

Like all skin issues, understanding it properly is the first step to building an effective regimen, so I asked two skincare experts to share their knowledge.

What is the skin barrier?

“The skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin’s surface, and it consists of cells and lipids (fats),” explains Dr Alek Nikolic, Aesthetic Medical Practitioner and founder of

“The best way to understand the skin barrier is to use the analogy of a brick wall developed by Dr. Peter M. Elias, who described the cells (corneocytes) as the bricks and the lipid bilayer as the mortar.

“The ‘mortar’ – the stacked lipid bilayers that surround the corneocytes – acts as a barrier that prevents the loss of water out of skin and also prevents harmful microorganisms or irritants from entering.”

The skin barrier has numerous essential protective functions:

  • It prevents water and electrolytes from evaporating through the skin
  • Serves as a protective shield against harmful microorganisms by producing antimicrobial peptides and proteins
  • Helps to maintain the skin’s immunity
  • Regulates inflammation.

When our skin barrier is healthy, a skin complexion looks smooth, clear, even-toned, and has a healthy glow. If one’s skin barrier is damaged, then we tend to see redness, irritation, breakouts, rashes, burning sensations, broken capillaries, dryness, and even tightness.”

If one’s skin barrier is damaged, then we tend to see redness, irritation and breakouts

Why does my skin feel dryer in winter?

“Exposure to skin-damaging factors such as sun, wind, and excessive heat or cold are common triggers of sensitized skin,” explains Unine van Rooyen, Corporate Trainer at Dermalogica. “Dry skin  can present in a lot of different ways: Tightness, fine lines, flaking, peeling, scaling, roughness. The root cause, however, is always dehydration. When the skin’s protective barrier is compromised, it doesn’t just let irritants in, it also makes it difficult for your skin to hold on to moisture.”

What effect does pollution have on sensitive skin?

“Research is linking air pollution to accelerated skin ageing, as early as our 30s,” explains van Rooyen. “There is a link between exposure to air pollution and inflammation in the skin, resulting in a process that may be referred to as inflammaging, where chronic inflammation results in damaging effects that eventually lead to prematurely ageing skin.”

According to Dr Nikolic, ozone pollution damages the skin’s lipids and protective antioxidants. “Ground level ozone has also been shown to deplete the skin of vitamins E and C, two essential ingredients that protect against oxidative damage,” he explains. “It may also strip away the protective barrier that helps to keep nutrients and moisture in and toxic compounds out of your skin.”

What are the best ingredients to calm sensitive skin?

Dr Nikolic recommends the following:

  • Antioxidants like Vitamin C and E: These protect against free radicle damage and helps to restore the skin barrier
  • Hyaluronic acid: This ingredient not only draws water to hydrate and plump the skin but also helps to improve skin barrier function and health
  • Ceramides: helps to restore the skin barriers lipid structure
  • Panthenol (pro-vitamin B5): It acts as a humectant because of its ability to attract and hold moisture and helps to repair the skin barrier

What type of ingredients should you avoid?

Dr Nikolic advises against the following

  • Avoid potential irritants and allergens, predominantly products that have a synthetic fragrance, formaldehyde based preservatives, and high concentration of alcohol.
  • Avoid harsh cleansers
  • Don’t exfoliate with granular scrubs, brushes, harsh wash cloths, etc.
  • Avoid environmental conditions that cause sensitivity such as high heat, dry air, bitter cold, strong wind.

Can you use Retinol and AHAs if you have sensitive skin?

“Strong hydroxy acids tend to be too strong for a compromised skin,” says van Rooyen. “Sensitized individuals who are fond of exfoliating can use an ultra-gentle exfoliant, but only when lipid barrier is not damaged.”

According to van Rooyen, Retinol can strengthen the skin but should be incorporated correctly. “If a typical sensitive skin has a healthy barrier and the skin is in a good condition, it will be able to tolerate a lower dose of retinol,” she says.

“With sensitive skin you will always introduce active ingredients slowly into the skin care routine. Only use it a couple of times a week at night and make sure you use hydrating serums or boosters during the day. SPF is also key.

With sensitive skin you will always introduce active ingredients slowly into the skin care routine.

“Because sensitive skin generally lacks lipids and water, make sure you use a moisturizer over your retinol that is slightly more nourishing than what you would normally go for. It is important to restore the lipids, especially in the first couple of weeks when retinol can leave the skin feeling drier than normal.”

Worth a try:

Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Defense Booster

R1 235 for 30ml,

This oil booster soothes, nourishes and restores sensitive skin. Aside from the incredible botanical scent, it has done wonders to repair my skin during a bad dry spell. You apply six to ten drops over the face, neck and chest, or mix with your moisturiser. You can use this twice daily, or use the Dermalogica Phyto Replenish Oil in the mornings.

SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Hydrating Soothing Fluid

R1 030 for 30ml, specialist skincare centres and

I took this with me on a winter holiday in Canada where we faced extreme cold outside and constant heating indoors. It was a complete lifesaver! It contains a blend of botanical extracts that work to sooth irritated skin while hydrating. You can use this twice daily.

Esse Protect Oil

R550 for 15ml,

This new oil from Namibia works to protect sensitive skin from environmental damage while strengthening the skin barrier. nature. Ximenia oil contains more than 30% very long chain fatty acids. These help to form a protective layer on the skin. The oil is pressed from fruit kernels sustainably harvested from the wild in Namibia by a local women’s cooperative. 100% of the total ingredients are from natural origin and 99% of the total ingredients are fair trade certified. It is also vegan and cruelty-free.

Eucerin DermoPurifyer Oil Control Adjunctive Cream

R199,99 for 50ml, Clicks, Dis-Chem and select pharmacies

This soothing cream is aimed at people who are on acne medication, providing intensive, non-greasy, moisture and care for skin. It is anti-inflammatory, soothes irritation and contains ceramides to enhance the skin barrier.

NeoStrata Redness Neutralizing Serum

R914 for 30g,

This cooling serum targets the sources of redness, restores and
strengthens the skin’s protective barrier and helps calm skin prone to sensitivity. A patented Bionic/PHA formula helps restore and
strengthen skin’s protective barrier, while calming irritated skin and reducing redness. Vitamin E and White Tea Extract, potent antioxidants, also help defuse UV induced damage caused by oxidative stress.

Do you have anything to ask or add? Pop your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.


I am a lifestyle blogger from Cape Town trying to find the best ways to spend my time, take care of my body and express myself. I am slightly obsessed with fragrances, sneakers, Jamie Oliver and Masterchef Australia. Oh, and I probably drink way too much wine.


  1. Would dermalogiva’s daily micofoliant be OK to use? I love it but been wary as my skin is so sensitive.

    • Malherbe Liezel Reply

      Yes I think it is definitely gentle enough for sensitive skin. I would, however, steer clear of any exfoliants when your skin is in a bad spot or flair-up. When my skin feels very dry I just slather on instead of taking anything off.

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