How to treat sensitive skin

What is the difference between dry, sensitive and sensitized skin? What kind of skincare should you be using? What should you avoid? And what products can you try when it all goes south?

I caught up with Dermalogica educator Unine Van Rooyen for some professional know-how. Plus scroll down for a few of my top skincare picks.

What is the difference between dry and sensitive skin?

“A sensitive skin condition is genetic,” explains van Rooyen. “It is often the result of a defect in the skin’s protective outer layer – the epidermal lipid barrier – so irritants, microbes and allergens can penetrate the skin and cause adverse reactions. A disturbed skin barrier is seen in several inflammatory skin diseases such as rosacea, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and eczema.

“Dry skin can be genetic or a caused by an increasingly stressful lifestyle coupled with continual exposure to the sun, wind and chemicals in the environment. It can also be caused by the wrong skincare products.”

Both dry and sensitive skin can experience:

  • A feeling of tightness or tautness.
  • Irritation, inflammation, itchiness and sensitivity.
  • A look or feel of roughness.
  • Slight to severe flaking and scaling.
  • Fine lines, severe redness and cracks that can sometimes bleed.

Can skin become sensitive?

“The term ‘sensitive’ is generally used incorrectly and is misunderstood,” says van Rooyen.

“In reality, there is sensitive skin (a genetic trait) and there is sensitised skin, a growing phenomenon worldwide caused by increased exposure to pollution, stress and chemicals.

“Sensitised skin is a reflection of your environment, lifestyle and physiology. Pollution, stress, hormonal fluctuations, smoking, alcohol, poor diet, medical procedures and even over-processed or exfoliated skin can all lead to sensitisation.

Pollution, stress, hormonal fluctuations, smoking, alcohol, poor diet, medical procedures and even over-processed or exfoliated skin can all lead to sensitisation.

“Cosmetic ingredients including alcohol, lanolin, fragrance and colourants can also lead to sensitised skin. While people with fair skin traditionally experience sensitive skin, sensitised skin can be triggered in any person regardless of racial background or skin colour.”

How do I care for sensitive skin?

“Firstly it is important to understand what triggered the sensitivity and avoid / limit exposure to that,” van Rooyen advises.

“Supporting and maintaining a healthy lipid barrier function is crucial to addressing these problems. A defect in the skin’s protective outer layer may allow irritants to penetrate the skin, causing a domino effect of adverse reactions.

“Washing with soap and water, over-exfoliation, using alcohol-laden products and extreme temperature can all lead to skin-dehydration. The skin can then form microcracks, allowing microbes and chemicals to penetrate, triggering inflammation. So best avoid these triggers.

“Sensitised skin will also be highly reactive to ultraviolet (UV) exposure. The combination of inflammation and solar exposure greatly increases the likelihood of long-lasting hyperpigmentation, so make sure your skin is protected.

  1. Gently cleanse using non-irritating, sulfate-free cleansers that do not contain soap or perfume. Avoid friction with wash cloths, buff puffs, scrubs and towels.
  2. Use cool spritz toner/ serum treatment /masque with anti-inflammatory agents to reduce visible redness and swelling. Look for products that contain Red Hogweed root, Avena Sativa (Oat kernel) extracts, or Bisabolol (derived from Chamomile). These types of ingredients work synergistically to help reduce redness and irritation.
  3. Heal & Repair: Moisturise to repair the skin’s barrier function. Choose fragrance-free moisturisers rich in silicones, essential fatty acids, lipids and ceramides.
  4. Daily protection from the sun is important. Use a fragrance-free sunscreen of at least SPF30, preferably a physical sunblock with Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide.”

Skin sending SOS signals? Try these:

Sensitive Skincare 9Lives 1

La Roche-Posay Rosaliac AR Intense

R299 for 40ml, Dis-Chem, dermastore.co.za & skinmiles.co.za

This non-oily gel has been formulated for sensitive, fragile skin, helping to reduce redness. It is free from preservatives, fragrances, parabens, alcohol, colourants and lanolin. You can use it in the morning and evening as a targeted treatment.

Dermalogica Ultracalming Serum Concentrate

R1 030 for 4ml, dermalogica.co.za

This serum is a lifesaver when my skin is feeling super sensitive. It helps to calm and restore your skin with oat and botanical actives that prevent inflammation. It also helps to restore your skin’s lipid barrier to build up that necessary defence.

SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel

R1 325 for 30ml, dermastore.co.za and select dermatologists

This is a brilliant addition to your routine if your skin is feeling dry, replenishing your skin with hyaluronic acid and Vitamin B5. You can use it as an ultra-lightweight daily moisturiser, or apply it underneath your normal cream. I love using it under my cream and in combination with a lipid-rich face oil or barrier balm when I really need a fix.

Aloe Unique Aloe Gel

R98 for 75ml, aloeunique.co.za

Aloe Ferox is one of those superstar ingredients when you need to sooth your skin, fast. I’ve had a couple of nasty burns this year (hello curling iron) and this gel has been a lifesaver. I also love it when I want to reduce redness and inflammation caused by stress or sunburn.

Dermaceutic Panthenol Ceutic

R500, dermastore.co.za

This is one of my absolute best products for when my skin is freaking out. It contains 5% Panthenol and 1% Bisabolol to calm irritated skin, as well as Shea Butter and Beeswax for intense nourishment. The product has a thick, balmy texture so it is ideal for people suffering from very dry, sensitized or sensitive skin. I apply it over my moisturiser as a final barrier.


Do you have any pressing skin questions? Pop them in the comments below and we might just answer them in the next post.

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