Why do I have sensitive skin? | 9Lives
Reading Time: 6 min

Winter is a notoriously difficult time for my skin. Icy outdoors and constant indoor heating leaves my skin tight, dehydrated and prone to flair ups. But these aren’t the only culprits. Specialists are seeing a rise in sensitive skin disorders, with factors like air pollution and incorrect skincare adding insult to injury. I caught up with two experts to dig deeper.

What is the skin barrier?

Understanding sensitive skin starts with the skin barrier. This essential fatty layer on the surface of the skin helps to prevents bad things from getting in, and moisture from getting out. It’s a pretty big deal. If your skin barrier is thinned out, all sorts of irritants and bacteria can start to penetrate the skin, and your body doesn’t like unfamiliar guests. If your skin detects something strange, it sends white blood cells – your body’s warriors – to fight off the intruders. That’s why sensitive skin often becomes red and inflamed. The problem comes in when your skin is constantly stressed-out in this way. This type of chronic inflammation can lead to all sorts of problems, including early ageing.

A healthy skin barrier starts with a healthy diet, rich in essential fatty acids like Omega 3 and 6. You also need to make sure your skincare is helping and not harming, keeping your skin’s pH at 5.5, adding hydration and fats, and fighting environmental damage.

Incorrect skincare is a major culprit

Using the wrong skincare can have serious consequences for your skin. Even moms should be wary of what they use on their babies. “Using the incorrect products on babies from birth can affect their skin for the rest of their lives,” explains Dr Ian Webster, specialist Dermatologist and co-founder of dermastore.co.za. “It is very important to use products that are not highly fragranced and that include gentle ingredients that respect the skin microbiome and barrier. In adults, I am seeing an increase of people with sensitive skin due to a compromised skin barrier and this can be due to the environment or the incorrect use of active ingredients.”

What exactly is the skin’s microbiome?

You might have spotted an increasing number of products listing probiotics as their hero ingredient. Yes, as in the stuff you drink for a healthy gut. Why? In the same way that our gut is packed with beneficial bacteria, our skin has a whole microbiome that helps to keep us healthy.

“The skin microbiome is extremely important for the healthy functioning of the skin,” explains Dr Webster. “On normal healthy skin, we have billions of micro-organisms that live happily on our skin but if the normal balance of these microorganisms or our skin barrier gets disrupted, then we can get an overgrowth of pathogenic or commensal microorganisms that can cause skin disease.” In other words, if we kill off the good bacteria, the bad bacteria can get a foot in the door. Dr. Webster advises special care when it comes to cleansers. “Avoid alkaline, medicated soaps. Over-washing the skin with harsh cleansers will also compromise the normal skin microbiome,” he explains.

How does pollution impact the skin?

Over the last few years, Pollution has being named and shamed as one of the leading villains in skin damage, which should be especially worrying to those living in cities. “Recent statistics tell us that air pollution in many cities in the world exceed safe levels,” explain Gayle Pullen, South African Brand Manager for Environ.

Pollution and environmental stress factors are putting additional pressure on sensitive skin. “Sensitive skin is a sign of a compromised skin immunity,” Pullen explains. “Exposure to pollution and other environmental stress factors like heat and UV light add to the “stress” and can eventually lead to problems such as redness, itchiness, a burning sensation or reactions.”

New skincare innovations on the market work to counter pollution damage. Certain cleansers help to gently remove pollution particles, while antioxidants in serums, moisturisers and sun-protection target damaging free-radicals.

Ready to tackle your sensitive skin? I’ve rounded up a couple of exciting innovations on the market.

Give these a try

Optiphi Delta Post-Stress Serum

R780 for 50ml, deltaskin.com

The DELTA Medical Skincare range was developed as a collaborative project between plastic surgeons, aesthetic practitioners, chemists, geneticists and biomedical engineers, led by Dr Markus Depfenhart, a prominent German plastic surgeon and key opinion leader for aesthetic procedures. During a consultation, medical practitioners will use the patented DELTA diagnosis code to analyse the skin’s condition and in combination with the results of a DNA Skin Test, recommend a treatment intervention and a home care routine, unique to your skin concerns. The products will be available exclusively from plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and aesthetic practitioners.

The Post Stress Serum targets redness, irritation and excessive heat in the skin. It works to counter post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, UV-damage and to boost the skin’s energy reserves. It is therefore fantastic to target sensitized skin, and ideal after intensive anti-aging procedures like lasers and acid peels, or after sun exposure.

Exuviance Probiotic Lysate Anti-Pollution Essence

R700 for 100ml, dermastore.co.za

This essence has been formulated to strengthen the skin and can be used on all skin types including stressed, sensitive, oily and acne-prone. It contains 10% Probiotic Lysate – from the bacteria naturally found in yogurt – to re-balance and boost the skin’s microbiome. 8% Polyhydroxy Acid works as an antioxidant to fight off environmental stressors like pollution, and Hyaluronic Acid works to hydrate the skin. It has a light, water-like consistency that feels absolutely beautiful, and it has worked like a charm to soothe my winter-worn skin.

Dermalogica Prisma Protect SPF30 Light Activated Skin Defence

R1 099 for 50ml, dermalogica.co.za


UV Rays, pollution and free-radicals can cause inflammation in the skin, which can contribute to sensitivity and early ageing. This new moisturiser from Dermalogica has been formulated to defend your skin against UVA and UVB rays, as well as pollution, free-radicals and dehydration. According to them, it also captures visible light to give your skin a luminous glow and I must say, I have noticed a beautifully radiant quality when wearing this.

Environ Focus Care Comfort+ Vita-Enriched Antioxidant Gel

R435 for 50ml, environskincare.com/za


The Vita-Enriched Antioxidant Gel has been enriched with vitamins and powerful antioxidants including Beta-Carotene (Vitamin A), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Tocopherol Acetate (Vitamin E) and Panthenol to fight damage caused by pollution and internal and external stressors. You can use this at any stage when your skin feels fragile or sensitive.

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cleanser

R350 for 150ml, Edgars and Kiehl’s Stores


An essential step to healthy skin is the right cleanser. Many cleansers are formulated with harsh cleansing ingredients that strip the skin barrier and disrupt the optimal pH, causing sensitivity in the long run. Look for a cleanser that is mild and nourishing, with a pH of 5.5. The Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cleanser has a gentle foaming quality but it also cares for your skin with moisturizing Squalane, Apricot Kernel Oil, Vitamin E and Avocado Oil. So you get a fresh, cleansed feel without drying your skin out.

Aloe Unique Aloe Gel

R112 for 75ml, aloeunique.co.za

This was one of my hero products during the summer months to treat the odd sunburn. It mostly consists of water and aloe ferox extract, along with moisturising glycerin and soothing allantoin, making it fantastic for soothing irritated skin.

Do you have any additional questions around sensitive skin? Pop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer.


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.

Write A Comment