People with sensitive personalities are easily upset—and so are people with sensitive skin. Hey, patches of tiny red bumps or an itchy rash can make a girl cranky. The cause of an irritable complexion: "Women with sensitive skin have hyperactive immune systems that read certain products or weather conditions as enemies and fight them off as foreign objects," says Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami. "This reaction often leads to skin redness, itching, stinging, burning, and peeling."
Blyumin-Karasik says that 30 percent of the women treated in her practice have sensitive skin. However, many more experience symptoms at some point in their lives due to hormonal fluctuations or because they've slathered on products that contain harsh ingredients. "Women are using more anti-aging products than ever before, and the potent exfoliants in them can cause irritation," says Francesca Fusco, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "So more women are experiencing the symptoms of sensitivity." Keep your skin happy by staying away from the following saboteurs.
The Irritant: Fragrance
What delights your nose can aggravate your skin: "Fragrance is the number one allergen in cosmetics and skin care," says dermatologist Audrey Kunin, M.D., founder of DermaDoctor. And you can credit citrus, floral, and minty scents for making your skin go most berserk. So choose fragrance-free beauty and household cleaning products, and seek out those that have the words hypoallergenic and formaldehyde-free on their labels. "When scent is removed, even more irritating chemicals may be added to make the product smell less offensive," explains Blyumin-Karasik.
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If you can't part with your favorite scent, follow the "lay, then spray" rule: "Place your clothing on your bed and lightly mist it with fragrance. Give the scent a few minutes to dry on the fabric before getting dressed. This prevents direct contact with the skin, so you avoid irritation," says Blyumin-Karasik.
The Irritant: Chemicals
In soaps and cleansers
They may leave you feeling squeaky clean, but cleansing agents known as surfactants play a dirty trick on sensitive skin. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a harsh emulsifier that is found in body washes, facial cleansers, and soap; it rids the skin of dirt and oil while breaking down precious lipids, the glue that binds skin cells together, keeping them resistant to dryness and damage.
Some soaps also contain drying antibacterial agents such as tetrasodium EDTA and triclosan. Because sensitive skin is almost always dry, soaping up with moisture-sucking products can lead to itching and peeling, says Blyumin-Karasik. Instead, wash with soaps specifically formulated for sensitive or dry skin; these products contain the relatively mild sodium laureth sulfate. Try Eucerin Redness Relief Soothing Cleanser, ($9, at drugstores). Read labels to make sure you're getting laureth and not the more common (and more irritating) lauryl.
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Ultramarine blue, a pigment commonly found in eye shadow, can be a bit of a bully to sensitive skin. If it's giving you the blues, find relief by using neutral eye shadow shades like beige or brown, which expose skin to fewer irritating chemical pigments. Also, "mica, a light-reflecting particle with chemical properties, is found in mineral makeup and bronzing powder, and it can be a big itch inducer," says Zoe Draelos, M.D., a consulting professor of dermatology at Duke University School of Medicine.
Another culprit is bismuth oxychloride, a sheen enhancer that's known to cause stinging. "Unfortunately, these ingredients are found in products we aggressively rub in with a brush, which exacerbates the irritation by pushing the product deep into the pores," she says. Choosing liquid blushes, bronzers, and foundations (which aren't brushed on) will keep your skin placated. Try Philosophy Supernatural Superbeautiful Makeup SPF 20, ($30, at Sephora); it's free of bad guys like fragrance, mica, and talc.
The Irritant: The Environment
Sunny days aren't so glee-filled for the sensitive. "Even the tiniest amount of daylight exposes your skin to sensitizing UV rays," explains Annet King, director of global education for Dermalogica and The International Dermal Institute. Ultraviolet light mutates proteins in the skin, which damages skin cells and causes a red, stinging reaction known as photosensitivity. To prevent it, King recommends wearing a physical block, rain or shine. Unlike potentially irritating chemical UV absorbers such as PABA, benzophenones, and cinnamates, physical blocks contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which play nice with fragile skin. Try Lavanila The Healthy Sun Screen SPF 40, ($28, sephora.com).
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Sadly, the dark days of winter don't offer much of a reprieve. Chilly dry air and gusty winds steal water from your skin, leaving it to dry out, crack, and turn red. "Fall and winter wreak havoc on skin, thanks to lower humidity," explains Ellen Marmur, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. (If you live in a climate where damp air prevails, your skin is less likely to become dry and itchy.) Slathering on a moisture-rich humectant with glycerin will restore hydration and prevent moisture from further leaching out of your face and body. Try Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream, (from $4.25, at drugstores). Apply the product right after you take a shower to maximize its absorption, and reapply throughout the day if needed.