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Best skincare for sensitive skin in 2023, recommended by an expert

Sensitive skin is one of the hardest skin types to deal with. Like a temperamental toddler, one minute it can be calm and cooperative, and the next it can be throwing a tantrum. We’ve all experienced a sensitised complexion at some point – many factors from a cold spell to a powerful retinol can trigger a flare-up – but when sensitivity becomes a permanent fixture, finding the right skincare routine to soothe irritation is crucial.

Now, finding the best products to mollify sensitivity is a subjective one – what may work for a friend may do nada for you. But either way, you’ll be pleased to know that many brands are equipped to ease your skin woes. So first and foremost, it’s worth arming yourself with the best tips and skincare products you can trust in. That’s why we called upon Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Self, to share her sensitive-skin rulebook that you should follow with precision – like standing on the left side of an escalator or not staring at strangers in the London underground.

What is sensitive skin?

Are we stating the obvious here? Well, not really. It turns out there’s more to sensitive skin than just redness and irritation. Firstly, if you’re battling with sensitivity, know you’re not alone. ‘Skin sensitivity is a common problem which affects about 40% of the population, mainly in women,’ says Dr Mahto. She explains that sensitive skin is usually associated with how your skin feels, compared to what it is: ‘sensitivity mostly affects the skin on your face and is characterised by sensations of burning, stinging, tightness, pain or itching. The skin may also look red when symptoms appear,’ she explains.

What causes sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is very reactive and can be triggered by predisposing factors that are often out of your control. There are environmental influences, like pollution, UV rays or a temperature change, or alterations in your stress levels, hormones or sleeping pattern. Another common factor: skincare products. What’s inside the cleanser and moisturiser you’re using may cause irritation – fragrances, dyes and soaps are common culprits.

‘While we understand what may trigger sensitive skin, the actual cause is not fully known. However, it’s thought that sensitive skin can be activated due to a disruption in your skin barrier and how it is meant to effectively function,’ says Dr Mahto. It’s also suggested that sensitivity can arise when the nerves on the top layer of your skin become irritated, which happens when the skin’s barrier becomes compromised.

‘When you have sensitive skin, it’s important to understand whether there may be an underlying skin condition that’s causing redness and irritation – such as rosacea, eczema or an allergy as examples,’ says Dr Mahto. ‘You’ll find that the treatments for these conditions are different to that of sensitive skin, so it’s crucial to get the right diagnosis first,’ she adds. Dr Mahto advises that if you’ve noticed sensitivity and redness that has lasted for more than two weeks then see your GP or derm to rule out any underlying causes.

What is the difference between sensitive skin and a damaged skin barrier?

To put it simply, sensitive skin is a skin type whereas a damaged skin barrier (or sensitized skin) is a temporary result – usually to do with over-exfoliation or going too strong and fast with active ingredients. ‘Those who have damaged their skin barrier will find that if you use the right routine, it will revert back to normal after a little while,’ says Dr Mahto. ‘However, if you have sensitive skin, you’re likely going to have ongoing sensitive skin issues,’ she adds.

How should you treat sensitive skin?

As a general rule, keep things simple. Strip back your extensive collection of oils, acids and peels and build a three-step routine that will strengthen your skin barrier. All you need is a cleanser, serum and moisturiser (and an SPF too – we’ll get onto that later). Consider introducing emollients, like squalane and shea butter, to hold moisture in, and ceramides – the glue that holds your skin cells together – to bolster your barrier.

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‘Ensure that you’re using fragrance-free and non-perfumed products and keep away from physical forms of exfoliation – such as scrubs or cleansing brushes – as this can exacerbate irritation,’ says Dr Mahto. ‘Also, steer clear of ingredients like witch hazel, essential oils, camphor and menthol as these can raise levels of inflammation further,’ she adds.

If you’re into your acid exfoliants, it may be a wise idea to put those bottles down, as it could trigger sensitivity. Retinol and AHAs (alpha-hydroxy-acids) are common red-list ingredients, but that doesn’t mean you need to forgo them altogether – simply make sure the products you reach for are gentle and made with sensitive types in mind.

‘And for my final tip, if your skin reacts to almost everything, consider doing a home patch test before using a new product,’ advises Dr Mahto. ‘Apply a small amount of product to your clean, upper-inner forearm and leave it for 24 hours (i.e. don’t wash the area!). If no irritation occurs, it should be safe to use in the future,’ she adds. This, of course, isn’t the same as a rigorous allergy test you would get in a dermatologist clinic.

Should I buy skincare labelled ‘hypoallergenic’?

Dr Mahto advises to side-eye products labelled ‘hypoallergenic’ as this term doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the hotshot for sensitive skin. ‘The term is meaningless and is only there to imply that the product will cause less allergic reactions than a counterpart without the label,’ she says. In fact, there are no gold-standard requirements or legal tests that a product needs to pass before being branded with this label. ‘Unfortunately, it’s simply there to mislead you about the product’s stability and safety,’ says Dr Mahto.

So, now you’re clued up on the best practices to treat sensitive skin, it’s time to get personal with the best skincare products. From moisturisers to cleansers and serums, we’ve rounded up our favourite gentle formulas that will do a much better job at saving your skin than Rose managed to save Jack (the door was definitely big enough). Oh, and there are a few expert recommendations from Dr Mahto, too.

The best skincare products for sensitive skin…

Best cleansers

Every skincare routine must start with a good cleanse as this will clear impurities and dirt that can cause congestion. The best formulas for sensitive skin will lather lightly and will wash away unwanted residue without stripping your skin. In your pursuit of squeaky-clean skin, it may be tempting to pick a formula that’s too harsh; however, this will compromise your barrier further. So, stay clear of foaming cleansers – as these have a higher pH level which can cause irritation – and instead opt for a gentle cream or gel that’s full of comforting ingredients, like ceramides or hyaluronic acid.

Best serums

A serum will deliver a concentrated dose of ingredients that can help treat a whole host of skin concerns – from pigmentation to fine lines and dehydration. When you have sensitive skin, you can’t pick up any ol’ serum and hope for the best: it takes a little more consideration. Look for something containing hydrating ingredients, rather than ones that contain acids or chemical exfoliants. When you’ve got sensitive skin, your top priority is to maintain and hydrate your skin barrier so look out for ingredients that will help reinforce it – like hyaluronic acid, lipids, peptides and squalane.

Best moisturisers

To seal the deal, use a moisturiser to keep your skin hydrated and to lock in the ingredients from your serum. Dealing with a tight and dry skin barrier is a very real thing for those with sensitive skin, so look for a moisturiser that’s going to deeply hydrate, without clogging your pores. For a daytime moisturiser, use a gel-like formula that’s fragrance- and oil-free, and for the night, find one that’s thicker in consistency (ideally containing ceramides) to reinforce your skin barrier as you snooze.

Best SPF

We can’t hammer it home enough – using SPF is the most crucial step in your skincare routine, no matter your age or skin type. Not only will a high-factor sunscreen protect your skin from UV damage, but it will also help to delay the ageing process. When you have sensitive skin, it’s recommended to use a mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide (rather than a formula with chemical fillers) as they sit on the surface of your skin to reflect UV rays. Apply a dollop size (usually about the length of two fingers) as the last step of your skincare routine – and even if the sun isn’t shining, that’s no excuse.

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