Style & Beauty

Sensitive Skin Fixes

Here’s what our experts suggest

By Lola Augustine Brown

Photo: iStock/GeorgePeters.

Sensitive skin is a curse with which many of us have to live, whether it manifests itself as red blotches and rashes, acne, or dry skin that never seems to get properly hydrated, no matter what we do. We consulted experts to learn the best ways to look after sensitive skin, however it presents itself. 

The Quickest Fix

First, there’s a good chance that those of us with sensitive skin are causing our own problem thanks to the myriad of products we slather on our skin.

“Skin is our largest visible organ, and its natural acidic pH gives it an antimicrobial defence mechanism and the ability to shield itself against environmental pathogens and act as a barrier to protect the inside from the outside environment,” explains Dr. Monica Li, a medical and cosmetic dermatologist practising in Vancouver and a member of the faculty at the University of British Columbia. “Because we all like to put soaps, fragrances, and creams on our skin, we disrupt that pH balance and reduce the ability of the skin to buffer against insults. If your skin barrier is disrupted, then the ability to fight pathogens is compromised. Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a known barrier-function impairment, and it’s not uncommon for people with it to have a lot of skin infections.”

Dr. Amanda Lau, a Vancouver-based family physician and owner of Skinfolio, Canada’s first walk-in medi-facial clinic, which offers skin care and aesthetic treatments, says that 80 per cent of the patients who go to see her with sensitive skin don’t truly have sensitive skin and are probably just using the wrong products for their skin. “They’ve actually sensitized their skin,” Lau says. “Often when I ask people to bring in everything they’ve been using on their skin, they’ll come in with a shoebox full of products, and most of the ones available on the commercial market are heavily fragranced, which can be very irritating.”

If this is the root cause of your skin issues, you’ll be pleased to know that the problem is easy to fix. “The first thing I tell people is to simplify their skin-care routine and make sure that they choose products that are bland, with the least amount of fragrances and preservatives in them,” Li says.

The truth is, we don’t need a legion of products for healthy skin. “You need a cleanser and a moisturizer, and everyone needs to wear sunscreen,” Li says.

In terms of choosing products, Li recommends the dermatologist-developed CeraVe line, which is very reasonably priced (big bottles of most products in the line cost under $20). “We recognize brands like CeraVe that have minimal or no fragrances and have ceramides added in the products, which are a central component of the skin barrier,” Li says. “Bland products are what your skin is best able to tolerate, not those with a lot of fragrances, preservatives, or extreme ingredients.”

Lau says that the first thing she suggests to patients is that they go on a skin detox.

“I recommend the cheapest thing: a $7 bottle of Cetaphil cleanser. There are a lot of misconceptions about what our skin needs, and this leads to us using products that strip the skin of what it actually does need to function properly,” she says. Try this and see whether your skin looks and feels better. If not, talk to your family doctor, who may then refer you to a dermatologist.

Deeper Issues

Of course, there are skin problems that aren’t as easy to remedy, such as rosacea—a chronic inflammatory skin condition and a concern for more than three million Canadians.

Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi, an assistant professor of medicine at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL, and a dermatologist at ProActive Wellness and Prevention, says that rosacea can have many manifestations. “Some people have flushing, some have persistent redness or raised bumps on the skin; there can be irritation or redness of the skin around the eye or a combination of these things,” he explains.

Ogunyemi says that there are four major contributing factors in rosacea. UV exposure is a common trigger, as is an overly reactive immune system. In addition, “There’s a role that two different organisms on the skin play—a mite and a bacteria; they’re usually found on the skin, but for some reason, cause more inflammation in patients with rosacea,” Ogunyemi says. 

How you treat rosacea depends on the underlying cause and what’s triggering it. “Wear sunscreen daily and take sun-protective measures such as avoiding the sun at peak times, seeking shade, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves,” says Ogunyemi—wise words for all of us, whether we have rosacea or not. Avoiding spicy foods and alcohol can also help. 

There’s a range of treatments for rosacea, and Ogunyemi says that new ones appear every few years (so if you haven’t seen a dermatologist in a while about this problem, it may be worth a fresh appointment). “There are antibiotic creams, and there’s an antiparasitic cream. There’s an antibiotic pill that’s approved for rosacea, and then there are physical treatments such as laser therapies to target the blood vessels,” he says. “And because the skin is often drier where you have rosacea, I’d recommend using a bland and, ideally, unscented moisturizer.”

Medi-spas such as Skinfolio offer IPL (intense pulsed light) laser treatment for rosacea and other pigmentation problems. “This helps shrink the red blood vessels, and after one treatment, you’ll see a difference. You’ll flush less, as you won’t have as many capillaries going to the face to cause that flushing,” Lau says. A single treatment costs about $100 at Skinfolio but can range from $300 to $500 per treatment, depending on where you live. “Not everybody realizes that rosacea is progressive,” Lau adds, “and we know as medical doctors that when people treat it early, they see better results in the long run.”

While a dermatologist should be your first stop when addressing skin problems, you may have success with treatments at spas and medi-spas. You need to ensure, though, that the staff ask plenty of questions and take a medical history to help determine how best to treat your skin.

“For example, there are people who have dermatographism, where the skin responds to pressure by coming out in hives,” Lau says. “We would ensure that they’re not doing a lot of aggressive treatments. You don’t need to avoid spas if you have skin problems, and we have solutions that can help.”