Breaking the Cycle - Understanding and Soothing Sensitive Skin

Soothing & Barrier Support Serum

September 5, 2023

What does it mean to have sensitive skin?

How would you describe your skin type? Is it oily? Is it dry? A combination of both? What about sensitive?

About 40% of people worldwide would identify as having sensitive skin, but there isn’t a clear definition for it. Since everyone’s skin is different, it can mean different things to different people although some commonly associated traits can be signs of irritation, redness, and dry, flaky skin.

Although some people may be more likely to say that they experience sensitive skin, ultimately any skin type can experience the signs of skin irritation that are commonly associated with skin sensitivity.

Sensitive skin can be triggered by many different things. Temperature, UV exposure, humidity, environmental stressors (like pollution), and even your genetics may have an impact. Even though there isn’t a firm definition of sensitive skin, one commonly understood factor is this: irritation can be caused by a damaged skin barrier, and vice versa (we’ll explain).

Soothing & Barrier Support Serum

The Role of the Skin Barrier

Soothing & Barrier Support Serum

So if a major component of experiencing sensitive skin is the skin barrier then what exactly is it?

The skin barrier is your skin’s shield that functions to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. It also helps your skin retain water, which is why it’s also commonly referred to as the “moisture barrier”. Water as we know is essential for the body, but is also crucial for skin health.

The skin barrier is made up of multiple elements that work together including natural moisturizing factors and skin lipids.

Natural moisturizing factors act as mini water magnets that grab onto water and help keep it from escaping. The skin lipids act like waterproof layers that help trap water inside and reduce the ability of unwanted molecules from getting through the skin barrier. Ceramides and fatty acids are examples of these skin lipids. Finally, we have the skin cells themselves. They act as a strong final layer of protection, by acting as a physical barrier to make it ‘harder’ for molecules to enter and exit the skin.

To sum up, the skin barrier is the first line of defense against external elements that can damage your skin and make it irritated. When your skin barrier is compromised this can kickstart the cycle of irritation.

Soothing & Barrier Support Serum

Sensitive Skin and the Cycle of Irritation

Sensitive skin can be frustrating to navigate. Remember, your skin is exposed to a number of different stressors and irritants on a daily basis. While your skin barrier does a great job at keeping them out, it’s not perfect and things can slip through.

When stressors sneak into your skin, they can trigger a stress response where you might experience those common skin concerns like redness and feelings of discomfort.

Unfortunately, this response can damage your skin barrier even more. Research has shown that applying irritants to the skin not only increases water loss, but also leads to lower levels of natural moisturizing factors within the skin. So a damaged skin barrier is a bit of a one-two punch where your skin can’t hold on to as much water causing it to feel dry and tight, leaving it even more vulnerable to external stressors.

Building a Stronger Skin Barrier

So how do we break this cycle? It’s important to look at your full skincare regimen when finding the right solution for signs that your skin barrier is compromised and consider a routine focusing on using gentle products.

A good base routine for targeting signs of irritation is:

  1. Prep your skin with a gentle cleanser (ideally a cream or balm-based option)
  2. Treat your skin with serums that help with hydration and barrier support
  3. Seal your skin with a moisturizer to help reduce water loss and support the skin barrier

If we take a look at each of the stages of our routine, we can begin to find the right skincare products that help target a damaged barrier, as well as signs of irritation.

Prep
This is where it is key to choose a cleanser that works to support or improve the skin barrier. Ideally, select a cream or balm-based cleanser which will help to provide delivery of lipids to the skin, which are key to helping reduce water loss. The Ordinary offers two great options, Glycolipid Cream Cleanser and Squalane Cleanser which both offer effective makeup removal while helping to respect the skin barrier.

Treat
Select products with ingredients that help to support hydration and the skin barrier, such as hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. Both of these molecules work by attracting and holding water inside the skin, as well as helping support molecules and processes within the skin that work to maintain the skin barrier. Consider adding Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 or Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% to your routine to boost hydration and offer barrier support.

Seal
When it comes to finishing your routine, it may be best to choose a moisturizer with a richer texture. Key ingredients to look for are hydrators (such as natural moisturizing factors), ceramides and actives like hyaluronic acid. A great option is our Natural Moisturizing Factors + PhytoCeramides, which is our richest moisturizer working to support the skin barrier and hydration.

It’s also a good idea to choose skincare that is fragrance-free, as some fragrance molecules can act as irritants for some people and may actually cause more damage to your skin barrier.
Soothing & Barrier Support Serum

Common Mistakes to Avoid with a Compromised Skin Barrier

While you consider your skincare routine to help repair the skin barrier, it is important to watch out for these common sensitive skin care mistakes.

Over-exfoliation
Exfoliating the skin removes the top layer of skin which helps give us that radiant glow. However this is also reducing the physical barrier that the skin cells on the surface create to protect the skin. Not only this, but exfoliating too much can create further damage to the skin barrier, leaving it more vulnerable to signs of irritation from the exfoliators themselves, or subsequent products applied on top.

If your skin barrier is damaged, consider taking a break from exfoliation. That way you can focus on skin barrier maintenance instead of skin barrier repair.

Harsh Products
When focusing on repairing a compromised skin barrier, it’s important to also remove any products that may exacerbate the signs of irritation when the barrier is damaged. Consider replacing harsh cleansers that leave the skin feeling tight, and temporarily remove any products that may cause skin discomfort until your skin feels like it’s ready to start using them again.

Using Hot Water
Hot water can cause disruption to the skin barrier leaving it more prone to water loss. When washing, it’s best to opt for water that is cool to luke-warm while you are focusing on repairing your skin barrier.

Not Wearing SPF
UV exposure can also lead to a stress response inside the skin (seen as signs of redness we associate with sunburn), as well as damaging the skin barrier leading to increased water loss. Consider adding a broad-spectrum sunscreen for protection against the damaging effects of UV light. Those more prone to signs of irritation may wish to choose a mineral sunscreen that uses Zinc Oxide and / or Titanium dioxide as they are generally more tolerated by those prone to skin irritation.

Sensitive skin can be complex and frustrating to navigate but understanding the importance of the skin barrier can help us focus on a regimen that supports its health. Using gentle products, and incorporating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide can help rebuild a stronger barrier.

Break the sensitive skin cycle and explore our range of skin barrier supporting products to give your skin the love it deserves. Want to learn more about the skin barrier? Check out our comprehensive guide.
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About this Collection
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