Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Sensitive Skin – Causes and Treatments February 4, 2010

It isn’t uncommon for people to describe their skin as “sensitive” and “easily irritated”.  Actually all skin can become sensitive and irritated.  Perhaps our skin should come with a warning label:  “handle with care – easily damaged”.

Doctors believe that only about 2% of women have skin that can be diagnosed as “sensitive”.  Anyone else who believes they have a sensitive skin type is simply misdiagnosing themselves.  (Perhaps some people who claim to have sensitive skin think that by saying so they are bestowing a unique or special status on their skin as a way to make themselves feel different and special)   Further adding to the confusion over the term “sensitive skin” and what that truly means is the fact that products can be labeled “for sensitive skin” and “hypoallergenic” when there is absolutely no regulation over these terms.  As the FDA points out on its website:

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term “hypoallergenic.” The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.

The term “hypoallergenic” may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.

Most people who define their skin as sensitive probably do so because once (or even twice) they had an allergic reaction to a topical skincare product; their skin to become red, irritated, and even itchy.  But for skin to truly be labeled sensitive it has to show an inability to tolerate most cosmetic, while otherwise being healthy.   If one truly has sensitive skin the use of cosmetics, or the wrong skincare products, will cause the skin to itch, burn, sting, and feel tight as opposed to causing redness and breakouts.  And once again this is very rare.

If you have ever experienced a reaction to a cosmetic or skincare product that caused you to breakout or turn red than you probably experienced a temporary allergic reaction to an ingredient in the product, perhaps the fragrance. In addition, skin can become temporarily sensitive or sensitized from a long list of things that include:

  • over cleaning and over scrubbing
  • using skincare products that are too strong or harsh
  • over exfoliating
  • receiving treatments that are too harsh treatments for your skin (such as a chemical peel)
  • irritating skincare ingredients in products
  • environmental pollutants or irritants
  • hot water
  • sun exposure 

When you overload your skin with products you break down the stratum corneum, the very top layer of the epidermis that acts as a protective covering for the skin, to the point of causing irritation.  This triggers the body’s immune response in order to heal the damage and inflammation will follow.  For example perhaps you use a glycolic cleanser and then a moisturizer with AHA every night.  All those acids are meant to remove dead skin cells from the stratum corneum so in essence you end up giving yourself a chemical peel every night.  If you skin is prone to irritation the continued combination of those products will remove too much of the barrier you need on the top of your skin.  Once too much of that protective cover is removed environmental irritants will start to further breakdown your stratum corneum, and the result is dry, red, flaky skin.  If the irritation continues over time the skin’s immune and healing response will be impaired.  Lastly, if you are prone to acne you can cause more breakouts if your skin becomes sensitized since more bacteria can cross the skin’s protective barrier once it is compromised.

Once you find that your skin has become sensitized it is important to figure out what triggered the irritation.  Sometimes this is very easy.  You started using a new product and almost immediately your skin became irritated, red, and itched and so it obvious what caused the irritation.  But other times it is much harder to figure out what caused the irritation.  In that case perhaps a more drastic course of action is needed.  In her book Simple Skin Beauty dermatologist Ellen Marmur suggests putting your skin on a “detox” plan in order to figure out what caused the irritation or allergic reaction in the first place.  She suggests stopping to use all products, all at once.  On the plan you are allowed to use sunscreen, a gentle cleanser, and a moisturizer that contains no acids, antioxidants, or retinoids for an entire month.  This allows your skin to regain its natural balance as it goes through a complete growth cycle (which takes 28 days).  After the month is over you can start adding back one product at a time, one per week,  into your routine so that if your skin reacts you will know what caused it.

If your skin has shown sensitivity in the past you might want to avoid heavily fragranced products and harsh exfoliants (like scrubs).  Look at the ingredients in your products in order to assess the amount of acids (AHA) and retinoids in them.  Don’t just trust labels on products.  As I already mentioned above the terms “for sensitive skin” and “hypoallergenic” that you see on cosmetic labels and skincare products are meaningless.  Perhaps you will want to limit yourself to one lotion, serum, or moisturizer with those added ingredients.  In order to boost your skin’s protective barrier it is important to use a good moisturizer and sunscreen.  For immediate relief from irritation you can temporarily use a OTC cortisone cream like Cortaid.

Lastly, it is important for everyone, even if you have never had an adverse reaction from cosmetics or skincare products, to excerise some caution when it comes to your skin.  All skin needs some TLC in order to look its best so remember to treat it gently.

Sources and Further Reading:



Recommended Reading for Information About Acne February 2, 2010

I wanted to recommend a few great resources for information about acne.  I’ve read the books that I am recommending here, and I have explored the websites I am recommending.  Acne is a chronic disease of the sebaceous glands and has a multitude of causes.  Treating acne can often be very difficult, and each person who suffers from acne has to find the right products and techniques that work for them.  For those reasons I am recommending both books and websites here since they explore all the different facets of acne – from causes to the many treatment options.


I found AcneNet through the American Academy of Dermatology’s website.  The AcneNet website is easy to navigate and covers every aspect of acne from causes, to treatments, and even the social impact of acne (a very important topic in my opinion).  The “articles” section of the website has articles about specific issues as they relate to acne – like pregnancy and acne – and is a great resource. was started by a guy who suffered from acne for years.  After much experimentation he decided to share what he had learned about clearing up his own acne.  Not only is this website a great place to learn all about acne, acne treatments, and acne products, but it is also a thriving online community for people to share their thoughts and feelings about acne and acne treatments.  This website is a great resource for people seeking information about acne.


There are so many books about acne so I thought I would highlight just two that I think are excellent.

Healing Adult Acne: Your Guide to Clear Skin And Self-Confidence is by Richard G. Fried who is both a dermatologist and a psychologist.  Why did I like this book so much?  I loved the fact that Dr. Fried combined both scientific facts about acne with a psychological discourse in this book.  I found the chapter about finding your acne triggers to be wonderful.  Dr. Fried includes charts and quizes in the chapter that help the reader really think about what could be causing their acne.  If you can figure out what triggers your acne – stress, medication, food, etc. – than you can do a much better job at clearing up your skin.  I like the fact that this book was aimed at adults whose acne is caused by different issues than the acne teenagers suffers from.  The book is quite comprehensive in exploring treatments, but also really talks about the emotional impact of acne on one’s life and how you can have a happy life even with acne.  Many books and articles about acne fail to really address the psychological side of acne and this book certainly makes up for that oversight.

Breaking Out: A Woman’s Guide to Coping with Acne at Any Age by Lydia Preston.  I am not sure why this book is specifically aimed at women since it is a great guide to the causes of acne and to all the different treatment options that are available.  Preston is a journalist whose research skills really shine through in this work.  I would say that this book is a great read for someone who wants a comprehensive background about acne.  Since the book came out in 2004 there have been some new advances in acne treatments, but nevertheless the book gives you plenty of information and will teach you a lot too.  The book is clearly written and very useful.

If you have a favorite resource for information about acne please feel free to share it!


Can You Drink Your Way To Firmer Skin? February 1, 2010

Now before you get too excited that drinking beer and wine can improve your skin tone the product that I am referring to here is actually instant coffee with added collagen.  Swiss based company Nestlé developed a coffee drink containing skimmed milk and 200mg collagen that claims to improve the look of your skin.  As far as I can tell the product is now only available in Singapore, where it is extremely popular.  It turns out that in Japan collagen is already added to many food products with the promise of youthful skin if you ingest it.  This fact was addressed on an episode of the Oprah Show back in November, 2008.  Since I don’t watch Oprah I didn’t know about any of this until I saw an article in The New York Times at the beginning of January about the above mentioned coffee.

Nescafe’s collagen coffee is part of a growing trend of nutraceuticals that promise health from within.  According to Wikipedia: “Nutraceuticals can refer to foods, dietary supplements, medical foods, and functional foods that may provide prevention and treatment of illness or disease. Nutraceutical foods are not subject to the same testing and regulations as pharmaceutical drugs.”  There is increasing market demand, in particular, for anti-aging drinks.

It would be great to think that by simply drinking your morning coffee you are strengthening your skin and looking younger with each sip.  Our skin is comprised of two layers – the top layer called the epidermis and the lower layer (or “live layer”) called the dermis.  While the epidermis is primarily made of soft keratin, collagen makes up 70% of the dermis.  The dermis also contains elastin and hyaluronic acid.  As we age collagen and elastin break down and weaken and wrinkles and lines appear.*  As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts the best way to protect your skin, and even slow down this collagen and elastin break down from happening, is to use sunscreen.  Yet wouldn’t it be nice that if all you had to do to repair the damage to the collagen and elastin in your skin would be to drink some coffee with collagen?

Before you get excited and start to wonder when this coffee will be available in the US please realize that it simply doesn’t work.  If collagen is ingested via the mouth it is simply broken down in the stomach and then excreted.  The collagen never gets to your skin. 

Too bad that coffee with collagen does nothing for your skin.  I just wonder – how does it taste?

* Source for information about the layers of the skin – Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians

Further reading

Nescafe Adds Collagen-infused Coffee to Its Product Line  Skin Inc.

This article, The Truth About Beauty Beverages –  from WebMD isn’t about collagen in coffee but about the whole idea of drinking supplements for better skin health.  I am including it here since it does tie in to the topic of ths post, at least nominally.  After I do some more research I plan to address the issue of supplements for skin health in more detail in a future post.


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