How to recognize and care for sensitive skin

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Sensitive skin is a common issue that can result in redness and a sense of tight, burning or stinging skin immediately after being exposed to irritants such as soaps or cosmetics. Skin redness, or erythema, might occur very quickly and only last minutes, while repeated stress can cause the redness to persist.

Certain individuals are more prone to sensitive skin, such as people with dry skin, eczema, dermatitis and rosacea. Children and the elderly are more apt to experience skin sensitivity.

Q: What is sensitive skin?

A: Many people say they have sensitive skin because skin care products, or household products that contact their skin, cause stinging, burning, redness or tightness. Or they say they have it because, even though they have no visible effects after contact with a product, it always makes their skin feel uncomfortable.

Here is what dermatologists look for when diagnosing sensitive skin:

  • Skin reactions such as pustules, skin bumps or skin erosion
  • Very dry skin
  • A tendency toward blushing and skin flushing

Q: How do I know if I have sensitive skin?

A: The best way to find out if you have sensitive skin, or whether something else is causing your skin condition, is to consult a dermatologist.

Q: What are some tips for sensitive skin care, especially on my face?

A: Specific guidelines are lacking, but here are a few tips:

  • Always start a new skin product by applying it to only a small area of skin, and gradually increase the amount applied if the product is tolerated.
  • Read the labels of products to identify possible triggers.
  • Use sun protection measures. Staying out of the sun or wearing protective sunscreen could be critical for reducing skin sensitivity, particularly for those who are prone to sunburn or who freckle easily.
  • Those with sensitive skin may consider avoiding makeup with too many ingredients - 10 or more ingredients is usually considered too many. Throw out old makeup. Use silicone based foundation and a face powder with few preservatives. Avoid waterproof makeup, as these require solvent to remove. Earth- toned eye shadow tends to cause fewer reactions than dark colors, while black eyeliner and mascara appear to be safer than other cosmetics. Meanwhile, liquid eyeliner might contain latex which could lead to an allergic reaction, so pencil eyeliner is a good alternative.
  • Avoid fragranced products, those with methylparaben or butylparaben as preservatives, antibacterial or deodorant ingredients, alcohol, retinoids or alpha-hydroxy acids.

Some conditions like rosacea might lead to facial redness and irritation.

Q: Are skin care products labeled "hypoallergenic" safer for sensitive skin?

A: Hypoallergenic skin care products are not necessarily safer for sensitive skin. There are no federal standards governing manufacturers' use of the term "hypoallergenic." So it can mean whatever a particular company wants it to mean.

Dr. Oswald Lightsey Mikell, certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, is the owner of Dermatology Associates of the Lowcountry.

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