Why has my skin become sensitive all of a sudden?

Your skin has never been a trouble maker before, but suddenly you are getting reactions to the cosmetics you’ve been using for years? What’s going on?

Many think of sensitive skin as a “skin type”: as if you either have a skin that is prone to reactions or your skin is sturdy enough to endure almost anything. This is not true: any skin can be sensitive. Reactive skin is not a permanent skin type but a symptom that something is not right with the state of your skin barrier at this moment in time. In some cases, a problem with the skin barrier comes with an underlying medical skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea or acne. In other cases, the skin barrier gets damaged by external factors like over-washing, over-exfoliating, exposing the skin to too many or too high concentrations of potential irritants, as well as harsh weather conditions (cold, wind, dry air, sun damage). If you do not suffer from a medical skin condition, but your skin is reactive, most likely you or your environment are doing something that causes your sensitivity, and your skin would return to it’s normal healthy state were you to identify and eliminate the culprit.

External damage to the skin barrier can happen at any time: a person might be over-washing their face for years without noticing negative effects, probably because their skin is doing a great job of quickly repairing the damage. Sometimes though there comes a point when the skin is not able to “bounce back” as quickly as before, leaving the skin barrier “leaky”. A compromised skin barrier leads to dryness, flaking, and makes the skin more likely to react with inflammation, redness and itchiness to different compounds that come in contact with it.

If your skin is getting reactive, do not assume that your usual skincare routine is safe just because you have been doing it for years. The fact that you did not have a reaction to a product or ingredient in the past does not guarantee that you can tolerate it always. In fact, in case of allergic reactions, for one to occur, your skin needs to be exposed to an allergen at least once (and often more than that) before a visible reaction would occur. In case of irritant skin reactions, the weaker your skin barrier currently is (for example, due to a recent harsh exfoliation procedure, too zealous washing, or simply dry air), the more likely you skin is to respond with inflammation, itchiness and redness to any natural or synthetic chemical, regardless of how often you used it in the past.

This is why if you notice signs of skin sensitivity (dryness, flaking, redness, itchiness, breakouts, swelling, or stinging sensations), the best course of action is to minimize the amount of products and ingredients that come in contact with your skin and cut out any procedures you do it - including washing when your skin isn’t actually dirty. This will allow your skin barrier to heal, and you could then re-introduce your skincare products slowly one-by-one, carefully noting if any one of them is causing a return of symptoms. If you suspect an allergic reaction, or your skin irritation is severe, you should also seek help from a medical dermatologist. You can also check out the list of most frequent irritants and ingredients to avoid if you suffer from skin sensitivity here.