Anti-ageing and sensitive skin is no longer a contradiction in terms if you know the right techniques – and the best new products.
Skin that flares at the merest provocation is no picnic. As if calming it down isn’t enough of a challenge, figuring out how to use anti-ageing products on sensitive skin that can’t bear the potent wrinkle-fighters and dark spot-faders others rave about, like retinol and glycolic acid, can be enough to give you a skin-aggravating hot flush.
It’s a particularly frustrating catch-22 when you know that inflammation and irritation actively age your skin. But you’re in luck: there’s never been a better time to be a delicate flower with skin that’s past its collagen-plumped prime. With increasing numbers of people suffering from sensitive skin conditions, the trend is for products and ingredients that soothe as much as they smooth, plump and brighten. But which ones are best, and how do you introduce them into your routine? Carefully, that’s how.
What is sensitive skin?
“Genetically sensitive skin’s protective lipid barrier is compromised from birth which often manifests in conditions like rosacea and eczema from a young age,” says clinical aesthetician Pamela Marshall. “It’s different from sensitised skin, which is skin red alert due to lifestyle factors such as over-use of aggressive skincare, stress, smoking and sunbathing.” It will unpredictable, prone to rashes, flushing, dryness and sometimes even welts and blisters. Sensitive skin is more chronic than sensitised skin, but fundamentally, says Marshall, both need similar treatment.
How to establish the best anti-ageing regime for sensitive skin
Anyone with reactive skin knows that simply buying a product labelled ‘for sensitive skin’ isn’t a fail-safe strategy: those labels can be quite economical with the truth, to put it politely. Sensitivity can have countless triggers, and just removing one or two, like parabens and colourants, may be beneficial to some but pointless to others, who might be allergic to fragrance or so sensitised that even water makes them flare up.
To establish a routine that re-generates skin without nasty reactions, you need to be pro-active in weeding out irritants, reinforcing skin’s protective moisture barrier, and swapping effective but aggressive age-busting ingredients for equally effective but non-irritating ones. That means getting to grips with ingredients and with your own skin’s peculiarities, but once you know what you’re looking for, it gets easy.
Just follow the steps below and you’ll be on your way to calmer skin that will stay looking fresh and youthful for longer.
- Kick out offenders: Anything that upsets skin’s barrier function by stripping off its lipids and protective bacteria is going to make it vulnerable. Alcohol (often hiding in toners and serums) and fragrance (including essential oils) are among the worst offenders, as are sulphates and other harsh surfactants. Marshall won’t let her sensitive clients use a gel or foaming cleanser because of them. “Always opt for a milky, creamy, balmy cleanser,” she says. We love Cultured Biomecare Vitality Cleansing Milk, £29 for 100ml, which is nourishing but very light, so suitable even for oily-yet-sensitive skin.
- Beware high ingredient percentages: Marshall also warns against products advertising high percentages of powerful antiwrinkle or anti-pigmentation ingredients: “Too much is too much for sensitivity. You never want a sledgehammer of one ‘miracle’ ingredient, you want a balanced formula of micro-dosed actives.”
- Take six weeks to build a stronger barrier: If your skin acts up for any period of time, you need to settle it before you can add serious wrinkle or age spot-defying ingredients. “I recommend a minimum of four weeks, preferably six, of a basic barrier-reinforcing regime to return skin to complete calm,” says Marshall. Any actives introduced after that will pose less risk of irritating your now calmer, stronger skin. And if they do, it’s easy to pinpoint the offenders and either avoid them or try them in a lower dosage.
- Limit your regime to three essential products: Your barrier-building regime should comprise as few products as possible. The more you mix, layer and experiment, the more you risk confusing and upsetting skin. Marshall recommends following every gentle cleanse with Clinisoothe Skin Purifier, £14.95 for 100ml, a toner that re-sets skin’s pH level to neutral. Result: instant calm and a protective acid mantle that’s in balance.
Follow with a moisturising serum or cream: “it's not the thickness of your moisturiser that determines its efficacy, it’s the formulation,” says Marshall. “But those with sensitive skin must use one.” She is “shocked” at how many people don’t: “It creates an essential ‘blanket’ on the skin that prevents water loss and helps reduce inflammation. Also, hydrated skin means you’re maintaining healthy, bouncy, collagen and elastin fibres.”
Marshal recommends hydrators with ceramides, antioxidants and/or polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), all of which care, protect and heal, keep inflammation down and create a humectant (water-trapping) layer on the skin. Many of the new anti-ageing creams and serums for sensitive skin feature these essentials; scroll down for our favourites.
Lastly, “SPF is a daily must for skin and the single best anti-ageing ingredient,” says Marshall. Wear it over moisturiser or, if it’s a moisturising, ceramide-rich formula such as CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion SPF50, £14.99 for 52ml, it can double as one. Some, though not all, sensitive skins can react to chemical sun filters so should opt for a mineral sunscreen like Avene Tinted Mineral Fluid SPF50+, £13.50 for 40ml.
- Swap out your active ingredients: Once you’ve managed to get your skin into a calmer and more resilient place, “you can start introducing regenerative actives such as vitamin C, peptides or niacinamide, but slowly and not all at the same time,” says Marshall.
Thanks to ever more sophisticated research and development in the skincare world, all the best anti-ageing ingredients now offer options that range from mild to super-potent. The wise choice if your skin is sensitive is to focus on the least aggressive versions of your chosen ingredients for all of the benefits but none of the drawbacks.
These are the swaps to make.
- PHAs instead of AHAs
“Polyhydroxy acids are soothing, hydrating and exfoliating, but won’t irritate like alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic and citric acid can,” says Marshall. She will only make an exception for the AHA mandelic acid, which is “brilliant for decongesting sensitive skin”. Otherwise, it’s PHAs all the way for keeping reactive skin glowing. Hero product: Mortar & Milk PHA Barrier Repair Serum, £85
- ·THD ascorbate instead of ascorbic acid
Ascorbic acid is the most active form of brightening, wrinkle-fighting vitamin C, but it can really sting, making it unsuitable for reactive skin. Tetrahexyldecyl (THD) ascorbate, also known as ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate (we can’t make the names on your INCI list any catchier!), is a lipidic form of vitamin C that doesn’t irritate at all but is lauded for penetrating readily and getting real results.
- ·Retinyl palmitate instead of retinol
Retinol remains the gold-star anti-ager, but those with sensitive skin need to choose a milder member of the vitamin A/retinoid family. Marshall prefers retinyl palmitate, which is “really just a mini-dose of vitamin A that can work wonders in the long term,” she says. Gentle ‘plant retinols’ such as bakuchiol are another viable alternative.
- Azelaic acid instead of kojic acid
Pigmentation-fighting actives such as kojic and tranexamic acid tend to bite delicate skin, but azelaic is the opposite. Relied on by dermatologists for its impressive anti-inflammatory properties, it is also anti-bacterial and brightening, making it a standby for treating acne, rosacea, discolouration and even melasma.
The best anti-ageing products for sensitive skin
Primarily a hydrating and barrier-repairing serum, this quenching, featherlight potion has gentle antioxidants and plant extracts to guard against ageing but nothing that will upset even the most hyper-reactive of skins. Unscented.
Avon Anew Sensitive+ Dual Collagen Cream, £18 for 50ml
This fragrance-free, silky gel-cream features collagen which functions as an effective humectant, and Protinol, Avon’s proprietary ‘retinol alternative’. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with retinol and works in a completely different way. But it has been shown to effectively boost skin’s collagen production without any irritation at all, so is great for reactive skin.
Pai Salvation Jane Natural Anti Aging Moisturiser, £59 for 50ml
Created for mature, sensitive skin, this helps reduce lines and wrinkles with plant-derived hyaluronic acid and echium oil, which has a perfect balance of omega fatty acids to restore dehydrated, damaged skin and reduce sensitivity.
Oodee Nova Illuminating Moisturiser, £55 for 50ml
Oodee products pride themselves on being entirely allergen-free to make things easier for reactive skins: even the fragrance they use should not cause reactions. This cream guards against the signs of ageing by being high in seed oils anti-oxidants and vitamins, but all of them, including vitamin C, are micro-dosed so as not to upset skin.
Mortar & Milk PHA Barrier Repair Serum, £85 for 100ml
A medley of gentle polyhydroxy acids in a silky-feeling, deeply hydrating and cooling liquid, facialist Pamela Marshall created this with her sensitive-skinned clients in mind. She says they invariably end up with calmer, radiant skin.
Trinny London Tiptoe In PHA Exfoliant, £34 for 75ml
Another polyhydroxy acid-based serum that also features humectants and gentle, brightening azelaic acid, this is highly unlikely to irritate even sensitive skin.
Neostrata Restore Bionic Face Cream, £34.50 for 40g
A skin professionals’ favourite for its ability to settle and deeply hydrate seriously dry and reactive skin, this rich but non-oily and non-fragranced cream has 12% polyhydroxy acids alongside seed oils full of essentials fatty acids. It’s a standby for put-upon winter skins.
By Sarah Awake Vitamin C+E Booster, £19 for 10ml
A very simple, short formula of ultra-light olive squalane, grape seeds and jojoba oils powered by vitamin E and THD ascorbate (lipidic, non-irritating vitamin C), this is a brilliant brightener and age-protectant for sensitive skin.
Hada Labo Tokyo Lotion Anti-Aging Super Hydrator, £17.45 for 150ml
This slippy, viscous liquid boasts retinol as its active ingredient but that is misleading: the vitamin A derivative in here is actually retinyl palmitate, which is much less potent so as to be entirely non-irritating. But that’s a boon for sensitive skin, which will reap the benefits of the anti-ageing vitamin without the inflammation. Also here are four types of hydrating hyaluronic acid, hydrating collagen and plant oils , but no fragrance. Ultra-light yet quenching, even oily skins will love it.
Skin Rocks Retinoid 1 Vitamin A Face Serum, £65 for 30ml
A ‘retinoid for beginners’, this has bakuchiol and 0.02% hydroxypinacolone retinoate, a retinoid considered less irritating than retinol at a relatively low level. Not for skin on red alert, this nonetheless shouldn’t upset sensitive skins that have been treated to six weeks of intensive barrier building, and will make a visible difference to wrinkles and radiance levels.
Dr Sam’s Flawless Brightly Serum, £44 for 30ml
Powered by azelaic acid, niacinamide, bakuchiol and a non-acidic type of vitamin C, this is powerful yet gentle and will greatly brighten as well as calm sensitive skin that’s ready for more than just hydration and anti-inflammatories.
Wildsmith Skin 4D Protection Serum, £40 for 30ml
The formula forms a sugar-based, undetectable film to shield against particulate matter belched out by exhausts and the like. It has antioxidants and peptides for non-irritating protection against ageing free radicals while hyaluronic acid quenches weightlessly.