Skin problems don’t just appear from nowhere - which is why Judy Johnson is planning to address all areas of her life this year to keep her sensitivity in check
If I look back at last year in terms of my skin, it wasn’t so terrible (yes, 2016 in ‘not so bad after all’ shocker) but the problems I did have could all have been avoided if I had been a little more mindful. From the raging allergic reaction I had on my hands after a manicure to stress-induced eczema and an irritation courtesy of out-of-date SPF, those sensitivities needn’t have happened if only I’d slowed down and been more considered when it came to my skincare - and health.
Because I can use all the right products and sensitive-friendly brands I like, but if I’m not looking after my skin from all angles then it won’t mean I’m guaranteed to avoid the dreaded itch. So this year I’m going to keep finding all those skincare gems that do their bit for sensitive types, while making sure I keep my side of the bargain and do what I can to lower my chances of a bad skin day. We all promise to do it for our health whenever January rolls around - so why not for our skin too?
Resolution #1: Stress less
A couple of years ago I wrote about the fact that being a stressed, oversensitive person could well be the reason I had such sensitive skin. It’s played on my mind ever since and is something I’ve consciously tried to monitor and change - and aside from some thankfully rare allergic reactions, I can happily say my skin is less sensitised than it used to be; and I don’t think it’s unrelated to the fact that I’m less stressed than I was back then. Of course, my growing understanding of product formulations (as well as ever-improving skincare - it’s getting better) has helped, but in the time that’s passed I’ve seen a difference, and most convincingly of all, I’ve noticed my skin play up more when those inevitable bouts of stress do occur.
This year I’ll be continuing to keep on top of my stress levels by making a few small changes: rushing less, exercising more (gently) and doing my best to make sure I always have a good night’s sleep. My current bedtime beauty hero is Scentered’s Sleep Well Therapy Balm, £14.50 - taking a second to inhale this blend of lavender, chamomile, geranium, and patchouli from my pulse points really does quieten the mind and has become a helpful ritual to make sure I truly switch off even if I have been glaring at my phone for longer than I should have.
Resolution #2: Be more loyal to my skincare
The trouble with being a beauty junkie for a living is that I am lucky to have access to all kinds of skincare - but too often in 2016 I was mixing up my routine by the minute, throwing this serum here and that oil there in no particularly sensible way. I think this is something women do generally - we’re so keen to have better skin that we’ll often allow the novelty of a good product to wear off and go and try something else, when actually your skin was perfectly happy with your first choice. I’ll still be testing new formulas but aside from those, my basic skincare routine needs to be just that: back to basics and standardised a little, so that my face can build a rapport with the products I truly enjoy using and be primed and ready to try something new when necessary.
Often my reactions come from my own mistakes
Keeping things simple is an approach that Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting advocates, too - both in terms of steps and tools. "My advice for those with sensitive skin is to pare it back and build a cohesive, rational regime, on a product by product basis. I think 'less is more' is definitely the route to success when managing this skin type,” Dr Bunting warns. "I think a really crucial point is to avoid aggravating sensitive skin with anything exfoliative - I recommend nothing more than the pads of fingertips to be used when it comes to cleansing and to pass on physical scrubs, brushes and cloths.”
For me, this means a gentle swipe with Bioderma’s Sensibio , £10.50, and cotton to remove makeup, followed by a cleanse with Pai’s creamy cleanser, £28. I’d usually follow with a spritz of Avene’s Thermal Spring Water , £7, a hyaluronic serum (my current favourite being Pestle & Mortar) and a cream for my dry skin, usually Kiehl’s Skin Rescuer , £29.50 or Avene’s Tolerance Extreme Cream , £14.50. From there, I can add or subtract from my routine to make way for anything new, and be more accurate in evaluating the results, as Dr Bunting explains: “Introduce new products one at a time when skin is absolutely stable. I often suggest doing so for one to two weeks before making any further changes to minimise risk of irritation."
MORE GLOSS: 10 ways to build up your skin barrier if you're sensitive
Resolution #3: But don’t be too loyal if it’s out of date...
A hard lesson to learn, but skincare has an expiry date for a reason. From organic favourites which I’ve stocked up on only to then realise I didn’t rotate said stock when I bought another one in the sale, to a beloved SPF which had been opened almost two years prior and left in a drawer waiting for my next beach holiday (which never came), often my reactions come from my own mistakes. Sometimes I like a product so much that I either buy too many or save it for later, like when you have a favourite skirt you keep for special occasions and then realise three years down the line it’s at the back of the wardrobe collecting dust.
In a recent beauty shelf tidy-up I discovered I still had a near-full pot of a beloved, luxurious, really rather expensive cream which was opened well over two years ago; I loved it so much that I didn’t want to ‘use it all at once’ so I’ve barely touched it since and now it has an unsightly off-yellow hue that suggests I’d better not start now. Devastated doesn’t cover it, but I’ll be learning from this massive fail and making sure I use products as I go, right until the last drop - and I suggest you do the same. Bear in mind organic products will have a shorter shelf life, and anything that's preservative-free may indeed not last for obvious reasons. And if you love something, use it; after all, what’s more special an occasion than the state of your skin in the here and now?
Resolution #4: Feed my skin
Reactions, irritations and skin conditions such as eczema are essentially all versions of the same thing: inflammation. But while picking the right products will help to stop the itch, being smarter when it comes to your diet will also keep things looking far calmer from the inside out. As Imelda Burke says in her new book, The Nature of Beauty , “The health of the skin is inherently linked to the health of the body - it seems common sense, but most of us reach for a product without looking at what else we can do to help. Remember the golden rule: too much of anything shows up in the skin.”
My diet is by no means bad, but there are certainly a few tweaks that could make it more sensitive skin-friendly; and as someone who’s always talking about ingredients, the contents of my fridge and cupboards should really be as much of a priority as my bathroom shelf.
This is something Shann Nix Jones, founder of Chuckling Goat skincare and author of the upcoming book The Good Skin Solution (£10.99, Hay House) feels strongly about. "Your skin is really just a map of your gut. In order to heal the skin, you must first heal the gut! Sensitive skin is generally caused when the body over-responds to allergens in the environment, inappropriately using the big guns of the immune system to deal with relatively minor allergens. Drinking kefir - a powerful Eastern European probiotic - and applying kefir skincare to the skin helps to reduce levels of inflammation in the body, allowing the body to deal appropriately with allergens, and relieving sensitivity.
"The gut and the skin are connected because they are both barrier sites of the immune system. Barrier sites are where the inside of your body meets the outside world: skin, lungs, gut, sinuses. Logically enough, this is where your body sites its immune system, to defend from pathogens that come in from the outside. Your skin is the first defense level of your immune system.”
As well as recommending drinking kefir and bone broth daily and using kefir skincare (see Chuckling Goat for handmade options), Shann advises swapping sugar for Stevia to reduce inflammation and switching your dairy choices to the goat variety. "Anything with cow dairy in it - including milk, cheese and butter - is a potential allergen and a known trigger for eczema and allergies,” explains Shann. "Choosing goat butter, goat cheese and goat milk is a healthier choice, produces less mucous in your body and lowers inflammation levels.”
A low GI diet could also help. "High GI foods like bread, pasta, rice and white potatoes burn to sugar rapidly inside your body, causing an insulin rush that damages your microbiome. Instead, choose low GI foods like oatmeal, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas and flatbreads made with buckwheat or amaranth flour. These foods burn slowly inside your system, releasing sugar slowly, which keeps the microbiome stable and improves the appearance of your skin."
We all know that what we put into our body shows on the outside - so much so that as a dermatologist, Dr Bunting includes dietary advice when treating her patients. "I advocate good fats in order to support healthy barrier function - nuts are excellent, as they're also a great source of micronutrients like zinc, selenium and biotin which are great for healthy hair and nails,” she explains. "I'm always snacking on walnuts, almonds and cashew nuts. I also recommend minimising pro-inflammatory foods, such as refined carbohydrates."
Resolution #5: Know my limits
That long-lasting and overly dramatic allergic reaction on both my hands (gradually spreading along my arms for good measure) last year wouldn’t have happened if I’d been a little less indulgent and a little more focused on what was going on during my manicure. I’m fairly convinced it was the perfume content of the hand cream that did it; usually the slightest whiff of a fragrance would have me on edge, ready to turn it down should it come my way - but for some reason I wasn’t paying attention and on it went.
I’m the same when spraying perfume - I know that I absolutely have to spray it onto my clothes , not my skin if I’m to wear it at all, but sometimes, be it through being on autopilot to simply not wanting to look odd in front of others, I’ll put it on my skin and instantly wish I hadn't. Beauty isn’t worth it if you’re only going to regret it later; 2017 is going to be the year that I regret nothing when it comes to my skincare.
For more information about the link between the gut and our skin, see Shann's latest book published by Hay House Feb 7, The Good Skin Solution: Natural Healing for Eczema, Psoriasis, Rosacea and Acne.
If you often suffer with reactions, watch this video from Dr Sam Bunting's YouTube channel for more advice.
What will you be doing to keep your sensitivities under control? Let me know in the comments!