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Sensitive Skin

What is sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is defined as skin prone to becoming red, itchy, inflamed or dry. Sensitive skin sufferers can often experience sunburn more quickly and can also react badly to some of the ingredients found in certain makeup and skincare products.

There are a number of factors which can cause sensitive skin, including food intolerance, personality factors and reactions to certain products. As Padma Coram, Holistic Health and Wellness Mentor at Grace Belgravia points out: “Our skin is the first point of call or mirror to our “insides” and the skin speaks to us like no other organ does. It is the most visible, visual, dramatic and vocal organ and will not keep quiet until we sort the real problem out."

This means that for people with sensitive skin, certain life triggers such as being under pressure or feeling stressed can play havoc with their skin and leave it irritated and inflamed. As well as direct reactions, mental stress can also cause a breakdown of the skin’s protective barrier, making you far more likely to suffer a reaction to any skincare or makeup products you put onto your skin.

Another possible cause of irritation to skin is diet and nutrition. Whether it’s a wheat intolerance or a reaction to dairy, what you put into your body can have just as much of an effect as what you put onto it. Skincare specialist Caroline Hirons says: “Food intolerances or sensitivities can absolutely have an effect on your skin. An inflamed system is shown on the skin in all manner of ways but sometimes through angry, red spots and an underlying pink/red undertone or accasionally inflamed cheeks. Food allergies in particular can trigger rashes, breakouts and inflammation - in some cases leading to sore, irritated skin.”

Which ingredients should sensitive skin sufferers avoid?

  • Methylisothiazolinone is a common preservative and is one of the main culprits when it comes to irritating sensitive skin. Often known simply as MI, it has been highlighted by doctors as triggering one of the worst skin allergy outbreaks ever seen.

  • Although seemingly calming, essential oils are actually full of allergens and are best avoided if you have sensitive skin. Anything containing citrus is thought to be the worst for sufferers.

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) are both foaming agents found in everything from shampoo to cleaning products. These can be quite tough on the skin as they upset the outer protective layer of oils and can lead to inflammation and irritation.

  • Even mineral brands are not 100 per cent safe for sensitive types, and Bismuth Oxychloride is one of the biggest offenders. If you find you are allergic to mineral makeup, this may well be the ingredient to watch out for. Typically, it causes redness, itching and stinging.

  • Petrochemicals and Synthetic Emollients: derived from petroleum, chemicals such as liquid paraffin and mineral oil are known irritants. They create an oily layer on the skin to prevent moisture from escaping, which in turn blocks pores and causes a build up of bacteria.

As with most things, the key is finding out which ingredients do work for you, and then sticking to them. It is also a good idea to focus on building the skin’s protective barrier to reduce your level of sensitivity, and to soothe the skin with anti-inflammatory ingredients like aloe vera and oatmeal when necessary.

Read more about ingredients to avoid in makeup and skincare

What are the most suitable brands for sensitive skin?

There are many brands out there that promise to clean up sensitive skin. Tried and tested, here are some of our favourites:


La Roche-Posay

Eau Thermale Avène

Green People



Balance Me


Skyn Iceland


Top tips for dealing with sensitive skin:

  • Patch test a small amount of any new product on a small area of skin such as the inner arm or wrist before using it on your face or body. If you have had no reaction after three days of testing, it should be safe to use.

  • Get to know which ingredients don’t agree with you and carry a list with you when out so you can check products before you buy them.

  • Look out for products which contain only a few ingredients; these are more likely to be made up of natural elements and less likely to contain harmful irritants.

  • Simplify your skincare routine. Use gentle, skin-protecting cleansers and cut out anything containing alcohol, detergents, fragrance or foaming agents.

  • Do a digestion check. As what goes on on the inside can have a great impact on what goes on on the outside, it is a good idea to check if food intolerances or bad diet are aggrevating your skin. Keep a food diary for two weeks and watch for any potential triggers that may be causing sensitive flare ups. If you notice any, try cutting these foods out to see if it makes a difference.

  • Visit your dermatologist to determine which type of senstive skin you actually have. Treatment options can vary between skin conditions and will always be most effective if tailored more specifically to you.

Find out what our experts say about tips for dealing with sensitive skin

Read our resident sensitive skin sufferer's regular column on dealing with irritation and sensitivity here

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