What is sensitive skin?
Although not a “skin type” but rather a symptom caused by different factors, sensitive skin is characterised by frequent redness, burning, itching or dryness as a reaction to the topical application of skin care products or other stimuli.
A healthy skin functions to maintain balance by protecting the body against external influences, while regulating the levels of moisture. Much of these processes take place in stratum corneum (found in the epidermis), which is composed of lipids and cells, forming the uppermost layer of the skin.
These lipids provide stability and permeability, regulate fluid and maintain elasticity and firmness. In healthy skin, the barrier function of the stratum corneum retains moisture to prevent dryness and sensitivity.
However, their effectiveness greatly depends on enzyme activity, which is often weaker in sensitive skin. As a result, the barrier function of the skin becomes compromised, resulting in water loss and enabling the penetration of irritants or other foreign bodies.
The body’s immune system will now respond by activating the inflammatory response because it sees the irritants (commonly known as antigens) as a threat. Symptoms of sensitive skin now arise as the body’s response to maintain balance.
What causes sensitive skin?
Our skin is a living organ and it is designed to react to something that isn’t right in our bodies. Our nerve endings underneath the skin barrier detect everything that comes in contact with our skin – harsh chemicals, pollutants and irritants.
In sensitive skin, the barrier that protects the skin from its external environment is compromised, leading to various symptoms such as redness, stinging sensations, bumps, dryness, breakouts and tightness.
Sensitive skin may be triggered by the following:
Weather Changes: During the winter season, cooler air combined with central heating can cause the skin to become dehydrated and more sensitive. In contrast, the sun’s UV rays during summer can damage the skin barrier and cause sensitivity as well.
Dirt and Pollution: Smoke, dust and other pollutants that mix with the air are absorbed by the skin’s natural barrier. Over time, it can weaken and irritate the barrier, affecting its function to leave the skin feeling more sensitive.
Lifestyle: Lack of sleep and exercise, smoking, and poor diet are associated with skin sensitivity. They have a negative effect on the skin and may alter its natural function.
Hormones: This particularly affects women more than men. Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, menstruation and menopause can cause skin sensitivity. Lack of hormones called oestrogen may significantly affect the function of the skin’s barrier, resulting in dehydration, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and skin sensitivity.
Stress: When the body suffers prolonged stress, it produces more cortisol, which may trigger an increase in oil production and, in severe cases, limits the blood flow to the skin. All of these may affect the function of the skin’s barrier, which can lead to skin sensitivity.