For me it started recently with a few small bumps: itchy,not un-zit-like,but on not my face but my index finger.Breakouts had never plagued my dryish,fairish skin much,and now here I was,in my thirties with…what,finger acne?A trip to the dermatologist yielded a diagnosis: eczema."You have a type of sensitive skin," the doctor explained,and handed me a list of ultra-mild skin care products,banning me from using fragranced anything—hand creams,soaps,you name it.
Turns out that a whopping 50 percent of American women now report having some kind of sensitive skin,and the symptoms ain't pleasant: peeling,dryness,red patches,or irritated flare-ups on the face and body.And studies suggest certain types of sensitive skin—notably,allergic skin reactions and eczema—may be on the rise worldwide.This might have to do with urban environments (damn you,city pollution) and chemicals in our lives,theorizes Boston dermatologist Kavitha Reddy,M.D.(herself an eczema sufferer).And it's not just a super-pale-redhead problem: "I often see it in my patients with darker skin tones," says Coral Gables,Florida,dermatologist Flor Mayoral,M.D.That said,not everyone who thinks she has sensitive skin actually has it.Harsh product overuse can also result in sensitive-skin-like symptoms,but there the problem's self-inflicted.Here,experts break down the different issues you might be facing and map out your plan for a calm,happy complexion.
If Your Skin Is Dry,Tight,and Peeling…
There are two most likely possibilities: One is a too-harsh anti-aging routine,says Washington,D.C.,dermatologist Tina Alster,M.D.(Retin-A,harsh peels,and scrubs,we're looking at you.) In that case,you probably don't actually have sensitive skin,says Dr.Alster;you've just temporarily overstripped your skin's moisture barrier (the protective cloak of oils and good bacteria that keeps outside aggressors from setting up shop),making yourself more vulnerable to peeling,wrinkling,and,in darker skin,hyperpigmentation,warns Dr.Reddy.The second possible (though less likely) cause of your dryness is an allergic reaction to a topical ingredient: a fragrance,防腐剂,chemical,and even plant extract you're newly sensitive to.
Your quickest fix for both issues?First,find a cream or serum free of scents,common allergens,and harsh anti-aging ingredients (try the brandsEpionceorCetaphil),and use only that product until your symptoms clear up.To cleanse,use a gentle cream product,suggests New York City dermatologist Jeannette Graf,M.D.;we like Dove DermaSeries Cream Face Cleanser,$16,cvs.com.Now work in your old products one at a time to try to isolate the offenders.If retinols and AHAs were the trigger (they sometimes are),try gentler wrinkle-reducing products with ceramides,vitamin C,and peptides (like fragrance-free Olay Regenerist Regenerating Serum,$20,target.com).In addition,remember: "SPF is the best anti-ager," says Dr.Mayoral."Sunscreen today,sunscreen tomorrow—in a few years you'll look younger than your friends!"
If Your Skin Is Ruddy or Bumpy…
You may have rosacea,a chronic inflammatory skin condition that usually shows up in your thirties.It's often hereditary,and fair skin tones are more susceptible (though no one is exempt,and in darker skin tones,rosacea can produce a stinging feeling,even if redness is less visible)."Anything that increases blood flow to the face—hot and cold weather,consuming caffeinated drinks,spicy food,or alcohol—makes it worse," says Dr.Alster.For most cases of rosacea,redness-reducing serums and creams (like SkinCeuticals Redness Neutralizer,$66,skinceuticals.com),can help keep blotchiness in check,though you'll have to use them for three months to see improvements;if that doesn't work,a series of two to three in-office laser treatments will cut remaining redness by 50 to 80 percent,says Dr.Alster.(Lasers cost $500 to $700 a session,but results are permanent.) There's also a type of rosacea that looks uncannily like nose and cheek breakouts.(How to tell the difference: The rosacea is usually accompanied by a red flush,while regular acne may appear along with blackheads.) Once you've cut out the obvious food and drink offenders,one of the most effective treatments for acne-style rosacea,says Dr.Mayoral,is the anti-inflammatory prescription pill Oracea,which contains a very low dose of doxycycline.Dr.Graf also notes that sulfur treatments can help (try Peter Thomas Roth Sulfur Cooling Mask,$40,peterthomasroth.com).