This is Why Your Skin has become Sensitised, Alongside the Rest of the World

Firstly, let’s look at understanding what sensitised skin really is. Many people don’t realise that there is a difference between sensitised skin and sensitive skin. Put simply, sensitive skin is a genetic trait, and sensitised skin, which is fast becoming a growing phenomenon worldwide, is caused by exposure to pollution, stress and chemicals. So to break it down further – sensitive skin is something that you’re normally born with and sensitised skin is developed over time.

Sensitised skin is caused by a damaged barrier function that leads to irritated nerve endings. It is a more intermittent problem that flares up in line with specific lifestyle and environmental factors, or as a reaction to products. Sensitised skin can be caused by the following things:

  • A reaction to skincare products such as sunscreen
  • Exposure to environmental factors such as wind or extremely hot or cold weather
  • Stress (need we say more)
  • Chemicals and pollution
  • Exposure to dust
  • Lack of sleep

Skin sensitisation is what happens to your skin when you have an allergic response to a substance after it comes into contact with the skin. Skin sensitisation may take the form of a rash, itchiness, bumps, peeling skin and breakouts, just to name a few. There are many materials, synthetic and natural, that should never be used in products that come into contact with your skin. A great example is volatile compounds such as alcohol, fragrances and essential oils and non-volatile synthetic compounds such as glycols, surfactants and fatty alcohols along with natural fats and waxes. Unfortunately, I see these materials too often in skin products that simply should not be there. They are in fact exacerbating the problem consumers are trying to solve.

Substances are classified as skin sensitisers if there is evidence in humans that the substance can lead to sensitisation by skin contactAllergic contact dermatitis, is a common itchy red skin rash you get when you come into contact with a chemical. There are also many natural sensitisers; the number one is essential oils. There are about 300 different essential oils available, only eight have no sensitisers.


Skin sensitisation develops in two phases:

Phase 1 – Comprises immunological priming of the exposed skin tissue with the acquisition of sensitisation.

Phase 2 – After a second exposure to the same chemical, an aggressive immune response might be elicited resulting in a local inflammatory reaction. The mechanisms by which a chemical interacts with the immune system comprises a direct chemical-protein reaction or an indirect reaction after conversion of the chemical into protein-reactive molecules. Over 3700 substances have been identified as contact allergens.

When we look at leave-on products such as moisturisers and creams in there many forms; serums, gels and toners; the sensitisers need to be eliminated. Most formulas contain 95% or more ingredients that don’t help the skin, but are there to make up the base of the product. This includes synthetic emulsifiers, fragrances/essential oils and petrol-chemical derivatives. The other five per cent or less is the active ingredients such as vitamins, plant extracts, proteins and man-made actives.

Most actives are non-sensitising so it makes sense to create products with just the actives’ ingredients in them. This not only eliminates the sensitisers but it delivers actives undiluted and at a level that will help the skin.

For some skincare products, synthetic surfactants will still need to be used if we want exfoliants and facial cleansers to work and maybe an odour enhancer as well, as surfactants don’t smell very nice. Surfactants cannot be found in nature and thus need to be produced synthetically. The good news is that these types of products are wash off, so the impact of these potential sensitisers is minimised.

It’s very similar to the clean raw food movement where eating fresh wholesome foods are far better for you than processed foods. The skincare products of the future will be either water- based, or oil-based. This means if you want vitamins A & E you will need an oil-based product as both these are only oil soluble in their pure plant form, and vitamins C & B you will need a water- based product as both of these are only water soluble.

Products containing oil soluble actives such as pure rosehip oil, sweet almond oil and macadamia oil are very good for lipid dry skin, and creating a barrier over damaged broken skin. There are many brands on the market with these types of products.

Skincare that only delivers water soluble actives at 100% is a very new concept, but it can be done. New brands such as Biologi are developing technologies that allows water soluble nutrients to be delivered to the skin in their pure form from the plant.

In most cases, you won’t need a professional to tell you if you have sensitised skin, you’ll feel it. It can reveal itself in the form of dryness, itchy patches, redness, bumps, flushed patches, irritation and stinging when you apply products. The good news is that there are ways to manage and treat the symptoms:

Don’t touch your face

Regardless of your level of cleanliness, your hands still contain millions of bacteria which can clog pores and irritate already sensitised skin. Always wash your hands and make sure they’re thoroughly dry before applying products and get out of the habit of touching your face unless you absolutely need to.

Drink lots of water

Lack of hydration can irritate damaged skin cells further.  Drinking water promotes the skin’s natural hydration processes to strengthen cells and improve function. Drink a minimum of two to three litres of water a day to give your skin cells a natural helping hand.

Learn about the ingredients used to formulate your skincare products

It’s no secret that many moisturisers and products aimed at curing sensitive or sensitised skin are ironically part of the problem. Emulsifiers used to create the thick consistency of moisturisers and lotions can block pores and cause irritation which makes sensitivity worse.

Sensitised skin will almost certainly react to harsh ingredients such as synthetic acids, fillers and many preservatives by inflaming already delicate skin cells. Prolonged use of such products can even directly cause sensitivity in healthy skin cells.

Avoid products that contain fragrance

The only benefit of using a product that contains fragrance is that it will smell nice. Many fragrances – even the natural ones – are known skin irritants that can cause and worsen sensitivity.

If you’re not sure how you’ll manage without a perfumey-smelling product, just remember that not using fragrance won’t cause damage to cells leading to sensitivity and sensitised skin, using fragrance will.

Avoid occlusive products

If a product tells you that it will lock in hydration, it will also lock in bacteria and foreign objects that increase pain and discomfort. Use natural serums and never apply petroleum or thickening products directly to your face.

Exfoliate

We know it feels like there’s nothing worse than using a harsh scrub on an already painful face but don’t give in to the temptation to skip exfoliation. Exfoliation keeps pores free from bacteria and dead skin cells that can further damage the delicate dermal layer leading to dry, sore patches.

Always exfoliate but be mindful which products you use and always opt for a gentle enzyme exfoliator rather than an abrasive scrub to avoid further irritation.

Use Biologi serum daily

When you start to treat sensitised or sensitive skin, apply Bf serum daily until you’ve used one full bottle. Bf serum is made from pure extract of finger lime and is a natural source of tryptophan – a powerful nutrient that will reverse damage and repair the barrier function of the skin.  Bf serum is also a natural source of vitamin C which reduces inflammation to ease pain and discomfort.

Next, protect and nurture your cells to avoid the problem returning in future. Regularly apply Bd serum potent in anthocyanin to help hydrate, nourish and protect cells deep within the dermal layer.

Bd serum contains tartaric acid to help build up a natural barrier to protect the skin from external factors that cause sensitised skin. It also works as an enzyme exfoliator to clear blocked pores without the assistance of synthetic chemicals that can make pain and discomfort worse.

Feature Image Credit: @Wendy_Online

Read More: The Awful Truth About Micellar Water

Ross MacDougald

Ross Macdougald is an Australian Cosmetic Chemist who is the founder of Biologi, phytoverse and Plant Extracts.