Hubert Burda Media

Expert Tips to Protecting Your Skin

While there isn’t a cure for sensitive skin, the good news is you can reduce or prevent flare-ups.

Skincare for delicate skin isn’t something you’d usually locate at the glamorous, lacquered counters of a luxury brand like Chanel.

But four years ago, the French brand started to conceptualise a product for customers with sensitive skin. The reason? Worldwide studies conducted by its research unit had shown that reactive skin is a growing phenomenon, no thanks to increased exposure to chemicals, air-conditioning and pollution.

As skin irritation can be caused by skincare ingredients — the more in a product, the more chances of a flare-up — Dr Amy Wechsler, dermatological advisor to Chanel, and Christian Mahe, senior vice-president of Chanel Research, wanted a formula with very few ingredients. In the end, they put only 10 of these in La Solution 10, which the brand calls a comforting moisturiser.

And why a face moisturiser and not, say, a serum or a sunscreen? A Chanel spokesperson says: “La Solution 10 answers the fundamental need to preserve the skin barrier as an altered one is the first step in a chain of reactions leading to or enhancing skin sensitivity.”

Getting defensive

In layman terms, the skin barrier is skin’s topmost protection. Dr Eileen Tan, dermatologist at Eileen Tan Skin, Laser and Hair Transplant Clinic in Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, says: “Sensitive skin occurs when skin’s natural barrier function is compromised, causing water loss and allowing penetration of irritants.”

She adds that while sensitivity can affect any part of the body, it is predominantly on the face, as the epidermis here can get as thin as 0.02mm, compared to an average thickness of 0.1mm elsewhere.

How do you know if your skin is irritated?

“It is characterised by self-reported sensory perceptions of tightness, stinging, burning, tingling, pain or itch,” defines Dr Tey Hong Liang, a consultant dermatologist at the National Skin Centre in Singapore, who recently launched an anti-itch moisturiser Suu Balm.

He shares that skin sensitivity has been associated with women and with age. “Menopause can trigger or exacerbate it, as the skin barrier integrity deteriorates with reduced female hormones.”

While there are four main types of sensitivity including rosacea and photosensitivity, Dr Tan points out that contact dermatitis seems to be getting more common — perhaps due to how we are using multiple skincare products now and exposing ourselves to a wider variety of triggers.

She also says common allergens include nickel, parabens and lanolin, and recommends sticking with basic products such as a physical sunscreen with zinc and titanium oxide, and a moisturiser with dexpanthenol, a vitamin B5 derivative that is said to reduce moisture loss and aid the skin renewal process.

Dr Winston Lee, medical director of South Bridge Aesthetics Clinic, which recently launched a skincare line for Asian skin, says dry skin and sun exposure are the two main culprits behind unhealthy skin. So, in a pared-down regimen, he would suggest using only a light moisturiser, especially one for acne-prone skin, and a physical sunscreen with SPF30.

“I would skip products with alcohol as these further dry up already-sensitive skin. I would stay clear of cream exfoliants with excessive acids including alpha and beta-hydroxy acids as they can lead to flushing, flaky skin,” Dr Lee says.

Instead, he recommends ingredients such as allantoin for its soothing properties, vitamin E for its antioxidant nature and lecithin for its moisturising effect.

Dr Lee also suggests using sheet masks with minimal alcohol content, as doing so can hydrate skin and reduce the risk of flakiness, cracking and irritation. “Gentle courses of Intense Pulsed Light treatments can help reduce rosacea and persistent acne…[but] chemical peels are a no-no.”

Dr Yvonne Goh, medical director of Dr Yvonne Goh Aesthetics, is also against strong chemical peels, as well as heat-generating or abrasive treatments as they aggravate skin sensitivity. “Some people may experience this with prolonged use of alpha-hydroxy acids or retinols. I would recommend switching to clinical skincare.”

Watch your lifestyle

For Dr Georgia Lee, her own brush with post-inflammatory pigmentation from a drug allergy inspired her to launch her DrGL skincare line in 2011. The products’ textures are kept light and do not use more ingredients than necessary. The Toner Sensitive and Restore Gel Mask do not have alcohol, fragrances or colouring.

The medical director of TLC Lifestyle Practice has a couple of interesting observations on skin sensitivity, one of them being how people tend to think natural ingredients are gentler and safer. “These do not usually go through the stringent testing that chemical ingredients go through,” she cautions.

While she will avoid ylang-ylang, sandalwood, peppermint and wintergreen essential oils, she likes calming ingredients such as cucumber, aloe and chamomile.

Besides using the right (and fewer) products, she says users should watch one’s daily habits. For instance, use room-temperature water, avoid over-exposure to the sun and even take note of the ingredients in your shampoo. She also advocates a diet that is free or low in alcohol, spice and caffeine. Instead, consume foods with high levels of omega 3, zinc and vitamin E such as avocado, which she says will benefit those with eczema.