While sensitive skin can appear anywhere on the body, it is at its most obvious on the face. It occurs when skin’s natural barrier function is compromised, causing water loss and allowing penetration of irritants. Symptoms are exacerbated by factors that facial skin is most exposed to, from the sun to some ingredients in products applied to the face.
Having a greater understanding of the causes of sensitive facial skin, and the factors that can worsen it, can help reduce its impact and lessen occurrences.
How to recognise sensitive facial skin
Healthy skin performs a delicate balancing act, protecting against external influences, while regulating moisture levels. Much of this is down to the processes taking place in skin’s horny layer, or stratum corneum, which is made up of cells and lipids. These lipids are like the ‘mortar’ to the cells’ ‘bricks’, providing stability and permeability, regulating fluid and maintaining elasticity and firmness.
Their effectiveness, however, is dependent on enzyme activity, which is often weaker in sensitive skin. As a result, skin’s barrier function becomes compromised, leading to excess transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and enabling the penetration of irritants. This can be even more pronounced in facial skin, which is not only most exposed to factors like UV rays, pollutants and chemicals, but is also where the epidermis can be as thin as 0.02mm, compared to an average thickness of 0.1mm elsewhere.
Read more about skin structure.
Symptoms of sensitive facial skin may be:
- Flaking, redness, rashes, swelling, scaling and roughness.
- They can be accompanied by sensations of itching, burning, tightness and prickling.
These symptoms can appear anywhere on the face. They share similarities to those presented by other skin conditions, especially symptoms associated with moisture deficiency.
Dehydrated facial skin manifests at the surface as fine dryness lines, which occur when the body’s own supply of moisture is no longer sufficient. It manifests itself as a decrease in the number of moisture channels, known as Aquaporins, which transfer water in and out of cells in deeper epidermal layers. These can be supported by ingredients such as Gluco-glycerol.
Dry facial skin can range from roughness to chapping and redness, and is caused by the loss of surface lipids that form a natural barrier, and of natural moisturising factors (NMFs) such as Urea and Lactate reducing moisture loss. Once this balance is compromised, moisture is increasingly lost through the skin.
Both conditions can lead to skin becoming sensitive to irritants.
Hypersensitive, reactive facial skin is more common in women than men, and may be related to conditions, age or contact and sensitisation to certain products, and a consequence is often an increased transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Sensitivity symptoms can occur after applying products to skin and may be experienced immediately, or be noticed hours or days later. They include feelings of stinging and burning, and can be accompanied by redness (erythema), scaling and pustules. Pretesting any new product on a small area first and checking after 24 hours for any reaction before general use can be key to reducing the impact of this condition.
Ageing skin is also prone to sensitivity, as thinning of the epidermis and reduced lipid synthesis can result in the barrier function being compromised. Declining levels of substances like Hyaluronic Acid, which hydrates the skin’s layers, and coenzyme Q10, which energises cells to improve their regenerative function, can exacerbate this situation. The result is a combination of fine lines and wrinkles with dry, reddened skin, and itchiness.
Facial skin can be affected by sun allergies. These share some symptoms with sensitive skin, including redness and itchiness, but also manifest as raised bumps, rashes, blisters and pustules. While most sun allergies, including Polymorphic Light Eruptions (PLE), are caused by UV radiation, some ingredients from cosmetic products can be a factor, too. Find out more about PLE and other sun allergies or how sun affects skin.
If you are unsure about what type of skin condition you have, our online skin test may be able to help. Sensitive skin can be a symptom of a variety of conditions, so if you are at all worried, consult your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
What causes facial skin to become sensitive
Skin´s protective functions
The skin has a plethora of systems in place to ensure it stays healthy. A hydrolipid film composed of water, fatty acids and lipids safeguards the surface. This has a pH of around 5, which is slightly acidic, protecting skin from bacterial invasion and alkaline extremes, like soap for example. It neutralises the alkaline through buffer substances, which make sure a balance is restored and made stable.
The physical barrier is the horny layer, or stratum corneum, where lipids work like cement, filling the spaces between the cells. Their permeability means that they regulate fluid loss and uptake therefore play a key role in providing the moisture that makes skin feel soft and smooth. This is also achieved through skin shedding, or desquamation, which again is encouraged and regulated by skin’s natural regeneration process.
All of these processes are dependent on enzyme activity. In sensitive skin, this activity can become inhibited, compromising the natural barrier function, and reducing lipid synthesis. As a result, water loss increases and irritants are able to penetrate skin.
Internal causes of sensitive facial skin
Although sensitive skin can occur at any age, it is particularly common in babies as their skin is around one-fifth the thickness of adult skin and has a limited barrier function, making it highly sensitive to chemical, physical and microbial influences, as well as UV rays. On the other hand the barrier function of adult skin increasingly weakens with higher age, as well as metabolic processes slow down. Ageing skin gradually becomes lipid deficient, making it more easily irritated by alkaline substances such as soap.
Hormonal changes due to the puberty, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and the menopause can all affect skin’s resistance to irritants.
Prolonged periods of stress and lack of sleep are both known triggers of sensitive skin. These are often accompanied by poor nutrition and low hydration levels, both can exacerbate already dry and irritated skin.
People with type I allergies are more likely to experience skin sensitivity, due to the penetration of allergens like pollen through the skin.
External causes of sensitive facial skin
Facial skin is exposed to all weathers, and almost every season brings with it factors that can trigger sensitivity.
Excessive cold reduces the secretions that maintain the hydrolipid film, while heat encourages sweating, which then evaporates, causing skin to become dry and more prone to irritation. Even central heating can be a factor in skin sensitivity, creating as it does an atmosphere with low humidity.
UV radiation, ozone and environmental pollutants have all been shown to place skin under stress through the creation of free radicals, weakening its natural defences. In particular, prolonged exposure to the sun can cause skin to dry out and become irritated. Read more about factors that influence skin.
Some ingredients in skin care products and cosmetics can cause facial skin to become sensitive. Some, such as surfactants that remove dirt, can also remove surface lipids. Others, like ingredients in fragrances, some colourants or alcohol, may be in some cases irritate skin that is prone to sensitivity, and in some cases they can trigger an allergic reaction. Read more about factors that influence skin.
Factors that can increase facial skin sensitivity
Once skin has become sensitive, certain events and behaviours can exacerbate and prolong the condition.
A contributor to sensitive facial skin can be the skin care routine that many people follow at the beginning and end of their day. Some cleansers can strip skin’s natural protective barrier. If they are followed by the application of products that conatin ingredients that the skin has been sensitised to, sensitive skin may redden and sting.
Chemical peels and granular exfoliators not only strip the hydrolipid film from the epidermis, they can also remove some of the horny layer too. While this can be helpful in removing dead skin cells and reducing lines and wrinkles, it can cause considerable irritation in already sensitive skin.
Shaving can lead to skin irritation both from the exfoliating action of shaving itself, and from irritants in the foams, creams and aftershaves used.
Research has shown that smoking is associated with numerous skin conditions and disorders, including acne, delayed wound healing and skin cancer. As with environmental pollutants, the chemicals in cigarettes act as free radicals, attacking skin’s cellular structure and reducing immune activity.
Relieving and helping sensitive facial skin
Helping sensitive skin through lifestyle
Introducing a diet rich in antioxidants such as Vitamins A, C and E, and natural plant oils or oily fish can help keep skin to a healthy condition.
Even in cloudy conditions, facial skin may be exposed to UV rays. Regular application of sunscreen is recommended to help avoid their harmful effects, while direct exposure should be avoided between 11am and 3pm. When choosing sun protection, it is important to cose a product formulated for sensitive skin.
Before choosing and using cosmetics in sensitive skin, it is worth doing a test application first, e.g. in the crook of one arm and assessing the area after 24 hours.
Research has shown that a number of active ingredients, which are largely nature-derived, can help reduce skin sensitivity. These are available in skin care products, making it possible to follow a regular cleansing and moisturising routine, while also protecting the skin.
- Dexpanthenol is a derivative of Vitamin B5, and helps to reduce transepidermal water loss and aids the skin’s own renewal process. It supports regeneration and strengthens the natural protection function of the skin to keep it healthy and resilient.
- Similarly Glycerin helps maintain skin’s moisture levels by acting as a humectant, which means that it attracts and then holds on to water.
Reducing redness and other symptoms
Some products can help reduce symptoms, and conceal them too. This can be particularly helpful when sensitive facial skin is accompanied by redness (erythema). Eucerin Anti-REDNESS Neutralising Day Fluid is a daily moisturiser with green, redness-neutralizing pigments, which lessen the appearance of redness. These pigments are combined with Licochalcone A, an active ingredient with skin-soothing properties.