Have a doctor-prescribed skincare regime. Know what sets off your skin. Use mild cleansers and physical sunscreens. Stick to basic products.

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Have a doctor-prescribed skincare regime. Know what sets off your skin. Use mild cleansers and physical sunscreens. Stick to basic products.

There seems to be a growing number of people with sensitive skin – skin that’s dry, itchy and inflamed, either periodically or chronically. There are also more skincare and cosmetics laying claim to sensitive-skin-friendly formulations, though at the same time, many are also boasting fast-acting or concentrated ingredients that can trigger reactions and flare-ups more easily.

One of the most common forms of sensitive skin is atopic dermatitis, commonly known as eczema. Dr Teo Wan Lin, dermatologist at TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre, explains that the condition usually occurs in those with a genetic predisposition to it or a family history of skin sensitivity. It is characterised by constant breakouts or flare-ups that cause inflammation such as redness, rashes and itchiness.

The cause isn’t really known – it could be the heat, dryness (the lack of humidity), dust or any type of allergen – and there is no known cure, says Dr Teo. “But there are a number of treatments that can manage the inflammation in the long run.” Another form of sensitive skin is contact dermatitis, caused by “contact with substances such as poison ivy, specific ingredients in products that may irritate the skin and jewellery with nickel in it,” says Dr Teo. The first step to managing this type of inflammation is to, obviously, avoid contact with the irritant.

Sensitive or reactive?

Note, though, that there is a difference between sensitive skin and reactive skin. Says Dr Joyce Lim, dermatologist at Joyce Lim Skin and Laser Clinic: “Sensitive skin is genetically prone to react when exposed to excessive heat, dust, stress or allergens.” It can only be managed and its symptoms reduced, but it cannot be cured due in part to the fact that its root cause is one’s genes.

“Reactive skin has symptoms similar to those of sensitive skin, but different causes,” adds Dr Lim. Triggers tend to be external irritants or allergens; avoid contact with them and the inflammation will be eradicated. The initial treatment for both types of skin tend to be the same: the application of mild steroid creams to immediately reduce severe inflammation. However, because the causes of sensitive and reactive skin are different, long-term care differs.

Manage, not eliminate

Key to effectively managing the condition are patient education and adopting the right skincare habits. Dr Zhang Yijun, medical director at Shiro Aesthetic Clinic, recommends consulting a medical professional for advice. For severe flare-ups, he prescribes a mild steroid that’ll reduce the inflammation. In the case of severe inflammation, he will sometimes recommend vascular laser treatments – such as Vbeam, Excel V and those that utilise red LED light – to tone down the flush and close some blood vessels. This is on top of a recommended skincare regime. Do expect it to be a slow recovery process; it could take the skin weeks or even months to look healthy again.


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Pinpoint the causes

Dr Lim Kar Seng, senior consultant dermatologist at The Dermatology Practice, stresses that “understanding your skin is the most important thing. For both sensitive and reactive skin, once you [identify the triggers, avoid them].” Allergens that can cause skin reactions such as rashes, redness and itch can come from a variety of sources, he says.

These include dust mites excretion, foods such as nuts, dairy, wheat and shellfish, plant pollen, cosmetics, and even skincare and non-invasive facial treatments. He points out that while avoiding the triggers can reduce the symptoms, the condition will not be fully “cured” as such reactions are part of the body’s immune response.

Go for a gentle cleanser

Soft and clean – but not “squeaky-clean” – skin is the end goal when it comes to cleansing sensitive skin, says Dr Lim Kar Seng, who recommends mild cleansers for the job. Avoid soapy or foaming ones. “The lathering agents (these produce the foam) in such cleansers can strip the skin of moisture, leaving the deficient skin even more defenceless against harsh factors such as excess heat or cold, dust, humidity, sweat, pollen and even mould,” explains Dr Teo.

Stay away, too, from barsoap cleansers, as they tend to trap bacteria over time and increase the risk of infections, making sensitive skin even more vulnerable to heightened inflammation and itch. Liquid cleansers are preferred.

Use basic products with minimal actives

Keep the rest of your skincare routine mild. Go for light formulations (think fluid textures) with minimal actives such as retinoids, and alpha- and betahydroxy acids, as sensitive skin is susceptible to acne breakouts that result from heavy or complex formulations. Both Dr Teo and Dr Lim Kar Seng strongly advise opting for a light moisturiser with ceramides to bolster the skin’s natural lipids.

Ceramides – lipid molecules found naturally in skin cells – play an important role in moisture retention, and in many eczema cases, products with them have been proven to be effective in fortifying the skin’s barrier function.

Use a physical sunscreen

Unlike chemical sunscreens, physical sunscreens do not get absorbed into the skin, says Dr Lim Kar Seng. Rather, these “sunblocks”, as they are generally known, work by forming a protective veil over the skin that physically blocks UV rays, thanks to active mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. This makes them a boon for all skin types, especially sensitive skin.

Avoid fragrances and artificial additives

Fragrances and colourants may have strong chemical agents such as alcohol-based chemicals that may aggravate symptoms, so ensure that your cosmetics and skincare are free of them.

“Natural” or “organic” isn’t always better

Organic skincare products are touted to be more effective than non-organic ones due to the use of ingredients that are not treated with chemical pesticides. A word of caution though: “Many of these products claim to be ‘organic’ but are actually not,” says Dr Zhang, who feels that the concept is overly used as a marketing ploy.

“Many of them still contain chemicals and non-organic substances.” Dr Lim Kar Seng, too, has misgivings about using the term “organic” to describe skincare or medications. He adds: “There has been no scientific or medical basis to recommend them over medically certified ones [that are backed by] extensive research.” So instead of going for “organic” skincare, focus on products that are supported by medical research and recommended by trusted medical professionals.

Sensitive skin can be managed with a simple regime of a cleanser, toner and moisturiser. These products help reduce the reactive symptoms and inflammation.

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Bioderma Sensibio H2O Make-up Removing Micellar Solution, $40.90. This water-based makeup remover and non-rinse cleanser is formulated for sensitive skin and is a favourite of actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, from $14.90. A pH-balanced, soap-free cleanser, this works with or without water, and can be used on the face and body.

Atorrege AD+ Face Wash Liquid, $59. This foams lightly with nano bubbles that clean out clogged pores. The fragrance-, parabenand colourant-free formula makes it good for acne-prone and eczema-prone skin.

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La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF50+ Invisible Face Mist Ultra-Light, $26.90. Protecting the skin from UVA and UVB rays, this has a nonsticky formula and feels like you’re spraying a water mist over your face. The ultralightweight, paraben-free formula can be resprayed over makeup throughout the day.

Skinceuticals Sheer Physical UV Defense SPF50, $66. This broad-spectrum lightweight sunscreen has mineral filters and a paraben-free formula that doesn’t clog pores. It also helps the skin deal with the heat from sun exposure.

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Physiogel Daily Defence Protective Day Cream Light SPF15, $37.90. Recommended by dermatologists, this is said to work on repairing the skin’s natural moisture barrier and has a light texture that doesn’t clog pores.

Atorrege AD+ Skin Treatment, $79. A moisturising lotion designed to penetrate the dermis to give long-lasting hydration. Fragrance-, colourantand paraben-free, this double-duty lotion can be used in place of a moisturiser.

D’skin Soothing Essential Solution, $103. This calming cream has amino acids to improve the skin’s barrier function, aloe vera to calm the skin, sodium hyaluronate to lock in moisture and ceramides to protect against moisture loss. Use it on its own or under a moisturiser to reduce redness and itch.

Avene Tolerance Extreme Cream, $69.90. Formulated with nine essential ingredients, including thermal spring water, shea butter and safflower seed oil, this works on restoring the skin’s natural barrier function.

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Physiogel Calming Relief A.I. Body Lotion for Dry, Irritated and Sensitive Skin, $30.90. Lightweight and fastabsorbing, this relieves itchy, angry skin. Best for reactive and eczema-prone skin.

Aveeno Skin Relief Moisturizing Lotion, $22.90. Clinically-proven to provide relief for sensitive skin, this utilises the natural healing properties of oats to soothe the skin, and helps it retain moisture and restore its barrier function.

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Skinceuticals Phyto Corrective Masque, $89. This oil-free hydrating mask with a blend of cucumber, thyme and olive extracts instantly calms inflamed skin and reportedly reduces its temperature.

Placentor Vegetal Anti-redness Cream, $49.90. At the heart of this is plant placenta, said to boost cells’ oxygen intake by up to 70 per cent for a faster recovery time – the promise is that the cream “repairs” angry skin in two days. Other actives include skin-soothing sweet almond oil and shea butter, and inflammation-reducing liquorice.

La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 Soothing Repairing Balm, $21.90. This balm, which is suitable even for young children, not only relieves skin irritations such as heat rash, but is also said to heal cuts and burns.