The beauty industry loves labels. Acne-prone, anti-aging, natural - all these labels help us to narrow our focus in the midst of an overwhelming amount of choices. “Sensitive skin” is a label heard and used often, but the definition, diagnosis, and triggers are far more ambiguous. One thing is for sure - your hormones play a role.
Consider this your guide to all things skin sensitivity - what it is, what causes it (hormonal and otherwise), and what you can do about it.
What Classifies Sensitive Skin?
In 2016, the International Forum for the Study of Itch (yes, that’s a real thing) formally established a definition for sensitive skin. Sensitive skin is the appearance of unpleasant sensations, such as stinging, burning, pain, pruritus (itching), and tingling in response to something that would not normally cause such sensations, which can last from minutes to hours or even longer.
Studies have shown that sensitive skin manifests itself in one of two forms: objective or subjective. Objective sensitivity often presents visible signs of irritation such as redness, dermatitis, or acne. Whereas, subjective sensitivity relates only to sensational symptoms, or the feeling of your skin being sensitive. This type of sensitive skin is more common and typically self-diagnosed.
Due to the mystique of sensitive skin it has been notoriously difficult to officially diagnose.
Factors that Contribute to Sensitive Skin
There are a number of ways sensitive skin can occur and depending on the root cause, the treatment can differ. The most commonly reported contributors to sensitive skin are shaving, weather, cosmetics, and emotions. Other factors include:
Physical factors, such as ultraviolet radiation or temperature
Chemical factors, such as cosmetics or water
Environmental factors, such as pollution
Psychological factors, stress or emotions
Fluctuating hormones have been one of the leading factors in self diagnosed skin sensitivity, primarily in women experiencing PMS or menopause. From daily stressors to monthly cycles, hormones play an important role in this common skin condition. Here’s how:
Sensitivity + Stress
Work burnout or relationship crises - whatever triggers your stress, the result is an increase in prolactin and cortisol. Studies show higher prolactin and cortisol levels cause the breakdown of your skin barrier. Because your skin barrier is the first line of defense against pollution, bacteria, and other environmental aggressors, a weak skin barrier can allow irritants in causing inflammation and sensitivity.
Your skin barrier is like a brick wall with mortar between your skin cells. This mortar is made up of fatty acids and lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and other fatty acids). When cortisol is high and your skin barrier is weakened, the thin barrier becomes permeable. This allows bacteria and aggressors to cause sensitivity, but also products to absorb deeper, which can make skin more reactive to active ingredients.
A thin barrier makes it easier for moisture to escape, which is why dryness and sensitivity are often experienced together.
Sensitivity + PMS
If you suffer from PMS, you’re familiar with the discomfort (an understatement) the week leading up to your period. Low energy, soreness, acne and, that’s right, skin sensitivity.
One study found that 42% of menstruating women experienced increased skin sensitivity just before and during their period. During the menstrual cycle, hormone levels drop leaving your immune system and skin barrier weaker than in the other phases of your cycle.
Some studies show lower levels of estrogen (the hormone that boosts collagen and elastin) during this phase is the cause of increased sensitive skin. To help protect your skin, avoid harsh actives and fragrances.
Sensitivity + EDC Exposure
It’s no secret exposure to EDCs throw your hormones out of balance, but they can wreak havoc on your skin, too. Exposure to EDCs can happen through skin contact (touching a hot receipt or using toxic beauty products), diet/lifestyle (eating highly processed or herbicide sprayed foods), and the environment.
Because your skin is the largest organ and the first line of defense against toxins, when your skin is exposed to EDCs, it can send defense mechanisms to help protect yourself. But your body’s defense systems can’t always stand up against these hormone disrupting chemicals.
Studies show exposure to EDCs can lead to inflammation and allergic reactions and even hyperpigmentation and visible signs of aging when exposed long term. Whether it's as simple as opting for an emailed receipt or doing a full on beauty cabinet clean out, avoiding these harmful chemicals can do wonders for your sensitive skin.
Diet & Lifestyle Recommendations to Keep Sensitivity in Check
Soothing sensitive skin may feel like trying to put a forest fire out with a tea cup, but simple changes in your routine can help you prevent triggering flare ups and better manage your sensitivity.
Avoid skincare products with fragrance – both ‘natural’ and synthetic. Because natural fragrances contain more compounds in them, they are oftentimes more likely to cause an allergic or inflammatory reaction.
Avoid beverages and food with ‘natural’ flavors – like fragrances, these flavors can include a host of ingredients that brands are not obligated to disclose which may contribute to your skin sensitivity.
Apply moisturizer – a quality, hypoallergenic moisturizer with skin-identical ceramides provides an occlusive shield that protects your skin barrier from damage and environmental irritants.
Wear mineral sunscreen - chemical sunscreens can cause increased sensitivity for some, and studies have shown chemical UV filters to have endocrine disrupting effects. Zinc, a common mineral sunscreen ingredient has the added benefit of skin soothing, and the array of choices for mineral sunscreens without the dreaded white cast are growing.
Patch test your skincare products before applying to your face. This can be done on a small area of your forearm to test if your skin will react poorly to the product.
Incorporate new products into your skincare routine slowly - a complete routine overhaul can be exciting, but an overload of new ingredients or products can trigger a reaction in your skin - and make it hard to know what the culprit is. Instead, start slow and steadily add new products to your regimen.
Dry, itchy, red, and irritated aren’t the ideal labels to describe your skin. So when you’re feeling sensitive, eliminate exposure to irritants, patch test your products, and look to your hormones.