Does your skin tend to feel tight, itchy, or stinging when in touch with certain stimuli, such as personal care ingredients or too hot or cold weather strikes? Does it even develop a visible reaction (like redness or a rash)? Well, you are certainly not alone! Discover the best tips, skincare ingredients, and products to make your sensitive skin behave and feel comfortable.
Last updated: August 24th, 2022
Hi everyone! Have you read my previous blog post about the scientific reasons behind sensitive skin? Then you will hopefully acknowledge that it (alongside this one) could not be more timely. Because, last week, we knew that the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021 went to the researchers who discovered some of the sensory receptors (e.g. TRPV1) that allow us to feel physical and chemical stimuli through the skin. And thus are one of the main reasons behind sensitive skin. So kudos to that! 🙂 In case that you want to take a look, I leave the Nobel Prize press release here.
That said, let’s uncover some of the best practices and skincare ingredients to prevent and treat reactive (sensitive) or hyper-reactive (intolerant) skin.
Understand first how to take proper care of your skin
As I explain in detail in the previous blog post (you can read it here), three different causes might make your skin sensitive or hyper-reactive sometimes or all the time:
1· Defects in the structural components of the epidermal barrier
Those include alterations in the protein filaggrin or the ceramides of the intercellular cement. Those modifications foster enhanced skin permeability and an elevated uptake of outer substances. Hence a higher risk of skin irritation.
2· An over-reactive cutaneous immune system
Your genetics and lifestyle factors that generate high oxidative stress and modify the behavior of your genes (aka, your epigenetics) are responsible for that.
At the same time, changes in the properties of the ecosystem of microorganisms that help our skin remain strong (aka, the skin microbiome) happen and contribute to that over-reactivity.
3· The over-activation of sensory receptors
Such as the neuroreceptor TRPV1. It can sense heat, spicy substances such as capsaicin (responsible for the taste of chili peppers), or menthol (among other elements).
Anything that messes up with any of those three elements might put your skin on fire! That’s why the first step in taking proper care of your sensitive skin is to (hopefully) identify which of those types of triggers are behind your skin sensitivity.
Identify your triggers
Once you have (hopefully) recognized those, you should learn to counteract and AVOID them. Why? Because when any of the three causative factors described above gets triggered, it will easily feed the other two. Let us get a glimpse of that.
If your epidermal barrier becomes compromised and its permeability increases, the threshold of activation of the sensory receptors that detect intense cold or heat might become lower. In turn, those neuroreceptors are then more easily over-activated. For instance, upon sudden heat, they will readily release neurotransmitters. And those might trigger cutaneous neurogenic inflammation. That is, an over-activation of the skin immune system that will enhance the degree of your skin sensitivity (or make it more persistent).
How to recognize and avoid sensitivity triggers
1) Watch your habits
Notice when your skin becomes consistently upset after you do something. For example, it might be after you get a warmer shower, drink white wine, or when certain shampoos become in touch with your facial skin. Then take a step back from those habits and see what happens.
If you suspect the trigger is due to some of your skincare products, stop using one product at a time until you identify the source of your itchy, burning, stinging skin, or skin rash.
2) Use personal care products with shorter lists of ingredients
In short, simplify your skincare routine. Fewer products and ingredients mean less pain: fewer chances of chemical and biochemical interactions and, thus, evident or not-so-evident skin irritation.
Fragrance components might be highly reactive due to their chemical structure. They may not be necessarily called fragrance (or parfum) within the ingredients list: essential oils, balsam of Peru (Myroxylon sp.), geraniol, linalool, lavender, cinnamon, citrus components (such as lemon peel or limonene), among others, behave similarly to fragrance. Likewise, you might want to watch also yellow, red, and blue dyes.
In addition, you should be aware that certain substances that can over-activate sensory receptors are often in personal products (such as menthol, camphor, eucalyptus, or peppermint). And that’s why you might want to stay away from them.
3) Avoid excessive cleansing
Too frequent, too hot, or too much cleanser strips your natural oils and moisturizing factors and impairs the skin barrier.
4) Try new products in a small area for a few days before going big with them
For example, behind your ear. If you experience any discomfort, then you should probably not use them.
Best science-proved active ingredients for sensitive skin
Any substance that gets in touch with your skin might make it react (or even become allergic). Some, such as those I will introduce here, are highly unlikely to do that. Yet, those might not be innocuous every time for everyone.
That said, it might not come as a surprise that the most suitable ingredients for sensitive skin are:
– gentle with or identical to the natural components of the skin barrier and make it stronger;
– anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds;
– components that tame our sensory receptors.
That is, they directly address the reasons behind sensitive skin.
Best for skin barrier optimization
1· Oats (Avena sativa)
Oats are a medical-grade ingredient aimed to repair the epidermal barrier. They contain starches and beta-glucans that can retain lots of water and enhance skin hydration when formulated within moisturizers (which contain occlusive ingredients that help keep that hydration inside the skin).
They also contain avenanthramides and unsaturated fatty acids. These comprise powerful anti-oxidants that counteract inflammation and, notably, itch.
Oats are also rich in saponins, natural surfactants (they have a hydrophobic portion that traps dirt and a hydrophilic part that binds water and thus sweep along all that grime) that do not strip your lipid mantle. That’s why oat extracts and colloidal oatmeal are excellent cleansing ingredients (find some examples of good cleansing products with oat below). You can even purchase individual packets of colloidal oatmeal to dissolve in your bathtub (usually prescribed for atopic skin).
* Find the ingredient lists for all the featured products by clicking on the corresponding product link at the bottom of this article.
The keratinocytes in the epidermis synthesize specific quantities of ceramides (50%), cholesterol (27%), and fatty acids (10%). Altogether, those components form the intercellular cement in the top layers of the skin. The quality of the cutaneous permeability barrier depends on them. You can learn the detail on that in my previous blog about improving the epidermal barrier, here.
This form of vitamin B3 fosters the synthesis of ceramides and fatty acids. It is also an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory molecule that helps keep the high levels of energy required by the epidermis to renew constantly and repair itself (from UV damage, for instance). You can discover the multiple benefits of topical niacinamide in the article I wrote about it (here).
This goodie is a powerful humectant. It has a size of less than 500 Da (< 100 Da) and thus enters the skin, holding onto and retaining water within it. Those properties make it a super-effective ingredient to impart long-lasting skin moisture topically. Clinical studies prove its effectiveness even in the driest skins (when used up to 40%).
All that contrasts with the properties of another topical humectant, the super-hyped hyaluronic acid. Even ultra-low molecular weight hyaluronic acid does not penetrate the skin easily. Therefore, when on top of your skin, it will attract water from inside it (unless you live in an extremely humid environment). That is, hyaluronic acid can dehydrate your skin. You can counteract that by pairing it with other humectants, and occlusive ingredients [such as dimethicone (a silicone), petrolatum, or Shea butter].
So glycerin is a superior skin humectant. Glycerin-based products are an excellent choice – you can find some examples of good glycerin-based moisturizers and eye contour products throughout this post 🙂
Panthenol is a precursor of vitamin B5 (panthotenic acid). It has a small molecular weight (about 200 Da) and readily penetrates the skin. As soon as that happens, it transforms into panthotenic acid, which swiftly holds onto water and keeps hydration within the skin. In part because of that, it can prevent skin irritation and foster skin regeneration and wound healing.
Vitamin A and its natural and synthetic analogs (retinoids – learn how they work here) increase epidermal renewal and, hence, make the skin thicker and improve barrier function. That is why, contrary to popular belief, they can be incredibly beneficial even for sensitive skins. In that case, it is crucial to know how to incorporate them within your skincare routine (learn to do it here).
Urea is part of the natural moisturizing factors of the skin. It has keratolytic properties (helps dissolve the top, horny layer of the skin). Thus, it also aids other moisturizing ingredients to penetrate better and enhance skin moisture further.
It is also a keratolytic ingredient. When paired with humectant ingredients (often panthenol), it can also boost their skin moisturizing abilities. In addition, it may help counteract potential skin irritations.
Best to keep the immune system under control
9· Centella asiatica (Gotu kola)
Centella asiatica has been for centuries in traditional medicine. And for many decades in modern medicine. It contains specific saponins (you can find, for instance, Asiaticoside or Madecassoside in dermatological products) and triterpenic acids (you can spot Asiatic acid and Madecassic acid in skincare items).
Those compounds boost the healing of the skin (and other types of epithelia) due to their moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties. They prevent and treat scarring and help the skin recover from irritation.
10· Green tea (Camelia sinensis)
Green tea contains high amounts of polyphenols. Polyphenols are potent reducing molecules (aka, anti-oxidants) that rapidly counteract oxidant substances [such as Radical Oxygen Species (ROS) or free radicals] by donating them an electron or a proton (see the image below).
Oxidant compounds arise upon external or internal stresses, and they are at the heart of most of the troubles of the inflammation-prone sensitive skin (and, to be honest, of any other skin type).
The most powerful and most well studied green tea polyphenol is Epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG (it features by itself in some skincare products). It has well-described photo-protective, anti-angiogenic (it prevents the formation of new blood vessels in redness-prone skin), immunomodulatory (reduces non-required inflammatory cells & molecules in the skin), and anti-scarring properties.
11· Licorice root extract (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice root contains Licochalcone A, a polyphenol that can significantly reduce the facial redness associated with sensitive skin and rosacea. Hence it is a powerful yet gentle ingredient in those cases. Licorice root extract comprises other molecules that can also aid in lightening the skin. Thus, it can reduce skin discoloration (for example, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation after acne lesions).
Who does not know about the health benefits of resveratrol? That is another powerful polyphenol (present in grapes, for instance). When it comes to the skin, it seems more effective when topically applied. It helps improve overall skin health and youth through various biochemical actions. Besides, it can act synergistically with other antioxidants (like green tea and caffeine) to safely diminish skin redness and discoloration.
The only potential problems with polyphenols (as well as other topical anti-oxidants) are their stability issues. Their chemical nature endows them with powerful anti-oxidant properties that come at the expense of molecular instability (upon light, air, high temperature, or higher pH, for instance). And thus, higher risk of undesired interactions with other molecules within the formulas or when applied to the skin.
To avoid that, resveratrol, for example, can be stabilized with a high percentage of ferulic acid (3%). Thus, it is always better to try those products beforehand, in a small area, as I specified at the beginning of the article.
In my opinion, it’s better to let any product with polyphenols absorb well within the skin before applying any other product and sunscreen. Then you will better grasp the potential photo-protective benefits of polyphenols during daytime. You can also use those products at nighttime. And of course, store them in a cool place in the darkness 😉
You can try some of the products in the image above and see whether you start noticing those benefits – and more! I would need to write an independent article for some of those ingredients to tell you how they really work and all they can do for your skin!
I love the green tea and centella toner (I have oily-combination skin). And I also like the licorice root serum. I have not tried the other products yet, but I believe they can be good options to optimize sensitive skins.
Compounds that seem to modulate skin neuroreceptors
A better barrier and less cutaneous inflammation help modulate sensory receptors in the skin and make them less reactive.
But some specific ingredients might also aid by directly counteracting the neuroreceptors. That’s what the following two appear to do. They are not well researched as the ones I mentioned before. Yet, there is some evidence about their effectiveness in peer-reviewed clinical studies and patents, and they are in quite a few skincare products. That’s why I decided to include them in this post.
That is an antagonist of the TRPV1 receptor. It can directly inhibit the receptor activation upon heat or specific molecules (like capsaicin from chili peppers). There are a couple of small clinical studies that show its effectiveness:
– in calming the stinging sensation experienced by sensitive skin after irritating it with capsaicin;
– and in reducing erythema and the burning sensation after shaving when combined with Licochalcone A.
You can find it in products from Eucerin (see the moisturizers featured in one o the images above) or Avène.
Acetyl-dipeptide-1 cetyl ester
This dipeptide derived from the amino acids Tyrosine and Arginine triggers the release of beta-endorphins in the skin and thus a decrease in the neurotransmitter CGRP (Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide). The neurotransmitter CGRP can activate TRPV1. Therefore, acetyl-dipeptide-1 ester may diminish the TRPV1-induced stinging sensation and inflammation upon heat or other agents.
Patents claim the effectiveness of specific formulations that include this ingredient. You can find it in products from La Roche Posay, for instance (like Toleriane Ultra for Eyes – I really enjoy that product, I find it soothing –).
And the story goes on
There are other ingredients in the making for sensitive skin. For example, those that address the low levels of the molecule adiponectin (released by the subcutaneous tissue) present in sensitive skins. Adiponectin peptides can penetrate the skin and could be effective in treating skin sensitivity.
Have you tried any of the products or ingredients featured above? Comment below!
I have used many of the products featured above in case that you have questions. You can see the ingredient lists of all the featured products by clicking on the links at the bottom of the article.
I hope you liked this post. If you did, hit like below or on Instagram! (you can follow me @drmariamonterrubio).
See you soon!
* Featured products
La Roche Posay Toleriane Gentle Cleanser
The Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm
Aveeno Fragrance Free Soothing Balm Treatment
CeraVe Foaming Gentle Cleanser
La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5
First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream
COSRX Hydrium Green Tea Aqua Soothing Gel Cream
Eucerin Ultra Sensitive Soothing Care (normal to combination)
CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion
It’s Skin LI Effector (Licorice Root Extract serum)
Isn Tree Green Tea Fresh Toner
The Ordinary 3% Resveratrol and 3% Ferulic acid serum
Face Theory Resvera-F Antioxidant Serum S12
La Roche Posay Toleriane Ultra Eyes
2 responses to “Sensitive skin: top 12 science-proven ingredients”
[…] English […]
[…] skin-soothing ingredient – and green tea extract (all of them included in my list of top science-proven ingredients for sensitive skin). Those ingredients might significantly contribute to the gentleness and mostly non-drying features […]