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Develop a sensitivity for delicate skin

Vicky Uhland

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Develop a sensitivity for delicate skin

We all like to think that deep down, our hearts, our souls, even our very beings are sensitive. But what happens when all that sensitivity erupts on our faces, resulting in red, itchy, flaking skin?

We try to get rid of it. But as every person who has tried one too many times to soothe inflamed skin also knows, it can be impossible to combat that sensitivity. Too often, people with sensitive skin have cabinets crammed with once-used lotions, cleansers, exfoliants, facial masks and toners that left their skin shrieking. But they keep coming back for more products, hoping to find that magical soap or scrub that will protect their vulnerable skin.

As a naturals-store owner or employee, you have a built-in advantage when it comes to sensitive-skin care. As more information becomes available about how chemical additives, harsh preservatives and artificial fragrances and colors in personal-care products can damage sensitive skin, consumers, researchers, dermatologists and manufacturers are increasingly recognizing the soothing properties of natural ingredients. But there are only a few natural or organic personal-care lines designed specifically for sensitive skin. By knowing which ingredients and types of products work best for sensitive skin, you can guide your customers toward formulations that will soothe and smooth their delicate outer shell.

How sensitive are you?
By definition, sensitive skin is hyper-reactive to any kind of external stimuli, says Dr. Alan Dattner, a holistic dermatologist with practices in Manhattan and New Rochelle, N.Y. Those stimuli include allergens, heat and cold, certain foods or drinks, chemicals and pollutants, shaving or waxing and even irritating botanicals. Skin reacts by turning red, itching, becoming dry or flaky, swelling, tingling or tightening. Common sensitive-skin conditions include rosacea, eczema and psoriasis.

There are various degrees of sensitivity, and not all skin is sensitive to the same stimuli. And some people who think they have sensitive skin may just be extremely dehydrated and in need of a good moisturizer, says Linda Miles, doctor of Oriental medicine and vice president of derma e, a natural body care company in Simi Valley, Calif. Sometimes, simply reducing the number of times you bathe or shower when it's dry and cold outside can reduce skin irritations, Dattner says.

But if your customers have tried these measures and their skin still shows signs of sensitivity, the next step is to examine their skin-care products.

Label lingo
Manufacturers that make products for sensitive skin "put ingredients in that will neutralize potential irritants before they affect the skin," says Linda Upton, vice president of marketing and education for Borlind of Germany, based in New London, N.H., which makes the ZZ Sensitive natural skin-care line.

These ingredients are divided into several categories:

  • Calming and soothing botanicals include rose, lavender, chamomile, calendula, althea and holy basil.

  • Healing and skin-strengthening botanicals include aloe, lemon balm, arnica, horsetail, sage and dandelion.

  • Anti-inflammatory botanicals include yarrow, willow herb, licorice root and green tea.

Another important category is antioxidants, which help destroy the free radicals in the body that cause inflammation. Traditional antioxidants include vitamins E and C, but some natural personal-care companies have found others particularly geared toward sensitive skin. Derma e's Pycnogenol line uses a nutrient from the bark of the French maritime pine tree to reduce inflammation and stabilize the skin's capillary system, making it particularly effective for rosacea, Miles says. Pycnogenol has 50 times more antioxidants than vitamin E, and 20 times more than vitamin C, Miles says. Alba Botanica's new Ceranade skin-care line is designed to replace ceramides, or fat molecules, that naturally occur in the skin's protective barrier. According to Christa Skov, brand manager for Petaluma, Calif.-based Alba, when the skin becomes irritated, the protective barrier is damaged, allowing allergens and microbes to penetrate the skin, which causes more irritation and inflammation. Ceranade uses a patented, clinically proven process called multi-lamellar emulsion to replicate ceramides and the protective barrier, allowing the skin underneath to repair itself.

What to avoid
Sensitive skin is not only more vulnerable to environmental irritants, "it's thinner, it's not as strong, and its connective tissue isn't as good" as other types of skin, says Upton of Borlind. The upshot? Sensitive skin reacts more strongly to harsh ingredients than normal, oily or even dry skin.

Dattner says natural ingredients to be wary of include alcohols, which can be drying, and acids, which can irritate skin. Alcohols are usually self-explanatory on an ingredient deck, but don't be fooled by cetearyl or stearyl alcohols, which are actually sensitive-skin-friendly waxes made from a mixture of fatty alcohols. Miles, of derma e, says acids to avoid include alpha lipoic acid, DMAE, glycolic acid, lactic acid and fruit-based acids such as malic acid. Hyaluronic acid, however, is a major component of skin cells and is involved in tissue repair, making it a valuable ingredient in sensitive-skin formulations.

Essential oils, particularly rose or lavender oils, are generally a good option for people with sensitive skin. But if you're allergic, look for products that use hydrosols, which are basically water with components of essential oils. "A hydrosol still has the cooling, calming, clarifying and antiseptic properties of the essential oil," says Tara Estabrook, senior sales and marketing adviser for Petaluma, Calif.-based Better Botanicals, which uses rose essential oils and hydrosols in its products for sensitive skin.

Wash, rinse, repeat?
Some people's skin is so sensitive that even splashing it with hot water will cause it to react. So imagine what a drying soap, alcohol-based toner or gritty exfoliant would do. Here's what experts recommend, step by step, for sensitive skin.

When a product increases or decreases the skin's normal 5.5 pH level, the skin is forced to rebalance itself, which can cause irritation, writes Dr. Anita Ruetter of the University of Muenster in Germany at "Lotion-based, moisturizing cleansers are the most gentle to use," Dattner says.

Toners help balance a skin's pH, says aesthetician Julie Cool, owner of Julie Cool Skin Care in Boulder, Colo. Instead of alcohol-based toners, Cool suggests those that contain hydrosols, which also add extra moisture to the skin.

This is a key step for sensitive skin because its thinness requires more moisture, Upton says. Cool likes products with small-molecule oils, which quickly penetrate the skin. She suggests jojoba, evening primrose, grapeseed and rosehip-seed oils. Estabrook of Better Botanicals likes sandalwood oil, which she says is cooling, soothing, antiseptic and corrects itchiness, and sesame oil, which is packed with antioxidants. Cool also recommends moisturizers with honey, which she says is antibacterial and antifungal, yet gentle and hydrating.

This is a controversial step and is dictated by the skin's level of sensitivity. Those with hypersensitive skin should avoid exfoliants altogether, relying instead on a rough washcloth or facial sponge, Cool says. If you do opt for an exfoliant, choose one with enzymes, which are less abrasive than walnuts or apricot seeds, Cool says.

Mask. Clay-based masks are drying, says Cool, who recommends honey-, spirulina- or milk-based masks to remove dead cells from sensitive skin.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 102,106

About the Author(s)

Vicky Uhland

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor based in Lafayette, Colorado.

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