fragile handle with care

My name is Marta, and I suffer with sensitive skin. Actually, that used to be true. In fact, these days I rarely get flare-ups of any kind. But up until a few years ago, my skin was the dermatological equivalent of the Princess and the Pea. It had been like that since I was old enough to start wearing cheap makeup, and it eventually became a way of life. So, what changed? I developed my own “Nine-Step Program” of dos and don’ts for sensitive skin. Interestingly, you’ll note that I haven’t banned any specific ingredients (I don’t have particular allergies); it is more about the overall approach.

1. Don’t (necessarily) blame that brand new serum

You rushed to open your order from TIA, pounced on your brand new anti-aging serum that had all the rave reviews and woke up the next day with red cheeks and a new zit. Something similar happened to me recently when I started testing Osmotics Blue Copper 5 Prime ($135). However, I have learned that a new — and powerful — serum can cause a brief reaction until my skin gets used to the antioxidants and other actives. So, my first course of action was to stop using the serum for a couple of days until my skin stabilized again. Then, I tried using it two to three times a week until there were no further reactions, and I eventually built up to daily use. Now, Prime is one of my favorite — and friendliest — products.

2. Do hold your cleanser under suspicion

Cleansers can cause a lot of havoc — particularly the foaming or exfoliating kinds. The surfactants are often harsh chemicals. Assuming that there is latitude with a rinse-off product, formulators may have a heavy hand when it comes to preservatives (most of which are skin irritants). And it is easy to forget that exfoliating cleansers are making your skin a little bit more sensitive every day. Mostly, I use the gentlest cleanser I can find — these days, it’s Red Flower Lymphatic Phytopower Sea Cleanser and Masque ($42 in the shop). If my skin is up to it, I’ll also use an exfoliating cleanser such as La Vie Celeste Exfoliating Mother of Pearl Cleanser ($40 in the shop) a couple of times a week.

3. Don’t over-exfoliate

When your skin seems agitated and makes you angry, it is tempting to try to beat it into submission with scrubs, acids and peels. But all of these will make your skin even more sensitive. If your skin is in sensitive mode, cut them out completely and then find a regimen (just a few times a week) that your skin is happy with. Read our "Exfoliation 101" article and start with the gentlest products — personally, I brush every day — never scrub — and keep glycolics and the like down to twice a week at most.

4. Do cut out (or least cut back on) retinol

Someone wrote in the other day asking for a serum recommendation with the caveat that she had very sensitive skin and had tried a few of our recommended heavy-hitters only to find she experienced flare-ups. After a bit of back and forth, it was revealed that she was using retinol every night. Retinol is very drying and a strong irritant. Even if your skin is habituated to retinol itself, this ingredient has likely sensitized your skin and will make the introduction of new anti-aging products into your regimen delicate if not dicey.  

5. Don’t treat sensitive skin like acne-prone skin

Sensitive skin isn’t just red and itchy; it can also break out into rashes, lumps and bumps, and pimples. With the latter, it can seem logical to look for solutions that treat breakouts and even acne. Breakouts and acne are caused by bacteria and overproduction of sebum. Treatments that tackle these, such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or beta hydroxyl acid, will make matters worse for sensitive skin. 

6. Do overhaul your makeup bag

Along with cleansers, makeup can be the number one culprit for antagonizing sensitive skin. And usually we just use more of it in a desperate attempt to cover up unsightly blotches. Makeup can contain all sorts of irritants, including color and chemical fragrance. Safe colors are made from mica flakes and iron oxides. Look for safe makeup brands such as W3LL People, which uses FDA approved colors and iron oxides in, for example, its Nudist ColorBalm ($19.50 in the shop). Read more on ingredients to avoid and safe alternatives.

7. Don’t use chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone, homosalate and octinoxate are toxic and well-known irritants. Whenever possible, simply avoid them and go for a mineral sunscreen active — zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. A good compromise is a sunscreen that combines minerals with the least irritating chemicals, such as Amarte Ultra Veil Sunscreen SPF50 ($45). Read more on sunscreen safety.

8. Do proactively seek solutions for sensitive or rosacea-prone skin

At the first sign of a flare-up, I will usually reach for Exederm. Although strictly speaking it is for eczema, it works a treat on rosacea and plain old zits. Learn to love LED light — red and blue light treatments are very helpful for rosacea and calming the skin (a nice bonus, while you work on those wrinkles). And I no longer see red thanks to a daily dab on Medik8 Red Alert ($60 in the shop) on my cheeks — it has the cutting edge anti-ager teprenone that is also helpful for hypersensitivity, rosacea and broken veins. Vitamin D is also an effective ingredient for preventing rosacea flare-ups. Topical sources are hard to come by, so be grateful for Elizabeth Dehn for One Love Organics Vitamin D Moisture Mist ($39 in the shop). Read more on treating rosacea.

9. Check ingredients for irritants before you buy

It is impossible to avoid all irritants, and even all-natural products may have something that sets your skin off (most likely a preservative). You can, however, do your best to preempt buyer’s regret by reading up as much as you can on the ingredients. We have a unique resource at Truth In Aging of over 1,000 ingredients, listing their uses and safety profile. If the ingredient is a known irritant, we point it out and you can decide whether to avoid it or take your chances. The Truth In Aging ingredients directory is located in the navigation bar at the top of this and every page. Check out our ingredients directory now.


Marta Wohrle is an anti-aging skin care and beauty expert and the founder/CEO of Truth In Aging. Marta is dedicated to uncovering the truth behind anti-aging product claims.