You already know the telltale signs of sensitive skin: flushing redness, a stinging sensation and a taut “my skin is one size too small” feeling that flares when you apply a product your complexion rejects.
Since the 1980s, the number of people who claim to have sensitive skin has doubled from 30 percent to about 60 percent of the population. Nearly everyone suffers from sensitive skin symptoms at some point in life—whether after a long trek in frigid winter air or after a microdermabrasion treatment at a spa.
Yet experts say that incidences of clinically sensitive skin have not gone up. So what gives? While some people do have sensitive skin, others have sensitized skin, brought on by abusing their complexions with more irritating products and procedures than ever, along with environmental stressors. That adds up to what appears to be a sensitive skin epidemic.
So how do you suss out whether you truly have sensitive skin or if you’ve sensitized your own skin? A look at the history of your skin’s behavior holds the key.
“Sensitive skin is genetically inherited and is predominant in Caucasian skin of northern European decent,” says Annet King, director of global education for The International Dermal Institute and Dermalogica. “The skin is fairer, more reactive and the body has higher levels of histamine. If you have true, sensitive skin, this is how your skin has always been. This is how you were born.”
Due to the higher levels of histamine, those with sensitive skin also tend to suffer from allergies, eczema and hayfever.
On the flip side, sensitized skin can occur in any race at any age and is caused by overuse of products, travel, illness and environmental factors that weaken the protective layers of skin. A revealing sign that you have sensitized skin is if a cosmetic or skincare product that you use regularly suddenly begins to sting.
Whether you have sensitive or sensitized skin, the triggers that exacerbate both conditions remain the same. Extreme hot or cold weather, dry air, stress, dehydration, caffeine and overuse of exfoliating skincare products all bring on the hallmarks of touchy skin— itchiness, redness and inflammation.
But environmental and lifestyle factors aren’t the only culprit. Common ingredients found in skincare and cosmetic products could be entirely responsible for the phenomenon.
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