Sensitive skin? You’re not alone – about half of all Australians suffer from it, while globally, it appears human skin is actually becoming more sensitive.

Derived from the Latin sensitivus, which means “capable of sensation”, “sensitive” describes skin that is easily irritated. Typically, it looks red and sore, is inflamed, and may be itchy. The degree of sensitivity can range from mild to severe with burning, prickling, pain, and heat. Once skin is irritated by an internal or external trigger, it is sensitised by the inflammatory response, which is part of our immune system, so future contact with the trigger will cause a flare up.

Our skin is a wonderful natural barrier with numerous functions, but once it’s compromised, this barrier is lost. One of the main reasons skin becomes irritated and sensitive is disruption to the process of creating the lipid barrier. When this occurs, the good bacteria that sit between the lipid layer and the tissue layer actually die off. The stratum corneum – the skin’s top layer, or lipid layer – has billions of individual cells best likened to bricks suspended in a soup of fat. Underneath this is the lamellar, or waterproof, layer. If the lipid layer is disrupted, the lamellar layer breaks down – and this is when the skin becomes sensitive. Some of the reasons this happens are: skin diseases, such as dermatitis, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis; stress; hormonal changes; ageing, and the associated loss of skin integrity; dietary changes; and cosmetics and personal-care products, including deodorants and sunblock. The last are possibly the most detrimental of all, with more than 500 skin irritants identified. The chemicals most likely to cause irritation and sensitivity are fragrances, or carriers of fragrance such as phthalates: these account for around 50 percent of skin irritation.
What you can do

Your first step is to try to identify the culprit. Then consult a naturopath, nutritionist, or herbalist – and in the case of a skin disease, a GP – to confirm the diagnosis. From there, remove the suspected irritant. I also recommend avoiding sodium laureth sulphate (see “Sneaky SLS”) and fragrances, whether artificial and natural – and this includes high-quality essential oils. Natural cosmetics may be an acceptable alternative if the fragrance is a pure essential oil used in combination with an antioxidant such as grapefruit. The antioxidant’s anti-inflammatory properties usually counter the irritant potential, but patch-test first. Always check labels. Basically, if there are ingredients you can’t pronounce, you probably shouldn’t put it on your body. Deodorant crystals can help for skin irritation related to regular deodorant use. You need to use the crystal for a couple of weeks before it starts eradicating the odour of the bacteria. Be aware, though, it doesn’t stop you from perspiring.

To maintain the natural barrier, you need to replenish the fats because that’s the treatment aim in reducing sensitivity. Safe, inexpensive natural oils improve the epidermal layer and the stratum corneum and help trap moisture. One of the best is sunflower seed oil – cold-pressed in a dark bottle – as it actually accelerates skin repair and continues working for about five hours. By consistently applying the oil topically and taking it internally, inflammation levels will reduce.

You also need to correct other essential fatty acid deficiency states. So this means fish oils for their optimal balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, which studies show support the role of skin barrier integrity to reduce the risk of allergic sensitisation. One fascinating little study involving 18 dogs demonstrated that supplementing their ordinary dog food with omega 3 and omega 6 prevented them from developing atopic skin sensitivity and from scratching as well. When the fatty acids were removed from their diet, the dogs went back to scratching.

Extra virgin coconut oil is another excellent topical barrier, and certainly the best option as a moisturiser for abnormally dry skin, a condition called xeroderma. Another study shows extra virgin coconut oil to be an effective antibacterial against Staphylococcus aureus. So this will at least protect really dry and sensitive skin by acting as a barrier against pathogenic bacteria. Vitamin D demonstrates the unique property of being able to create a homeostatic balance in skin barrier protection, so take a supplement if you’re not getting it from eating oily fish.

Some allergen-triggered skin sensitivities increase a substance called protease, which breaks down protein, collagen, and elastin – factors responsible for skin growth and its healthy plump appearance. Herbs are the choice for treatment, notably those containing triterpenoid extracts and compounds. Boswellia is my favourite as it works best in creams and topical lotions. Another is bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), while gotu kola reduce proteases if taken internally and externally. Pygeum africanum is another very effective protease inhibitor. Prostaglandins that occur premenstrually can actually make a woman’s skin sensitive – so undergoing waxing at this time is never a good idea!

As for diet, studies suggest vegetables, legumes and olive oil protect against skin damage and skin sensitivity. Five to seven-plus servings of vegetables, and two of fruit, increase vitamin C, which has excellent skin-healing properties. Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables also contain proanthocyanidins, which studies show reduce the inflammatory response over a six-month period. High-phenolic foods and extracts such as green tea, apple pectin and soy protein are also beneficial.

Sneaky SLS

Sodium lauryl ether sulphate (SLES), commonly called sodium laureth sulphate, is a serious skin irritant. This chemical is a surfactant designed to cut down grease – and essentially it performs its designated job on our skin by disrupting and melting the lamellar layer, especially if the product is added to very hot water. SLES is hard to escape as it’s added to dishwashing liquids, liquid laundry detergents, toilet cleaners, facial cleansers, bath gel, body wash, hand wash, mouth wash, some toothpastes, shampoo, and bubble bath – including baby bubble bath, something we should absolutely not use as their skin is so delicate. Washing skin with products containing SLES also disrupts and kills the protective lactobacillus bacteria that sit on the surface of the skin and maintain it at the mildly acidic pH of 5.5, which enables it to ward off invading pathogenic bacteria.

Naturopath Teresa Mitchell-Paterson (BHSc CompMed, MHSc HumNut, AdvDipNat) is a member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.