When I get stressed out, I sleep less, eat things I shouldn't, and drink hardly any water. So my complexion reddens and the texture changes, becomes weirdly rubbery and shiny, and every trace of bounce vanishes. As well, my favourite sunscreens sting terribly, and my cranky skin rejects makeup. Still, I can fix all this in a day or two, if I drink enough water (anyone who says drinking water doesn't affect the skin is just wrong) and get good solid sleep. And that's got me thinking. If stress and my related ill-advised actions can make my skin temporarily sensitive and freaky, what does it do to skin that is already sensitive? And if water and quality sleep turns my skin around, could more zen in your day lead to calmer skin, too? How can we live more comfortably with sensitive skin?
what is sensitive skin?
"Sensitive skin has a lower threshold for irritation," says Dr. William McGillivray, medical director at Project Skin, MD in Vancouver, BC. Sounds simple, but clinching a sensitive-skin rating with a derm is more complicated than that. Kvetchy skin usually has an underlying issue that makes it less tolerant overall: a defective barrier function, wherein the skin's top layer struggles in its role as protector of the layers beneath. "It doesn't keep irritants out very well and it doesn't keep moisture in very well," explains Dr. Ian Landells, dermatologist and medical director at the Landells Clinic in St. John's, NL. That means uncomfortably dry skin is usually packaged with a bonus gift of rosacea, eczema or psoriasis, all genetic conditions for which there are still no cures. And for the win: such skin sensitivity comes with a host of flare-up triggers, including beauty and grooming products, environment – and yep, stress.
what makes sensitive skin angry
the moisture suck: Anything that leeches moisture from sensitive skin can cause a problem. That can mean long, steamy showers with Hemsworth, or using any number of products, household and personal. "The drier the skin, the more sensitive it is," says Landells, citing fragrance, detergent and cleansers as common irritants.
a natural concern: Eschewing synthetics for naturals is no defense against skin tantrums. One of the biggest irritants for sensitive skin is fragrance, much of which is botanical, extracted from plants, flowers and fruit in the form of water or oil and then used to create natural skincare formulas. Essential oils in particular can increase the chance of reaction.
the multiple: "You can be sensitive to ingredients in combination," notes McGillivray, pointing out that a regimen of multiple products is also a risk. "You could use a moisturizer, foundation and concealer separately and be fine, then you could use them all together and suddenly your skin's reacting."
shampoo too: Less well-known culprits are hair products – they can wreak havoc says dermatologist Sandy Skotnicki, medical director of the Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto, ON. Shampoo in particular can cause unsightly red blotches and trigger bouts of eczema. "You'll see the effects on your eyelids, face and neck," she says. "We call it a shampoo epidemic. There are tons of botanicals in shampoo. And fragrance." On Skotnicki's botanical watch list: ylang ylang, tea tree oil, lavender and feverfew, for starters.
the cold war: Plummeting seasonal temperatures don't help. When Mother Nature and central heating conspire to pull every drop of moisture from everywhere, acutely dry and sensitive skin can erupt into angry patches that sting and burn. "Irritants can penetrate more easily because the barrier function is compromised," explains Landells (in addition to his practice, he's the president of the Canadian Dermatology Association, by the way).
Now add stress and stir. "Stress aggravates a lot of conditions, there's no question about that," confirms Landells. "It tends to make problems worse, seems to fire up inflammation."
how to live (comfortably) with sensitive skin
Medically treating underlying genetic conditions will help sensitive skin gradually become more tolerant, says Skotnicki. (See a dermatologist for guidance.) Following that, "the general rule is less is more." Placating petulant skin means a cease-and-desist on that complex anti-aging routine. Turn instead to basic, fragrance-free skin care and hair care formulas with minimal ingredients. When skin has calmed, cautiously re-introduce products one at a time to suss out hazards.
"Fall is when people should start moisturizing," says Landells. "A lot of people moisturize in the winter and get better, and then spring comes, it's warm, and they forget about it. Fall comes around again, and they think 'oh, my skin's been great for months, I don't need to worry about that.' And sure enough it gets cold and dry and the skin flares up again."
And yes, alleviating stress can help too. Skotnicki calls it integrative health. "If somebody has high blood pressure, you give them a pill. But you also tell them to do some yoga. So maybe the dose of blood pressure medication is less because they're doing yoga. It's the same thing with your skin. If you've got a stressful job, and you have psoriasis or eczema, if you do something to decrease your stress, you probably have less active disease."
While he won't actually prescribe a two-week vacation to the Sandy Lane Resort in St. James, Barbados – guests have included Cara Delevingne, and RiRi – McGillivray agrees it could help. Plus one other piece of advice: "Prepare for stress time by taking care of your skin now."
Do you have sensitive skin? Or notice changes in your skin when you get stressed? Does sleep help you? Or downing a few glasses of water per day?
A version of this text appeared in Elle Canada Magazine. Opening image ©Seprimoris/Dreamstime.com.