Beauty

Sensitive skin : What your doctor may not be telling you

The triggers that caused my flare-ups and how I was making them worse

I grew up in a home where looks were never part of the conversation. Other than ensuring we didn’t leave the house with visible dirt marks or ratty hair, my parents didn’t encourage preening. To them, there was nothing two hot showers and a gentle dusting of Pond’s talcum powder couldn’t solve.

This laissez-faire approach worked until I hit my mid twenties — at which point, my skin betrayed me. It’s like that best friend you’ve known since the second grade who, overnight, turns into a total stranger and goes all Mean Girls on you. From sailing through puberty pimple-free, I am now generously providing refuge to a colony of comedones that’s invaded my forehead and chin. In my early twenties, I actually said the words, “Why do I need sunscreen? I’m Indian, I was born with natural sunscreen,” and karma was like, “Hold my beer.”

At some point without my knowledge or permission, my skin made the switch from normal to sensitive. First came the psoriasis, a watered-down version of the eczema that lurked in my paternal gene pool. Then came extreme photosensitivity, where just a few minutes of sun exposure would reduce my cheeks to an angry, red war zone with visible cracks that would burn for hours. And for the final act, acne. 

Sensitive skin model

To be fair, I probably made it worse. Working for a fashion magazine means easy access to the latest skincare products, which I shamelessly experimented with. Bad sleeping patterns, a sedentary lifestyle and an addiction to greasy Chinese food brought on Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which seems to affect, well…everything.

I finally caved and sought medical intervention. But finding a doctor who wouldn’t either sell me a truckload of drugs and invasive treatments or insist “it’s just a phase” proved to be tougher than it should. 

Four years and multiple disappointments later, I met Dr Vandana Punjabi, a Mumbaibased clinical dermatologist. “The number of cases of sensitive skin has definitely increased, just because of the high levels of dirt and pollution that assault the skin’s protective barrier,” explains Punjabi, who confirmed that my habit of trying out too many products at the same time may have worsened the irritation. After banning 90 per cent of my dresser, she prescribed a few staples that I now swear by — thermal water, mineral sunscreen and a gentle facewash. Added to that, multivitamins to make up for an inconsistent diet and a vitamin C serum to aid in repair. 

Like Punjabi, the ELLE team’s trusted skin expert Dr Kiran Lohia insists that improper diagnosis (no WebMD for you) and slathering on multiple products could cause sensitivity. “If somebody says they have sensitive skin, I will look for rosacea, which manifests as burst blood vessels, flushed skin, a burning sensation from product application — or a tendency to develop an allergic reaction from using products,” Lohia explains. “But when people come in and say they have sensitive skin because ‘not all products agree with me’, that’s perfectly normal. Not every product is meant to suit everybody.”

Sensitive skin problems

Still convinced you fall into the sensitive skin category? Start with the ‘less is more’ approach, narrowing down your daily regimen to the essentials. Hormonal imbalances also wreak havoc on the skin, so schedule an appointment with your gynaecologist to rule that out. And finally, remember that even the perfect course of action needs time to show results. “As you grow older, it takes longer for the skin barrier to heal completely,” says Punjabi. “Most doctors will prescribe a treatment for about 10-15 days, but you still need a long-term programme, and lifestyle changes, to get your sensitivity completely under control.

Skin-damaging habits to ditch

Experimenting with too many skincare products at the same time

Over-exfoliating with homemade ubtans (chickpea flour-based face masks) or powerful retinol-based formulas

Applying excessive force on the skin while washing or exfoliating

Consuming high amounts of caffeine, dairy, alcohol and other inflammatory agents

Using dense oils or creams that could block your pores and cause acne

The care kit for sensitive skin