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Let’s Talk - Sensitive Skin

It always surprises me when I remind myself that our skin is the largest organ in our body and that every second of the day and night, its billions of cells are involved in carrying out processes vital to human life.  

From helping to protect us from physical attack by pollutants, bacteria and the suns damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays to playing a role in maintaining body temperature and making vitamin D; the bottom line, is that our skin is a constant hive of activity.    

Broadly organised into three distinct layers, different activities go on in each layer. The upper section, known as the epidermis, has a mainly protective and moisturising role. Cells in this layer are replaced around every 20 to 28 days and as well as being affected by pollutants and UV rays, are susceptible also, to damage by harsh solvents, detergents, and soaps as well as some ingredients in certain cleansers and even moisturisers and cosmetics.  

The middle layer, called the dermis, is home to the fibre's called collagen and elastin, which give our skin its strength and elasticity. The cells in between these structural fibres help to give skin its volume, while blood vessels in the dermis bring in nutrients and oxygen and take away waste products. The dermis is home as well, to oil producing glands along with follicles that hold the shaft of our hairs.  

The final and deepest layer of our skin houses more blood vessels, the roots of hairs, the base of sweat glands and a layer of fat, that helps to provide cushioning against physical knocks and bumps.  

As with much of our health, we often pay our skin most attention when things go ‘wrong’. This could be when we start to notice fine lines and wrinkles appearing or if it becomes dry, blemished or when pigmentation changes.  

For some, however our skin takes on an extra level of concern if it has always been or becomes what dermatologists describe as ‘sensitive’. Symptoms of sensitive skin can include anything from itching and stinging to a sensation of tightness or even burning. Often symptoms are worse when the weather is cold. Confusingly, although sensitive skin may also look dry and in some cases, inflamed, often, there are few or no or physical signs to indicate a problem, just the sensation of discomfort.  

Experts agree that for some people with sensitive skin, the symptoms may be caused by a hypersensitivity to hormonal fluctuations and as well, can be linked with stress and anxiety. For others, skin sensitivity may be triggered by nerves overreacting to physical or chemical damage.  

This last explanation is increasingly likely according to dermatologists because our skin is being exposed to a burgeoning number of sophisticated ingredients packed into a bewildering array of 'high-tech' cleansing, moisturising, and anti-ageing products, not to mention, cosmetics like foundations and powders.  

If you are experiencing symptoms of sensitive skin then it is well worth seeking out beauty and cosmetic products that avoid irritants and instead combine gentle cleansing, moisturising, and protective antioxidant ingredients, proven to help soothe, dampen down or even stop sensitivity. Check out top ingredients below, that can play such roles within natural beauty products.  

Chamomile

Studies have shown that natural preparations containing extracts of chamomile can be as effective as those based on steroids at reducing skin inflammations and helping to calm irritated skin. Bursting with active plant compounds, chamomile extracts have been shown to help reduce redness in sensitised skin and to lower levels of histamine in the body, which in turn helped to reduce scratching and itching.      

Aloe Vera

A succulent plant with bright yellow flowers, the gel of the plant has been revealed to reduce both sudden onset and longer-term inflammation in skin. Experts put this down to aloe's enzymes, carbohydrates, and sterols. Helping to soothe minor skin irritations as well as those caused by inflammation, its natural moisturising properties, help too with symptoms of tightness and dryness experienced by some people with sensitive skin.      

Damask Rose

Used in traditional medicine to soothe stress, reduce anxiety, and help with relaxation, these properties in themselves may be helpful in reducing sensitisation of skin, with a psychological cause at its root. It is used traditionally in natural preparations for calming delicate skin and contemporary research suggests that the inflammation dampening impact of rose extracts could in part be down to the biologically active, colourful pink pigments called anthocyanins, which have a powerful antioxidant effect on our skin.

Bilberry

These beautiful blue berries are bursting with deep purple to blue pigments called anthocyanins. Research suggests it is these super nutrients that may explain how creams containing bilberry extracts help to reduce the urge to itch when applied to sensitive and sensitised skin.  

Rosehip

Rich in a wonderful mix of essential fatty acids, vitamin E and colourful orange and red pigments, rosehip oil is rich too in a plethora or other active plant compounds. When added to natural beauty products, it is having been shown to help nerve-related itching and dryness in sensitive skin.  

Sunflower Oil

Researchers have shown that some essential fatty acids in sunflower oil have help preserve the integrity of our skin's upper layers in the epidermis, helping these layers to repair damage and improve hydration levels.  

Oat Extracts

Rich in essential oils, oat extracts have been used for centuries to treat a variety of skin conditions, including rashes, redness, and itching. Revealed to help repair the outer layers of the epidermis while protecting cells in the dermis, oat extracts make invaluable friends to sensitive skin.

Seaweed Extracts

Fascinating work on seaweed extracts reveals how after just eight hours following application, products containing seaweed extracts lead to water loss from skin being significantly reduced, a process that moisturises and help symptoms of dryness. Scientists suggests that seaweed extracts work in this way because the natural humectants and hydrocolloids they contain attract and retain water.      

Centella Asiatica

Used for over 3,000 years in traditional healing, extracts of this medicinal plant are known to be full of plant nutrients that have a wide range of healing properties. Some are believed to help stimulate collagen making fibroblast cells in the dermis of skin, while others with antioxidant properties help to protect skin from pollutant and UV induced stress. Modern science has also helped to identify active compounds in Centella which help to heal small wounds and lessen the appearance of scars.    

Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA)

Produced by plants and humans, ALA has an array of properties, including being a powerful antioxidant. Dermatologists have discovered that when added to skin treatments, it can help to repair sun-damaged skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.  

DMAE

A relative of the nutrient choline, when added to skin products, DMAE has been shown to help dampen inflammation and help to improve firmness of the skin and unlike some modern cosmetic ingredients, does so without triggering itching, burning, or stinging sensations or causing dryness, itching or peeling. These properties make it particularly useful for use on sensitive and sensitised skin.  

MSM

A natural compound, MSM added to skin products has been shown to help improve the elasticity of skin and reduce wrinkling as well as helping to manage symptoms of rosacea. Experts predict that these healing properties come from a combination of MSM’s ability to act as a powerful antioxidant while also reducing inflammation.  

Beta carotene

This bright orange pigment, found in carrots, mangoes and apricots appears to offer our skin protection against sun damage from within, when we eat these foods. As well as helping to directly protect our skin, beta carotene can also be converted into vitamin A, an essential skin nutrient with known anti-ageing effects. There is evidence that applying beta carotene for example in gels and serums, helps to increase vitamin A levels in our skin. This in turn may help to protect the epidermis against water loss and protect collagen in the dermis.  

Citrus Peel Oils

Brimming with antioxidant polyphenols and other active plant compounds, scientists have shown how extracts of citrus peel help to protect both collagen and elastin from damage, suggesting a potent anti-wrinkle and anti-aging role in skin care preparations.

Written by:  
Amanda Ursell
BSc Nutrition
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,  
Associateship King's College (AKC)

Twitter: @AmandaUrsell
Web: amandaursell.com

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