The best products for hypersensitive skin
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Extreme dryness, mild irritation, high pigmentation or the sense that no matter what product you use, your skin feels sensitive. These are the signs – says aesthetic doctor and founder of the Adonia Medical Clinic, Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme – of a compromised skin barrier. “One of the main functions of the skin is to keep the good in and the bad out,” says Ejikeme. “The skin barrier is made up of multiple different components. It includes skin cells and lipids, as well as the microbiome. All of these together ensure that our skin is able to retain moisture. When these elements are disrupted, we say that the skin barrier has been disrupted.”
The cause can be a whole host of things, says Amina Ajayi, who spent 15 years as a cosmetic scientist before launching her own skincare line, 1611 Labs. There are the usual challenges such as UV light or pollution, “but also issues such as over-exfoliating your skin, particularly with acids, or putting too many different products on the skin.” And winter’s one-two punch of cold weather and central heating can exacerbate already dry and inflamed skin. It can be hard to isolate a particular cause; as with many skin complaints, by the time you’re experiencing the symptoms the damage is often already done.
“If you think your skin barrier may be compromised,” says Ejikeme, “the first thing you need to do is stop anything that is harsh on the skin. So pull away from retinoids or skin acids, ensure that you’re not over-washing and make sure to switch to a mild and gentle cleanser, even a milk-based one.” I’ve personally found two cleansers in this category: old reliable Cetaphil (£9.49 for 236ml) as a make-up remover, which should suit even the most sensitive skin, and Augustinus Bader’s The Cream Cleansing Gel (£54 for 100ml), which is used with water but isn’t foaming or exfoliating.
“When it comes to serums,” says Ejikeme, “I would lean to ingredients like niacinamide and hyaluronic acids, but make sure both of these are topped with a moisturiser. Skip toners and essences and stick to a very basic routine.” Ajayi also highlights specific ingredients, flagging ceramides and peptides as underrated ingredients that don’t offer the quick results of retinoids and other acids but are gentle, hardworking “building blocks” that will see benefits over time. She also emphasises the importance of patience – as with any new skincare routine, sticking to it for at least three months, “or even six, to see significant results”.
Tender loving skincare
Seven of the kindest products for skin that needs soothing
1611 Labs Formula 7 360 Barrier Repair Treatment Serum
This is actually a lightweight moisturiser. It can be used day and night and is highly spreadable so only one pump is required for the entire face and neck. “It’s your moisturiser, your hydrator, the one product I would recommend to anyone,” says brand founder Amina Ajayi. “I call it a ‘hug in a bottle’. Comfortable on the skin and targeted at sensitive skin types, it’s been developed to treat and prevent inflammation.” Ingredients include ceramides to prevent water loss, niacinamide, squalane – a natural component of sebum, which strengthens the skin barrier – and extract of centella asiatica to refine skin texture. £70 for 30ml; 1611labs.com
Fjör Hydrolytic Serum
The Swedish bioscientists who created this serum were looking to create a microbiome-focused product to help rebalance bacteria that can contribute to acne, psoriasis, eczema and other inflammatory conditions. It contains just 12 ingredients – the key ones being a hydrolytic enzyme (to “deactivate” bacteria on the skin while keeping natural microbiota healthy and thriving), hyaluronic acid, collagen and peptides. Marketed as gender neutral (though I would argue the case for that for every product here), the brand says it eliminates the need for other moisturisers, toners or serums, other than sunscreen. £97 for 30ml; fjor.life
OTO 7-day Glow Treatment
If your skin likes oils, this is the reset for you – an at-home facial aimed at stressed skin that looks lacklustre and tired. The ampoules, which are used twice daily, contain CBD, hyaluronic acid, nourishing squalane oil and frankincense essential oil (a powerful anti-inflammatory) to hydrate, revitalise and rejuvenated stressed out skin. £99 for 14 ampoules; otocbd.com
Chantecaille Jasmine and Lily Healing Mask
This cooling mask was specifically formulated to protect skin from overexposure to the elements. Ingredients include sodium hyaloronate (with similar properties to hyaluronic acid) and vitamin B5 for their soothing, moisturising properties, as well as lily bulb to soften. Use twice a week and leave on for 10 to 20 minutes or overnight, as a rich night cream, for increased results. £80 for 50ml; chantecaille.co.uk
Balance Me Ceramide Barrier Booster
“This new targeted treatment has been incredible at restoring balance and boosting hydration to even the most sensitive of skin,” says brand co-founder Clare Hopkins. “The formula has a powerhouse combination of three types of ceramides, cholesterol [another key ingredient that makes up the “mortar” of skin] alongside another fascinating ingredient: phytosphingosine. This stimulates the upper layers of the skin to produce more ceramide so that skin can protect itself better.” It also contains tiger grass to reduce the appearance of redness or itching, and oatmeal to soothe. Hopkins recommends it for skin prone to redness, dryness or acne, or for anyone experiencing sensitivity. £33 for 30ml; balanceme.com
Kaeā The Rescuer Multi-Essential SOS Balm
This really is a balm for everything bar, perhaps, the soul – and the reassuring scent of that oldest of human sweeteners, honey, almost takes care of that too. I use it for chapped lips, roughened elbows, some mild dermatitis on my hands and for those little irritations around the mouth that young children are prone to in winter. It can also be used after shaving or for windburn. The key ingredient is antibacterial UMF 15+ Mānuka honey from Tahi, off the coast of New Zealand, along with botanical concentrates such as Kawakawa Leaf extract and Harakeke Seed oil, rich in essential fatty acids. £95 for 30ml; kaeaskincare.com
Rhug Wild Beauty Protecting Facial Oil
For retinol fans who can’t bear the thought of giving up completely on acids over the winter, the gentler alternative bakuchiol is an option. It’s the key ingredient in this facial oil, alongside hemp oil, wild foraged sorrel (from the Rhug Estate in Wales), vitamin C-rich pomegranate oil and nourishing jojoba oil, to help reduce inflammation and regulate oil production. £80 for 30ml; rhug.co.uk