Sensitive skin care: What causes sensitive skin - and how to treat it

Why your skin might suddenly be sensitive - and what to do about it

While you may have thought that temperamental skin is something that settles down with age, it’s not always that simple. Sensitive skin can strike at any moment, even if you’ve previously never had any issues - and if you’ve suddenly found yourself with irritated, reactive skin when usually you can slather any product on, you’re not alone.

“Many skin conditions appear suddenly,” agrees Consultant Dermatologist Dr Anastasia Therianou. “Someone who has never had rosacea, atopic dermatitis (eczema) or has never been allergic to a certain product can suddenly experience these conditions. Our skin type always remains the same, but there are some triggers that can make it feel more sensitive.”

But what causes skin to become sensitised, and what can you do about it?

Your skin is constantly hard at work, with the upper layer - your skin barrier - doing its best to keep everything on an even keel and protect what’s underneath. But anything from lifestyle changes to an unsuitable skincare product can compromise it, leading to sensitivity or redness; some triggers can also cause a flare-up if you’re predisposed to conditions such as rosacea and eczema.

The power of stress

Stress, for example, is a huge factor which is often overlooked when it comes to the state of your skin - and if you’ve experienced irritation in the last few months, it could be to blame. Daily or sustained stress can weaken the skin barrier and slow down the skin’s ability to heal, leaving it less able to deal with potential triggers. It’s something Dr Therianou has seen in her clinic in recent months.

“Some people feel more stressed and suffer with skin flare ups. For instance, dry skin - when the skin loses too much water and oil - can become itchy, scaly, can peel, crack and appear red. People with underlying eczema can have a flare up from stress too,” the expert notes. Stress is also a common trigger for rosacea.

The unexpected side of ageing

However, search data* also shows that over the past year, 90 percent of those looking up ‘sensitive skin’ are aged 35-44. This is most likely down to hormones; whether they’re going haywire during pregnancy, peri-menopause or menopause, hormonal changes can spark differences in your skin. In fact, one small Dutch study** in 2017 of women aged 20-65 found that premenopausal women and peri- and post-menopausal women experienced “significant differences” in skin sensitivity, with reported triggers including everything from shaving, to the weather, toiletries and emotions.

A strong skin barrier is also about hydration; your skin (and body) gets drier as you age, leaving the outer layer of skin less robust and unable to withstand environmetal or external aggressors.

Of course, it could also be down to changes in your skincare routine. Hitting your late thirties might mean you’ve got more to spend on the latest products and trends, or perhaps you’re upping your actives in a bid to target your changing skin needs with age. But whatever skincare switches you’re making - at any age - they could be the culprit of your sensitised, reactive skin.

It may be that you’ve reacted badly to a specific ingredient, or you could be overdoing it with exfoliators and multi-step routines. An allergic reaction to a new product doesn’t always stop at a rash, either; your skin may feel sensitised long after the visible irritation has died down, as your skin barrier has been compromised.

How to treat sensitive skin

So how do you look after sensitive skin and get that all-important skin barrier behaving as it should?

Firstly, if you’re noticing big changes in your complexion that are affecting you day-to-day, seek professional advice. “I recommend that they see their GP to have a clear diagnosis. Each of the skin conditions that make skin sensitive need different treatment,” explains Dr Therianou.

Next, get your lifestyle under control as best you can. That means always aiming for a decent night’s sleep, minimising stress and eating healthily in order to support your skin and self.

Most importantly, it’s time to reassess your skincare. What you’re aiming for is a simple, effective daily routine that supports your skin’s health, rather than stripping it. Forget about trends and adding countless steps - instead, focus on gentle, skin-soothing ingredients and formulas that will coax your complexion back to a happy, healthy and hydrated condition.

That means waving goodbye to harsh foaming cleansers, cutting back on exfoliators (using a soft flannel during cleansing can provide gentle exfoliation until your skin feels stronger) and avoiding potentially triggering ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate. 

But as well as looking at what you don’t need in your products, you also need to find the skin boosters you do need - and that’s why we’ve created a new face oil designed for the most sensitive skin types. The Willowberry Sensitive Face Oil, £26.99, takes all the best bits of our best-selling Willowberry Nutrient Boost Face Oil, but contains no essential oils - so even the most fragile skins can enjoy it.

The 100% natural formula of the Willowberry Sensitive Face Oil contains grapeseed oil, which is rich in linoleic acid - an omega 6 fatty acid that helps to repair barrier function and deeply moisturise. It’s also packed with skin-healing rosehip oil, chia seed and vitamin E, which are high in antioxidants to help protect your skin while leaving it feeling soft and soothed. The nourishing formula also helps to target inflammation, irritation and redness. The ultra-light oil works well under makeup and will give you a healthy glow while it gets to work on nurturing the skin within.

Willowberry is 'Nutritious Natural' skincare for grown-ups for your best skin. Launched in 2017, Willowberry is an award-winning independent British brand that has gained a cult following. Loved by top make-up artists, the streamlined, highly effective range protects skin’s natural barrier function to nourish and transform grown-up skin, with indulgent formulas that feed the skin and soul.


*UberSuggest search data, August 2019 - July 2020

**Falcone, D., Richters, R.J.H., Uzunbajakava, N.E. et al. Sensitive skin and the influence of female hormone fluctuations