If you're chalking up red, flaky, inflamed skin to chronic sensitivity, think again. Your daily skin care regimen may be to blame. "More than half of my clients who think they have sensitive skin are actually experiencing irritating symptoms caused by using the wrong products and ingredients," says Emily Fritchey, an Atlanta-based holistic skin therapist and president of Sunshine Botanicals natural skin care line. Overall, it's important to know your skin and not use products that make symptoms worse. We asked three experts to enlighten us on how to treat skin properly—morning till night.
When you wake
A healthy skin strategy begins the minute you roll out of bed. Hydration keeps cells nourished and supple, so drink a glass of water when you wake up. Then wash gently. "Cleaning skin will rid it of bacteria and yeast, which thrive on the oil produced in hair follicles [overnight], "says Wilma Bergfeld, MD, head of Cleveland Clinic's dermatology research department. The best cleansers contain a natural antibacterial, such as honey; an anti-inflammatory, such as licorice root; and antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, which bolster cells against environmental damage and help boost collagen production. An antioxidant-rich toner might be beneficial, though Bergfeld warns that acetone—a common toner ingredient—can be drying. Also avoid cleansers that contain harsh and irritating parabens, benzyl peroxide, or sodium laurel sulfate.
Next, nurture skin with a moisturizer that contains alpha-hydroxy acids and SPF to protect against sun damage. Search out sunscreen formulas that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide—physical blocks that sit on top of the skin rather than soaking into it.
Expert tip: Take warm—not scalding—showers. Hot showers dilate blood vessels, making skin flush. When skin is red and inflamed, it's more sensitive, says Bergfeld.
On your lunch break
As your body's only external organ, your skin soaks up environmental elements—pollution, wind, sun, cold—around the clock. "Fair skin tends to be thinner and sensitive to sun, as well as to product ingredients," says Boyer B. Cole, ND, of San Anselmo, California, "whereas Mediterranean, black, and Asian skin has more oil and melanocytes, so it stays softer and has less wrinkles." Remember to shield your skin from inclement weather by wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
Love that afternoon spinning class? You're in luck: Exercise benefits skin by aiding circulation and delivering nutrients to cells. But always remember to rinse after you sweat to avoid blemishes and bumps. "Sweat washes out the oil in hair follicles, and when you cool down, it hardens like butter in your pores," says Bergfeld. Because oil feeds organisms in hair follicles that can cause bacteria growth and irritation, "get the oil off while you're still red and flushed," she says. Plus, the salts in sweat may cause skin to itch and dry out.
Expert tip: To keep skin moist, carry a mineral-water spray with you, and spritz it on clean skin or over your makeup in the middle of the day, Cole says. He also recommends staying hydrated and taking flax oil supplements, which help cells stay flexible and facilitate nutrient exchange.
Before you go to bed
"Most people overmoisturize and undercleanse because they're in a hurry," says Fritchey. Take off makeup with a creamy cleansing milk at the end of the day; then cleanse skin for at least a minute, recommends Fritchey, using your morning cleanser and a washcloth soaked with warm water. Feed skin with a thicker moisturizer containing retinol, or try spreading on mashed avocado or olive oil in a thin layer; your skin will absorb the foods' essential fatty acids, says Cole.
Expert tip: Avoid exposure to nasty organisms and skin mites by changing your pillowcase as often as possible, says Fritchey. And switch to a clean, environmentally friendly laundry detergent that contains no artificial fragrance.
Katy Neusteter is the managing editor of Delicious Living.