If you could sum up how your skin feels with 'IT HURTS', you probably have sensitive skin. 'It hurts' can encompass a range of sensations like stinging, itching, numbness, burning, redness, tightness and just general discomfort after your skin comes into contact with a particular ingredient or environmental trigger.
According to this study, 60–70% of women and 50–60% of men report having some degree of sensitive skin.
Are we born with sensitive skin?
Sensitive skin can be due to genetic factors eg. dermatitis including atopic eczema. The most common type of sensitive skin is rosacea.
Another common cause of sensitive skin, is the overuse of topicals, which leads to sensitized skin.
I've always had oily, acne-prone skin. I didn't have skin sensitivity until a horrible facial experience many years ago that caused my skin barrier to be severely damaged, and till this day breaks out from random stuff or just randomly. What I did wrong was assumed that because the facial incident happened so many years, my skin must have repaired itself and developed thicker layers. But skin doesn't become resilient by us not actively repairing it! So it turns out I actually have, not slight, but pretty sensitive skin.
In the below photo, my skin suddenly became itchy and red for no reason at all. Here's how to calm down irritated skin.
With the internet being the go-to source for everything skincare related, from reviews to advice, more people are reporting sensitive skin due to an overuse of products and ingredients. We are putting stronger acids on our faces, exfoliating faster than our skin can tolerate, and stressing out skin barrier out. Retinol, ascorbic acid, direct acids like lactic, glycolic, salicylic - all these can be dangerous when applied to a sensitive, compromised skin barrier.
When I naively started adding active ingredients to my skincare routine, my sensitive skin was in such shock from the intrusion of concentration actives and over-exfoliation that I experienced chemical burns and breakouts, which I had to spend weeks to calm and restore my damaged skin barrier.
I learnt over time that while my heart wants to do everything possible to get rid of skin problems like acne, post-inflammation hyperpigmentation, sun spots, oiliness and dehydration, my skin burns when I use more than one active ingredient at a time. I'm beginning to suspect that even niacinamide in a high concentration proves to be challenging to my paper-thin skin.
Yet another cause of sensitive skin is acne. When you have acne, the upper part of your skin (epidermis) is compromised. As a result you can get skin sensitivity, even when you're not applying any active ingredient - I can attest to that. So imagine the effects when you applying a topical active on your skin!
If you have sensitive skin, the top three safest ingredients to use are hyaluronic acid, azelaic acid, and niacinamide (my skin is slowly learning to accept this).
1. Hyaluronic Acid
Out of the three safest skincare ingredients, the most common and popular is Hyaluronic Acid, which is not really an acid like in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Unlike its chemically exfoliating counterparts, Hyaluronic Acid moisturizes the skin and does not cause dryness. In fact, it is well-loved for its incredible ability to hydrate the skin. It absorbs and maintains moisture within our skin, keeping it soft, plump and radiant. Hyaluronic acid is THE molecule that gives your skin support, replacing loss volume, providing hydration & keeping wrinkles away!
What is Hyaluronic Acid
But do you know what Hyaluronic Acid really is?
It is, in fact, a sugar!
It is a big sugar molecule that is made up of smaller sugar units. This sugar molecule is a substance naturally occurring in the human body that attracts and binds water (source). It behaves like a sponge and is capable of holding up to 1,000 times its own weight in water, thereby giving skin its firmness, smoothness and plumpness.
Naturally, our skin is rich with Hyaluronic Acid in our youth and our body readily produces it. With age, sun exposure and environmental stressors, our skin cells produce less of it, which causes drier and less elastic aging skin. We start to age the day we were born! With a reduced ability to retain moisture, skin also becomes wrinkled and dull over time. (I don't know why but it makes me feel sad typing this lol)
Benefits of Hyaluronic Acid
- Keeps skin moist and firm
- Helps skin regain and strengthen its natural hydrating ability
- Boost youthful qualities
- Has plumping effect for more youthful-looking skin
- Regenerates skin
- Repairs and prevents scar formation
- Irons out wrinkles
That's why Hyaluronic acid is such a common skincare ingredient in skincare products and injectable moisturizers used by dermatologists to replace loss in skin volume. Hyaluronic acid in moisturizing lotions, creams & serums can help with epidermal hydration.
Hyaluronic acid can come in different molecular weights. High molecular weight HA molecules, while are larger and heavier pieces that won't go through the deep layers of skin as well, stay on your skin and form an excellent surface hydrator. Low molecular weight HA molecules (you'll see sodium hyaluronate in the ingredients list) can penetrate deeper into the skin than high molecular weight HA to provide better hydration and anti-wrinkle effect. That is not to say that low molecular weight HA molecules are better than high ones - there are benefits to both.
Even if it's low molecular weight, it cannot penetrate through the basement membrane. This means that HA in skincare remains on the epidermis of the skin. It can only do that if you're using injectable moisturizers or high pressure air.
Hydration of the upper layers of skin also aids in penetration of other actives such as retinol, retinoids, ascorbic acid, niacinamide and skin acids. This amplifies the potency of topicals, supercharging your skincare.
Is Hyaluronic Acid suitable for sensitive skin?
Because it's a natural forming substance, the chances of getting an allergic reaction from hyaluronic acid is low.
If you do get an allergic reaction from a product, it might not be the hyaluronic acid that's causing it, but the other ingredients, preservatives, or fragrances (which are common causes of skin irritation and allergies). The percentage of HA used and the formulation of a product matters too.
It doesn’t have any side effects and reduces water loss so that skin stays soft, smooth and also plumped.
The right way to apply hyaluronic acid
HA is raved about for its humectant properties, which help to draw and hold moisture, resulting in plumper and more hydrated skin. Because of its ability to draw and hold water, it needs moisture to work. In dry conditions, where humidity is low, it will pull moisture from wherever it can. Similarly, applying HA to a dry face can have the opposite effect of what is intended, and actually leave skin more dehydrated.
Think of HA as a 'moisture magnet'. If there is moisture on your skin, it will hold on to it and grow. If your skin is dry, it will pull any moisture from the deeper layers of your skin and bring it to the surface of the epidermis, leaving your skin drier than it was!
Therefore, according to experts, to make the most out of hyaluronic acid, apply it on damp skin, then apply a moisturizer on top to seal in all that goodness. You can spritz your face with water, but I LOVEx100 the NIOD SDSM2, which is basically a supercharged facial mist. It not only hydrates my skin but also calms down my sensitive skin.
Best products with hyaluronic acid
- NIOD Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex (MMHC2) - This serum absorbs so well and instantly hydrates and plumps my skin. It doesn't feel sticky at all and there is absolutely no downtime required to pat pat pat pat until the cows come home. When I used it the first time, my skin sponged it up and absorbed it instantly. I didn't know it was so thirsty! My poor skin! 😩 HA works best on damp skin, so I spritz the NIOD SDSM2 (Superoxide Dismutase Saccharide Mist) on freshly cleansed skin and pat in the MMHC2. What I love about the MMHC2 is that it does not suffocate my skin or make it feel like there's a layer of something on my skin, which is exceptional for hot and humid weather. By the way, NIOD MMHC2 contains 15 forms of HA, while most other products in the market contain 3-5. NIOD is the premium line of Deciem, parent company of The Ordinary.
- The Ordinary HA 2% + B5 - One of the most affordable HA serums in the market, this is a multi-tasking HA serum that contains vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), which fortifies the skin barrier and facilitates wound healing. Vitamin B5 is useful for those with acne and sensitive skin as it has anti-inflammatory benefits. This is said to be a dupe for the Skinceuticals Hydrating B5 Gel.
- Paula’s Choice Hyaluronic Acid Booster - As with all boosters from Paula's Choice, this HA version is super concentrated and potent. One bottle will last you a long time. Mix this with a variety of products or directly onto cleansed skin to further boost hydration.
- The Ordinary NMF - The Ordinary NMF is highly recommended moisturizer for sensitive skin. The HA molecule here is too large to penetrate into the dermal layer, but it acts as a humectant (basically a moisturizer) so it sits on your skin and prevents transepidermal water loss and draws water from the upper part of the epidermis down to the lower part of the epidermis.
The first time I heard this active ingredient's name, I went "nia... whutt???" I believe the video I watched was one from James Welsh, and I thought 'wow this guy is a skin scientist!' Lol!
In the skincare world, niacinamide is a pretty common, well-researched powerhouse ingredient known to have many benefits for all skin types and ages, that many of us have heard but likely know very little about.
What is niacinamide
Touted as a skincare 'must-have', niacinamide (also known as vitamin B3 and nicotinamide) is adored largely because of its versatility for almost any skincare concern and skin type.
Regardless of age, we want a stronger skin barrier because the more robust our skin is, the more plump, healthy and youthful it will look. The more collagen our skin has, the slower it will sag and wrinkle like a sad and fallen leaf. Niacinamide stimulates collagen production (source) and is basically a skincare superhero.
Niacinamide is the best friend we want at all phases of our lives.
Benefits of niacinamide
- Visibly minimize enlarged pores
- Improves skin barrier
- Boosts ceramide production
- Decreases dark spots and pigmentation
- Regulates sebum production (helpful for oily skin and mild acne)
- Improve uneven skin tone
- Reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Repairs old skin damage
- Soothes rosacea
- Well-tolerated by most skin types
- Minimal skin irritation
Is Niacinamide suitable for sensitive skin?
It is pH neutral so it can be used on sensitive skin. Since it regulates sebum production, acne-prone skin can benefit from its anti-inflammatory and oil-reducing effects.
That is not to say that it will be THE miracle worker for everyone. It certainly isn't for me. When formulated as an ingredient in a skincare product, say a moisturizer, my skin tolerates niacinamide if it's far down in the list of ingredients.
It became problematic when a niacinamide newbie like me went out to buy the Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster, slapped 2 drops on each cheek and forehead, and repeated it day and night. My skin was in shock and confused by the sudden introduction of niacinamide in such high concentration. Another mistake I made was I had also used salicylic acid in the same routine. =(
Over time I realized that my skin will experience heightened sensitivity when I use more than one active at once. So if tonight's niacinamide night, it's just gonna be niacinamide as the active step in my skincare routine. I have also since reduced the frequency of niacinamide booster use to just 2-3 times a week, with just one tiny drop, and my skin is response to it is a lot calmer.
If you would rather skip or if your skin simply doesn't like niacinamide, consider NIOD RE: Pigment, which specifically targets uneven skin tone, dark spots and pigmentation. Use RE: Pigment after cleansing, and before MMHC2 in a NIOD regime.
It doesn't contain hyaluronic acid nor niacinamide, great for people who are sensitive to these two actives. NIOD MG is has anti-inflammatory properties, and helps to repair and recover skin that is easily irritated. I use it after cleansing and before MIOD MMHC. The closer to the skin it gets, the better and faster it’ll work. I love it.
Anyway, back to niacinamide.
The right way to apply niacinamide
If it's in serum form, you can add a few drops into it to your moisturizer instead of applying it directly onto your skin. The moisturizer acts as a barrier to reduce any potential irritation on sensitive skin. If you have normal or tolerant skin, by all means do it like the YouTubers do - drip it directly on your skin.
Niacinamide supposedly works well with other products, such as hyaluronic acid, vitamin C or retinol, but do proceed with caution if you have very sensitive skin. Being water soluble and pH neutral it can be used around the eye area.
Best products with niacinamide
Niacinamide can be found in a ton of products like moisturizers and makeup primers. But the most direct and potent way to incorporate it into your routine is in the form of a serum.
Look for products that contain at least 5% niacinamide for best results and ensure that it features highly on the ingredients list of a product. It isn’t as active as some other ingredients, so it takes a longer period of time to see results if used on its own.
- Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster - The OG high concentration niacinamide. Paula actually managed to outdo herself by coming up with a 20% niacinamide treatment, try it if your skin can afford the intensity. Of course, if you have extremely sensitive skin, you might want to apply niacinamide over a moisturizer that adds as a barrier to reduce irritancy.
- The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% - Very well-priced, as with all things The Ordinary. Has a high dose of 10% niacinamide plus 1% zinc to control oil. It foams a little when applied (it MUST foam, otherwise you might have received a counterfeit) but absorbs fairly quickly, but not quite as quickly as the above two.
- Good Molecules Niacinamide 10% Serum - Another super affordable niacinamide serum that's making waves in the skincare community. Some people have reported that The Ordinary's niacinamide serum breaks them out, probably from the 1% zinc, so this one from Good Molecules is a good alternative.
- SkinCeuticals Metacell Renewal B3 - A superior quality moisturizer that contains 5% niacinamide, 2.5% firming tri-peptide concentrate and 15% pure glycerin. Sometimes a slightly lower percentage of niacinamide can be beneficial for those who might be sensitive to an ingredient in higher concentrations. The texture is lightweight and non-tacky, making it extremely comfortable for oily skin (or any skin type, for that matter) to wear in the heat.
3. Azelaic Acid
Azelaic acid is the skincare ingredient my sensitive, acne-prone skin is obsessed with that I didn't even know it needed.
What's weird is that, according to a reply from customer service at Paula's Choice, azelaic acid cannot be sold in Singapore.
How odd! I've been trying to find any kind of evidence to back this up, but I am unable to find anything substantial. But it's true that it's impossible to purchase azelaic acid in Singapore. That's why I was so desperate to purchase The Ordinary's Azelaic Acid 10% that I (accidentally) ended up buying a fake LOLLL.
I love azelaic acid for 3 reasons:
- It is great as an acne-fighter as it is bactericidal, meaning it kills multiple bacteria including the evil, acne-causing Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes)acne.
- It inhibits tyrosinase, which is an enzyme that leads to pigmentation. It plays a very important role in melasma as it limits the rate of melanin production, making it a fantastic and gentle way to treat post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and dark spots that comes as an unwanted free gift with acne.
- It is a keratolytic; meaning it decreases the amount of keratin (dead skin cells) that clog your pores and promotes turnover of skin cells
So if you're a fellow acne sufferer and have sensitive skin, I highly recommend azelaic acid as it prevents and fights acne at the same time.
Guess which one is the fake azelaic acid! Left or right?
What is azelaic acid
According to Dr Sam Bunting, the only 2 actives that can successfully unclog pores in an anti-inflammatory skincare routine step are:
- Azelaic Acid
Azelaic acid is a so-called carboxylic acid. It’s not an AHA or BHA but a distant relative to them (all being carboxylic acids). It is a superstar ingredient, a dicarboxylic acid it is found in the skin, which means your body is already producing it. It can also be found in wheat, rye and grain, and can be synthetically produced for stability and effectiveness. Therefore, these molecule have very little in the way of reactions, especially if the product is in the 10-20% formulation. However, concentrations above 10% azelaic acid can be irritating, something people with sensitive skin must note.
It can be purchased from many different sources (except in Singapore pffft) and in different forms like serums, boosters, foams, and moisturizers. It can also be prescription-based strength, between 15-20%.
Here are more benefits of this amazing ingredient!
Benefits of Azelaic Acid
- Calms down and treats inflammatory skin conditions
- Kills off acne-causing bacteria
- Helps prevent blackheads, whiteheads, and inflamed acne lesions
- Promotes turnover of skin cells
- Treats post-acne marks and hyperpigmentation in a VERY GENTLE WAY
- Reduces pigmentation from sun exposure and freckles
- Has exfoliant-like properties to improve texture of skin
- Refines skin surface to reveal a more even skin tone
- Dermatologists' choice for treating rosacea (source)
- Plays well with other active ingredients
- Safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women
Is Azelaic Acid suitable for sensitive skin?
YES! YES! YES!
As someone with super fussy sensitive skin, I have had no issues applying azelaic acid directly onto my skin.
You will notice with 3-6 months of religious use that your skin will look smoother and more even toned. Of course, it also depends on how your skin tolerates azelaic acid and how bad your skin prior to azelaic acid use. It is not photosensitive
The right way to apply Azelaic Acid
On clean and dry skin, apply azelaic acid on its own, directly on to skin, mix with a moisturizer, or on top of moisturizer. For the first few times of using azelaic acid, I chose the latter because the moisturizer acts like a safety barrier to reduce any irritation that might occur.
It is safe to use twice a day (morning and night). For someone with sensitive skin, once every other day or until your skin builds up tolerance to azelaic acid. Follow with a hydrating moisturizer and a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater for daytime.
Azelaic acid is such a friendly ingredient in that you can combine it with other active ingredients eg. retinol, vitamin c, niacinamide, AHA, BHA.
If you find that azelaic acid stings a little on your skin, you can put it in the refrigerator first. As your skin builds up its tolerance to azelaic acid, your body will get used to it. However, if you do experience any severe itch or redness, quickly rinse it off and stop using.
Best products with Azelaic Acid
Azelaic acid, in my opinion and personal experience, is a game changer for acne-prone and sensitive skin types.
- The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% - You cannot get this in Singapore, BUT lookfantastic.com ships internationally, so YAY!
- Paula's Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster - This was the original azelaic acid product I wanted so badly to try because everyone and their mother loves it, but Paula's Choice Singapore does not carry it due to local legal restrictions. You can get it anywhere else in the world though.
- First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Oil-Free Mattifying Gel Moisturizer - A mattifying moisturizer that does a wonderful job of controlling oil and shine in hot and humid weather. This gel formula contains ceramide and lecithin to replenish moisture in the skin and, of course, azelaic acid to soothe redness and manage acne.
- Paula's Choice Defense Antioxidant Pore Purifier - This contains Potassium Azeloyl Diglycinate, a derivative of azelaic aicd and glycine. It acts as a skin brightening agent via Tyrosinase (a famous enzyme needed to make melanin) inhibition and also has significant sebum normalizing activity.
Now that we've discussed the benefits of these three amazing skincare ingredients, you might be wondering, do they work well TOGETHER?
Yes, they do! Both hyaluronic acid and niacinamide work great alongside azelaic acid. Hyaluronic acid hydrates and regenerates skin, and niacinamide repairs old damage and strengthens your skin barrier.
That said, I wouldn't recommend using all of them together in booster form, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Alright! So that's it from me for the top 3 things to try and avoid if you have sensitive skin. Skincare for sensitive skin is constant experimentation, a lot of trial and error. Something you love today might break you out tomorrow, and vice versa. So it's important to keep your skincare routine simple, and if adding a new active or product, to try one at a time so you will if this product works for you.
Please share this with anyone you know is going through a hard time with their skin! 🥰