As a die-hard beauty junkie, when I landed my first assistant role in my early twenties I naturally went hell-for-lipstick trying every serum, lotion and cream I could get my hands on. Then I hit my mid- twenties and my normally well-behaved skin started acting out, with angry red bumps, dryness and itchiness. ‘Why is this happening?’ I asked several dermatologists. ‘It looks like you’ve thrown too many strong active ingredients on to your skin at once,’ was the general consensus. ‘Your face is freaking out.’
Ironic, really, that in a bid to get better skin, I had made things a whole lot worse. And I’m not alone. ‘In recent years I’ve seen a big increase in the incidence of sensitivity and acne breakouts due to over or incorrect use of skincare products,’ explains dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. ‘With access to social media sites, YouTube and forums suggesting a new “must-have” cream seemingly every second, some women now come into my clinic using 10-15 different products at one time.’ Picture us cocktailing serums, mastering lengthy retinol routines and adding acids like they’re going out of style. Of course, often these steps make for good skin practice (which we recommend regularly for that reason), but when done incorrectly or overexcitedly, they’re not such a winning formula.
When I asked what I could do to get my skin back on track, the answer was surprisingly simple: I was to cut back, start afresh and streamline my routine with products focused on rebuilding my skin barrier and restoring calm in camp.
First, a refresher on the skin barrier and how it keeps our complexions in check. Often referred to as our skin’s bricks and mortar – skin cells, lipids and the fats that connect them – it’s the outermost layer of skin that locks in water and electrolytes, which keep our skin soft and supple. On the flip side, a thin, weak or damaged barrier allows water to waltz right out, leaving skin dehydrated, disgruntled and less able to defend itself. ‘An impaired “mortar” means topical irritants can penetrate more easily and cause inflammation that manifests as skin sensitivity,’ explains Bunting. ‘It’s easy to get into an unfortunate cycle where skin is dry and irritable, you apply additional products to address the issue and end up with further irritation.’
‘The skin barrier is crucial to skin health, and actively fights inflammation and immunity,’ agrees consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall. ‘My advice is to be aware of stripping the skin barrier, leaving the skin dry and vulnerable to irritation and allergy.’
Cleanse With Care
One under the radar culprit for stripping skin’s barrier is the humble cleanser. Or rather, the wrong one for your skin type. ‘You want a cleanser that’s not going to strip away the three key oils – cholesterol, ceramide and free fatty acids – which are crucial for barrier function,’ explains Bunting. ‘Using foaming cleansers with physical exfoliants or even something as simple as excessive friction on your skin and using too hot water can whittle away skin cells, which is why I’m all about really gentle cleansing. It’s amazing how much impact the wrong cleansing method can have!’
As for cleansers that come packed with actives, such as acids? Bunting isn’t a fan. ‘One of the most common in cleansers is salicylic acid, which is good for dealing with blemishes but in a foaming formula can be a potent combination that leaves skin dry and irritable. Another reason why I don’t believe active ingredients belong in cleansers is that they can end up drying up the skin around the eyes because those ingredients aren’t meant to be on such a delicate area.’
Approach With Caution
Increasing ingredient transparency has been an exciting development, putting the power in our hands as skincare consumers. But Bunting reveals a downside. ‘While it’s fantastic that a lot of brands are more open about the ingredient percentages on their packaging, I worry that none is terribly good at putting together routines for people and instructing on how to actually use them in real life – and that’s the hard part.
‘The main culprits in terms of irritants include retinoids (when used incorrectly), some potent vitamin C formulations and AHAs and BHAs,’ says Bunting. ‘These need to be combined in the right way, in the right order and applied in the right places.’
Retinol – the vitamin A-derivative with a unique ability to boost collagen production, working on plumpness as well as fine lines, wrinkles, skin texture and clarity – is often the trickiest to nail. We’re warned to start slowly and work up a tolerance, but how many of us actually follow the rules? More pressing still, how many of us introduce a high percentage retinol/retinoid into an already packed rota of actives, acids and even alcohol-based formulas?
‘If you start your routine with a fragranced balm and exfoliating toner, maybe a gel moisturiser, then you throw a prescription retinoid into the mix, the skin is just going to go nuts,’ explains Bunting, who stresses that the more products you use, the more your skin is at risk of becoming irritable.
‘If you’re applying many layers (up to 17!) you’ll almost certainly compromise optimal absorption of active ingredients and could even risk the interaction of some products,’ agrees Dr Stefanie Williams, dermatologist and founder of the Eudelo Clinic. ‘Used correctly, retinol and acids are highly effective, useful ingredients, so they shouldn’t be vilified. But if overused (for the individual skin type and condition), it may lead to irritant contact dermatitis, which is an inflammation with redness and itchiness.’
Think of it this way: if you’re out-out and mix drinks, you know full well you’re going to pay for it the next day. The more variables you throw at your face in one go, the higher the chance of a reactive outcome: tingling, itching, soreness, burning and tightness.
Keep Calm and Carry on
Here’s the good news: getting skin back on track doesn’t require a payday splurge, but rather paring back your routine with a back-to-basics approach. ‘It’s amazing how many problems can be simplified by getting clients to start again from scratch to build a routine,’ says Bunting.
Skincare buffs – don’t fret. Once you’ve got your skin on side again, you can start working in active ingredients; just take it slow. ‘Introduce one active at a time over at least six weeks (the length of a skin cycle) before you move on to the next,’ says Bunting. And be patient: ‘I call the first six weeks the “tough love tolerance phase”. The next six are getting into the comfort zone, then the six weeks after that you’re probably starting to see results. If you think in those terms you’ll go slower and be less demanding.’
Note: ‘It’s vital to distinguish between someone prone to redness from skincare and someone who has an inflammatory skin condition, like rosacea,’ explains Dr Williams. If you think the latter might be the case, book in with a dermatologist who can prescribe you a personalised routine.
The Be Kind Skin Detox
Your Dr Bunting-approved plan to get your skin back on side...
WEEK 1: GENTLE CLEANSE & MOISTURISE
‘If you’ve got really reactive, red, angry skin, I’d recommend using La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser, £12.50, and Avène Skin Recovery Cream, £16.50, morning and night for at least a week.’ Other mild cleansing favourites include, Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, £8.99, Dr Sam’s Flawless Cleanser, £16, Skinceuticals Cream Cleanser, £31, which work well alongside sensitive skin moisturisers and serums like La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Creme, £17.50, and Vichy Mineral 89 Fortifying and Plumping Daily Booster, £22.
WEEK 2: SENSITIVE SPF
UV exposure is blamed for 80% of visible skin ageing, so an SPF is non-negotiable for a savvy skincare routine. But, ‘Sunscreen can be, even with the best intentions, a problematic category. I’d introduce one for 7 days because it can take 3-5 days for your skin to flag it’s not happy with an ingredient.’ We rate La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Fluid SPF 50+, £16.50, Jan Marini Physical Protectant SPF45, £53, Heliocare Advanced SPF 50 Gel, £19, and ZO Skin Health Oclipse Daily Sheer SPF 50, £57.
WEEK 3: GET ACTIVE
‘Once you’ve stablised your skin and rebuilt your barrier, you can personalise your routine with actives like retinol, vitamin C and acids, making sure to add one product at a time over a six-week trial period.’
FRAGRANCE-FREE FOUNDATION: Fragrance and flare-ups often go hand in hand. ‘NARS and EX1 offer great fragrance-free options, alongside even milder formulas like La Roche-Posay Teint Toleriane, £16.50, or Vichy Dermablend Fluid Corrective Foundation, £20.’ Oxygenetix Breathable Foundation, £45, is another firm Team Grazia favourite.