I’ve Tried Hundreds Of ‘Sensitive’ Skin Products – Here’s What I Recommend

I’m not sure which came first: deciding I wanted to be a beauty journalist or discovering I react to a lot of products. I always wanted to write, but it was the constant battle of shopping for so-called 'sensitive' formulas only to develop yet another rash that started my obsession with skincare.
 
Frustrated by the lack of clarity, I decided to learn as much as I could, which is a bit of an occupational hazard. I’ve worked in the beauty industry for a decade and testing products is a (privileged) part of the job. Yet while my colleagues can spritz perfume with abandon and apply retinol with barely a second thought, I have to patch test everything religiously or risk another itchy reaction.
 
The problem is, everyone’s skin is different – and it doesn’t help that there’s no official definition, either. "Sensitivity is not actually a medical diagnosis," London-based consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk tells me. "It’s a catch-all term to describe symptoms such as redness, flushing, burning, stinging, itching, dryness and flaking."
 
Certain conditions can make your skin more sensitive, due to a compromised skin barrier. "Eczema, rosacea and urticaria (hives) are some of the most common culprits," says Dr Kluk. "Dry skin alone can cause skin to be irritable. In rarer cases, the user may be allergic to an ingredient." But while there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, there are ingredients that are known triggers, including acids, retinol, fragrance, soaps and foaming agents such as sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS).
 
Our own beauty dabbling can make matters worse. "Sufferers will often trial multiple products to overcome their symptoms, so agents that may otherwise cause mild irritation are used consecutively or combined, and lower the threshold for severe irritation," Dr Kluk warns.
 
Therein lies the rub. By trying so many products, I could sensitise my skin further. However, I’ve also learned what to avoid (my number one nemesis being fragrance) and which products I swear by for calmer, more tolerant skin. Of course, not everyone's skin is the same, but here’s my edit of the products I turn to even in the throes of a reaction…

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You know it, I know it: good skin starts with daily sunscreen. It took me years to discover that while, yes, I suffered with prickly heat, the main cause of the unbelievably painful rashes on my holidays was my potent, fragrance-laden SPF. Ultrasun changed my life; free from perfume and with a once-a-day formula, it uses a gentle combination of mineral and chemical filters and is non-comedogenic, which keeps my heat rash at bay. I wear it every day, without fail.
Ultrasun Super Sensitive High SPF30 Family Formula 150ml, $26.00 $17.40 Buy
An effective, gentle cleanser is vital for any sensitive skin routine. As a teen I used cheap face wipes to remove makeup, having struggled to find anything that didn’t sting – only to realise that not only were they full of sensitising ingredients but I was making my skin worse by not cleansing it thoroughly. I swear by the entire La Roche-Posay Toleriane range (the Ultra fluid moisturiser and Ultra 8 spray are my go-tos) but this cleanser is the cream of the crop. Rich, soothing and more luxurious than most sensitive-friendly products, it feels like a treat not a chore.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser, $12.50 $8.75 Buy
Although I’m well aware that serums are the route to really making a difference to your skin concerns, an ultra-soothing moisturising cream feels like a necessary comfort blanket, particularly when my skin feels stressed. Here I turn again to the infallible French skincare market with Avène’s cream for intolerant skin. With only seven ingredients, including its signature thermal spring water and moisturising powerhouse squalane, it’s saved my skin many a time.
Avène Tolerance Extreme Emulsion, $15.85 $12.86 Buy
Homegrown organic brand Pai was one of my first discoveries when I started out in beauty journalism and I still remember my excitement at finding skincare that really spoke to people like me. Created by urticaria sufferer Sarah Brown, the brand is a great starting point for anyone dealing with sensitivity, but it’s their rosehip oil that I’ve come to love the most. Sensitive skin is often dull, dry and even flaky – especially when recovering from a reaction – and this multitasking oil is the answer. It heals, hydrates and restores glow; my beauty routine wouldn’t be complete without it.
Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil, $24.00 Buy
This ridiculously cheap yet brilliant serum contains all the heavyweights – hyaluronic acid, squalane, ceramides and glycerin – making it a no-brainer for dehydrated skin. Fragrance-free, it seems to be very well tolerated by even the most sensitive skin types, and it leaves skin feeling plump and perky before you add your night cream. There’s a daytime version, too, which costs even less and works just as effectively; it’s also a relief to have reliable staples at such a reasonable price point, as we sensitive skin sufferers often waste good money on products that cause a reaction.
Superdrug Simply Pure Hydrating Night Serum, $3.99 Buy
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Created by scientists at the Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust for their patients, this range is now available to the rest of us – and the profits go straight back into the NHS. I struggle with sensitivity all over, but this sunflower oil-rich cream has become my all-time favourite body lotion. It’s been clinically proven to improve the appearance of scar tissue and stretch marks, is suitable for all ages and even works on eczema. Best of all, it has a pleasingly non-greasy texture that’s worlds away from the usual stuffy pharmacy creams your doctor prescribes.
My Trusty Skincare Sunflower Body Lotion, $5.99 Buy
Last but not least is the cream that costs less than a coffee. It would be my desert island must-have. It’s not sexy and it’s not luxurious but believe me, when you’re in the midst of a reaction so bad you want to rip your skin apart, nothing feels more indulgent than this. It takes the heat out of rashes, prickly heat and sunburn, and the blend of aqueous cream (rather than straight calamine lotion, which is drying) means it leaves skin feeling soft, too. It’s so fast-working I can often avoid the steroid cream route for some flare-ups; it’s worth every penny, and then some.
Care + Aqueous and Calamine Cream, $2.15 Buy
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