Your Skin Isn’t Sensitive, It’s Just Overloaded – Here’s How To Sort It

Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
As a skincare lover, I've lost count of how many times I've bought a new skincare product because I've been sucked in by promises of smoother, firmer, more radiant skin – and I know I'm not alone. It's difficult not to be swayed by a 'magic' ingredient such as activated charcoal, CBD, mushrooms or something else just as buzzy. But in reality, I always end up dropping the product within the space of a few weeks. Why? Because more often than not, my skin has become red, flaky, uneven and generally unhappy.
If you're in the same boat, you might think you have sensitive skin and gravitate towards simpler, bland cleansers, moisturisers and serums. But according to the experts, angry skin reactions like this might not mean you have sensitive skin at all. In fact, your skin might just be overloaded.
"We are encouraging people to overload their system and spend more money than is necessary," says Abi Cleeve, skin expert and founder of skinSense and Ultrasun, "but skincare shouldn't be like this." Alluding to popular and elaborate 10-step skincare routines which consist of essences, toners, lotions and serums, Abi continues: "You don’t need five products in the morning and five in the evening. A good skincare routine is about targeted products that really deliver, because our skin doesn’t like being overstressed. Firstly, it's not comfortable to have layer after layer of product and essentially, it’s just a waste."
What exactly does overloaded skin look like and how can we wean ourselves off these jam-packed, luxury skincare routines, which might actually be doing us more harm than good? "I have noticed a big trend for 'product overload' and there are more patients that come in with congested skin or problems they haven't experienced before," explains Dr Pamela Benito, aesthetic doctor and skincare expert. Dr Benito adds: "Your skin could be oily and quite sticky because your skincare is just sitting on the surface, but overloading your skin can also result in dryness, irritation and redness. You may also notice worsened breakouts and blocked pores (blackheads and comedones – small flesh-coloured bumps) where the skin just looks generally clogged."
With so many skincare products now available, Dr Benito warns against overusing or even combining certain ingredients, especially retinol and acids, which can cause visible and painful irritation when used together, as they both exfoliate the skin. "The skin can’t handle all these ingredients at once and can get red and sensitised with an itchy rash effect," adds Dr Benito. This could then result in increased dryness, which often prompts people to use thicker, more cloying creams, making the issue worse.
Unless you have a skin condition, such as acne, eczema or rosacea, Dr Benito advises that your skincare routine doesn’t need to be intricate. In fact, just a handful of products and ingredients will do for most people with 'normal' to combination skin. Dr Benito recommends that your essentials should always consist of a gentle cleanser for daily use. Try Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser, £15, or the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, £9, both of which are suitable for all skin types, as well as naturally sensitive skin. 
In the morning, an antioxidant such as vitamin C will help protect against pollution and other environmental aggressors, contributing to brighter, clearer skin. Try The Ordinary’s Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12%, £8.90, or for an extra hydration boost, Mabel + Meg Lumilixir Serum, £29, which combines brightening vitamin C with hydrating hyaluronic acid.
One product that is non-negotiable is SPF, says Abi. Dermatologists recommend a daily SPF30 or higher, even in the winter, and suggest a teaspoon amount for the face. Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defence SPF 30, £29, is a great daily SPF that is loaded with antioxidants to protect against pollution as well as UV, and is non-toxic to marine life. Also try Anew Pollution Protect+ Day Defence Lotion SPF50, £18, which protects against pollution, UV and blue light.
In the evening, Dr Benito recommends a retinoid to rebuild collagen and promote cellular turnover, such as the Indeed Labs Retinol Reface Skin Resurfacer, £29. This is a great retinol for first-timers as it delivers quick results with minimum irritation. Also try The Ordinary Retinoid 2% in Emulsion, £8, or Allies of Skin 1A Retinal + Peptides Overnight Mask, £112, if you have more of a budget. Both make skin smooth and plump. Those with acne-prone skin will do well with a retinoid but may want to avoid any products that aren't labelled non-comedogenic, which means it is less likely to block pores.
To get your skin back to a happy medium in the first instance, though, Dr Benito recommends halting your skincare routine for a couple of days and then slowly introducing each product. Taking care of your skin doesn’t need to be complicated or incredibly expensive. Once you find a routine and products that work for you, try to avoid the temptation to throw something else into the mix. Your skin might not need it.

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