The Dermatologist's Guide To Treating Red, Blotchy Skin

Dealing with sensitive, redness-prone skin is not simple or straightforward. Half the things you're told are "safe for sensitive skin" aren't at all, and the more you touch your skin or load it up with products, the worse it gets — because if there's one thing reactive skin doesn't like, it's being bothered.
That said, if you struggle with perennial redness, there could be a few more specific causes at play, especially if you have fair skin (which is when it tends to be most noticeable, too). "Quite simply, when the skin is thinner, to the point of being almost translucent, any flushing or dilated blood vessels are just so much more visible, hence the redness," explains dermatologist Justine Kluk.
And then there's the not-so-farfetched possibility of rosacea: "Rosacea is very misunderstood as a condition, and it's very common," says Dr. Kluk. "If you google it, you're going to get graphic photos of people with extreme redness, rough and broken skin, that sort of thing — but there are much subtler, less pervasive forms of rosacea, and it's possible to have it without any textural changes to the skin." Rosacea can affect any part of the face, and it's a relapsing condition, which means you can go through extended periods of not being bothered by it before it strikes again.
As for potential triggers, the list is endless — and stress plays a big role in flare-ups. "Stress can make any condition worse, from eczema to acne," explains Dr. Kluk. "It lowers your skin's barrier function and means it's more easily irritated." Here's the thing: Stress to your skin is not necessarily synonymous with things going on at work or a recent breakup. It can simply be a lack of sleep, or keeping irregular hours. "Your body perceives these things as stress, so even if things are pretty okay [in your personal life], you could still physiologically be experiencing stress," says Dr. Kluk.
There's no one-and-done guaranteed solution, but Dr. Kluk suggests using a gentle, non-foaming cleanser to help replenish the skin's barrier function from the get-go. "A good creamy cleanser like Avène Extremely Gentle Cleanser Lotion would be ideal, with soft, high-quality cotton pads to wipe it off," she says. She also recommends SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Serum for everyday use to calm and regulate redness, and a gentle day cream like La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair to help protect your skin from daily aggressors.
It might also be worth looking at your routine and diet to see if you can identify any specific triggers: caffeine, spicy food, alcohol, or late nights, for example. Avoiding those things all the time is impractical, and it might be hard to pinpoint an exact cause, but knowledge truly is power. Cryotherapy-style treatments can also offer a quick fix; cold makes your blood vessels constrict, which helps with redness and puffiness. Anne Semonin's Express Radiance Ice Cubes are the gold standard of at-home options.
But even if your skin tends toward redness or blotchiness, remember that it's normal to experience unevenness. Take a random patch of skin from your arm or stomach or leg — it’s probably not uniform in tone, and has some dilated pores maybe, or blemishes, or other irregularities. Well, of course: It’s skin, and the milieu of follicles, sebaceous glands, dead skin, hair, pores, lines, scars, all of it, means it will never look FaceTune-smooth.
The rise of "no-makeup" makeup has made it ever more popular for brands and celebrities to push images they claim are unretouched, or have "minimal" makeup. It’s gotten to the point where we expect our complexions to have a level of uniformity that’s simply not natural. The same goes for our obsession with "glow" — we all want to be radiant without highlighter, and we’re told that if we can’t "glow" from our diets, the pills and powders we pop in the name of beauty, rigorous boutique exercise classes, and eight-hour, 1,000-thread-count sleep, we’re at fault. Skin is skin is skin. It’s not perfect, and that’s okay. May that reminder help set us all free — while still also using our anti-redness soothing serums, of course.

More from Skin Care

R29 Original Series