The Autumn Guide to Sensitive Skin
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Ok so autumn may actually be my favourite season. And that’s partly because the beginning of an (almost) global hibernation process handily coincides with my own hobbies of a. spending as much time as possible under a duvet/blanket/any other sort of snuggly throw-type affair, and b. consuming above average amounts of hot chocolate. But it’s also because this is the time I can start to whack out the fairly heavy-duty skincare (like all those creamy face masks) after a summer spent sweating off almost anything that touches my skin.
But all that merriment does have a downside though: while autumn may be a time for all the snuggliness and fetivities, it’s also a time when my skin tends to go a little haywire for a couple of weeks.
Because even skin that’s normally oily or acne-prone can suddenly become sensitive in autumn (oh the fun). And that’s for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the often large drop in air humidity between summer and autumn can have a knock-on effect on the hydration levels of skin cells, leaving skin dehydrated (think more exaggerated fine lines, and a dull or slightly crinkly appearance).
Secondly, the colder weather outside combined with an increased use of heating inside can disrupt the skin’s natural moisture barrier (or lipid layer or stratum corneum, as it’s also known). This is basically the part of skin that really helps to keep the good stuff (mainly water) in, and the bad stuff (like external aggressors) out, so when it’s compromised it can lead to more yet hydration loss, inflammation, and increased redness.
And all this adds up to a couple of weeks every year when my skin stresses itself out trying to adapt to the environmental changes. And the result (for me personally) is increased redness, a tendency towards under-the-skin bumps that look a bit like spots but definitely aren’t (especially on my cheeks), and an overall dry, slightly flaky appearance… Attractive I know.
So if you’re anything like me and your skin is currently one uncomfortable hot mess, here are 15 of the simplest ways I reduce the flakiness/redness I invariably get every year, and get skin back on track in days rather than months.
1. Switch up Your Cleanser
While sensitive skin still needs to be cleansed, it definitely does not need to be stripped of its natural oils any more than the weather is already doing. Instead this is when I pull out my absolute gentlest (yet still ridiculously effective) cleansers, like The Inkey Lists’s Oat Cleansing Balm**. Oilier or acne skin types can still go gentle yet effective with something like Dr Sam’s Flawless Cleanser.
I’m also a big fan of Fresh’s Soy Face Cleanser for gentle everyday cleansing for every skin type in between.
2. Change Moisturisers
Moisturisers are pretty much my greatest ally when it comes to change of season skin- both for topping up water levels in skin cells and for really supporting my skin’s natural barrier. For a rundown of my 10 absolute favourite moisturisers for autumn (all of which have revived my sensitive skin multiple times over the years), take a look at this list here.
3. Go Fragrance-Free
This includes both in your skincare and in your makeup, as well as both artificial fragrance (often listed as parfum on the ingredients’ label), and natural ones like essential oils. Because while some skin types may be able to tolerate a bit of fragrance sensitive ones often find it worsens irritation and redness.
If most of your product contain fragrance though- and to avoid buying a whole new routine- just try to leave out any that aren’t completely vital while skin is at its most sensitive and reintroduce them later. Or for an affordable way to add in some fragrance-free products for a short period, look to brands like The Inkey List and The Ordinary, where you can pick up moisturisers, serums and cleansers from just over a fiver.
4. Switch Exfoliants
That means not just your physical ones (think gritty scrubs), but your chemical ones too (I’m looking at you glycolic acid). And don’t worry if you’re an exfoliation addict, this isn’t for the long-haul- just for the couple of weeks while skin is most sensitive adjusting to the change in weather.
So instead of physical scrubs, try using a damp wash cloth (like these soft ones from Amazon*) to remove your cleanser every day. This still helps to remove dead skin cells but is pretty gentle on sensitive skin if you’re using a soft enough cloth.
Meanwhile, chemical exfoliants are possibly best avoided for a week or two while skin’s natural moisture barrier is a little iffy. But if you are going down the chemical route, at least try to stick to the mildest of Alpha Hydroxy Acids (like this lactic acid from The Inkey List), or even switch to (the slightly less sensitising) Poly Hydroxy Acids (like The Inkey List’s PHA Toner).
Equally if you’re hesitant to give up the chemical exfoliants just yet, you can try to prevent some sensitivity by keeping to ones in formulas that wash off the skin- like cleansers- rather than those get to work over several hours, like serums or moisturisers.
And the same goes for your other actives, like retinols. While skin is particularly sensitive, either decrease use to once or twice a week, or try to instead switch over to formulas that don’t actually sit on the skin for all that long (think using toners rather than moisurisers or serums). But if skin is broken, or very itchy, red or dry, just skip the actives entirely until the skin’s barrier has repaired.
5. Get Some Sleep
I genuinely never cease to be amazed my how many issues a good night’s sleep helps to resolve. And among those (remarkably) is its ability to increase skin barrier function by up to a whopping 30 per cent (yes, really), according to this study. Yet another excuse to go full snuggly nights in this autumn (as if I needed one).
6. Watch Ingredients’ Lists
Since my sensitive skin can react pretty easily to almost anything I put near it, this is the time when I’m most vigilant of any of the other most common irritants that can sometimes find their way into my skincare. This includes the obvious ones like drying alcohols (look for ingredients like ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, alcohol denat.), as well as any essential-oil derived common irritants like geraniol, limonene and limanool. Although I’m normally fairly careful I still occasionally get caught out by products I assume will be pretty gentle (I’ll never get over my surprise that Farmacy’s Honey Drop contains alcohol denat. as its fifth ingredient), so now’s the time I’m hawk-like about reading ingredients’ lists.
7. Avoid Hot Water
Pretty much my favourite thing on earth to do, lounging around in the bath for half an hour or so may feel hugely comforting but if the water is too hot it can strip skin of the oils present in its protective barrier, allowing moisture loss and other damage. The heat can also exacerbate other issues like broken thread veins, melasma (yes, for some reason pretty much anything can worsen melasma, including heat), and rosacea.
Even very hot showers can have the same effect (annoyingly), as can the water you wash your face with. So instead of going for full at-home steam room this autumn, try to keep water temperatures on the slightly cooler side.
8. Moisturise Damp Skin
Think of skin like a sponge; it absorbs better when damp. This is true for products like serums, moisturisers, oils, face masks and eye creams. Be careful not to apply some actives (think retinols, AHAs, or medicated formulas) to damp skin though, since this can cause irritation. For a fuller guide on what you should and shouldn’t apply to damp skin, take a look here.
9. Use Lip Balm
Soothing, moisturising (and sometimes pretty luxe feeling), lip balms are often about as emollient as it gets, mainly because our lips lack any oil glands to keep themselves moisturised (something of a design flaw I think, but anyway). At the same time our lips are definitely affected by the same environmental changes that disrupt the rest of our skin during autumn, so up the lip balm usage (especially if you’re using retinols near the mouth).
Some balms can eventually leave skin drier than it was before (often thanks to a lack of occlusive ingredients to seal moisture in, as well as the presence of potential irritants like essential oils), so I instead stick to some of the least glamorous formulas, but the ones that contain the most proven skin-softening, non-irritating ingredients like lanolin and glycerin (hello Frank Body’s Lip Balm).
10. Dab, Don’t Rub
Post-face washing (and especially when you’re already running late) it’s tempting to towel dry skin in a hurry. But any rubbing can cause irritation by disrupting the skin barrier, so instead try to take the extra few seconds to pat it dry with a soft towel (quite a nice excuse to invest in some yummy high thread count towels this season).
PS, this also applies to drying your body post-shower too (because why should our faces get all the attention?).
11. Stick to Soothing, Hydrating Ingredients
As well as actively leaving out the ingredients that can potentially irritate skin (alcohol, fragrance etc), this is when I also like to add in some really soothing ones. Among my favourites (even for eczema and very dry types) are ones that have anti-inflammatory properties like oat, as well as ones which are proven to increase skin hydration levels quickly like aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, glycerin and centella asiatica.
12. Switch up Your Heating
If you have air conditioning or central heating it can be tempting to whack it up to the max when the cold weather hits- but this can really disrupt and dry out skin (especially since they sucks so much water out of the air).
Instead, either lower the heating and adopt the permanent cable knit jumper look (pretty much universally flattering and you’ll also feel like a character in a countryside-based romantic comedy), or at least reintroduce some moisture back into the air with a won’t-break-the-bank humidifier*.
13. Keep up the SPF
Although the sun may not be shining quite as much as during the previous months, those pesky UV rays are still there living their best life contributing to skin damage (whoop whoop!). And since sun damage can also contribute to skin dryness, now really isn’t the time to lay off the protection. Anything factor 30 and above is just groovy.
14. Go Mineral
Since sensitive skin can react fairly easily to various common skincare ingredients, including the oxybenzone and octinoxate common in many SPFs, consider going for a mineral formula instead (especially if you have rosacea, melasma, or any other chronic skin sensitivity).
Mineral SPFs can be ridiculously hard to actually use daily without scaring small children though (thanks to their often hard-to-rub-in opaque white pigment), so either do like me and mix in some Drunk Elephant D Bronzi Anti-Pollution Sunshine Drops, or stick to a tinted formula (I haven’t tried it yet but Ilia’s Super Serum Skin Tint contains factor 40 protection and is available in a range of 18 shades).
15. Choose Masks Carefully
And finally, like pretty much everyone else on earth (I assume?), I love a face mask. Relaxing, luxe-feeling, and sometimes surprisingly effective, masks are also just plain fun to use.
But because they’re meant to feel good, they’re also a place where potential irritants like fragrance can hang out, so stick to the most soothing types with ingredients like glycerin. Equally, the way you use them counts too- and formulas like clay masks should never be allowed to fully dry on the skin since this can cause dryness (and also just be a nightmare to remove, increasing skin irritation).