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15 skincare changes to look after sensitive skin in autumn

The Ultimate Autumn Guide to Soothing Sensitive Skin

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Main Image – Live That Glow

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 festivities, 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 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 the 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 yet more hydration loss, inflammation, and increased redness.

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.  And for a full list of specific essentials, take a look at our Autumn skincare guide.

And if that’s not enough, I’ve also interviewed skincare experts to get their insights into how to take care of skin come the change of the seasons…



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.

Wellness expert Kiana Reeves advises, “Seek out a gentle cleanser that works with your skin type and doesn’t contain any harmful ingredients; I also love the double cleanse method, where you first remove makeup with a balm, and then use a water or gel-based cleanser to penetrate deeper.”

Skincare brand founder David Yu adds, “You want to look out for ingredients that may cause irritations, like PEG, parabens, alcohol, and fragrance free.”

Instead, this is when I pull out my absolute gentlest (yet still ridiculously effective) cleansers, like The Inkey Lists’ 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. 

Reeves adds, “Avoid parabens, fragrance, and phthalates – alcohol can also be a harsh ingredient for some people’s skin; and be careful not to double up on active ingredients (eg. if your serum and cleanser all contain the same acid, it can be too much for sensitive skin).”

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.


Image – Pixabay


Healthline backs this up, saying “Fragrance can be the most harmful part of a beauty product” as it “often contains chemicals that can cause an allergic reaction.”

Yu affirms this, saying, “Although some skins are okay with fragrance, I usually opt for fragrance-free to minimize the risk of irritations.”

Aesthetic injector Melanie Speed warns, “People with sensitive skin, allergies, eczema, or other skin conditions should steer clear of fragranced skincare products, as fragrances can irritate the skin, weaken the protective barrier, and worsen existing skin issues.”

If most of your products 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 a couple of weeks while the 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 the 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 that get to work over several hours, like serums or moisturisers.

And the same goes for your other actives, like retinol.  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 moisturisers or serums).  But if the skin is broken, or very itchy, red or dry, just skip the actives entirely until the skin’s barrier has repaired.

Reeves affirms, “There are both chemical and physical exfoliants, and chemical exfoliants can be the gentler option for those with sensitive skin; be extra gentle and careful as you apply them, using soft sweeping motions rather than a scrubbing action – the skin on the face is super delicate.”

“While exfoliants are great, they can cause some irritation for sensitive skin; look for gentle exfoliants like AHA and BHA to minimize the risk,” agrees Yu.


5. Get Some Sleep

I genuinely never cease to be amazed by 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

Reeves agrees, adding, “Getting plenty of restorative sleep is imperative for so many aspects of overall health, skin being one of them – studies have shown that those who get more sleep tend to exhibit more hydrated-looking, vibrant skin texture and tone.” Yet another excuse to go full snuggly nights in this autumn (as if I needed one).

And if you want to increase your sleep’s skincare benefits, Speed recommends: “Cotton pillowcases absorb moisture from the skin, potentially causing dryness for those with sensitive skin; consider choosing a silk pillowcase as a gentler alternative.”


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.


Image – Pixabay


Reeves says, “I always advise seeking out gentle, natural ingredients (whether you have sensitive skin or not!) – generally, this means products with ingredients that come from plants, avoiding anything super harsh or astringent, and avoiding phthalates, sulfates, and parabens, as well as fragrance.”


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.

“Washing your face while in the shower is generally a no-no if you love your showers hot; the super hot water tends to be too hot to wash our delicate face skin in – wait til you’re out of the shower and use cool or lukewarm water instead, if you can (generally, the colder you can tolerate, the better!)” agrees Reeves.

Yu adds, “Though hot water feels amazing, it often strips away our natural oils which leads to dry skin; opting for more lukewarm will help mitigate the risk.”

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. “Always try to moisturise your skin (body and face) while it’s still damp – this will help lock in moisture and keep your skin hydrated all day long,” Reeves affirms.


Image – Pexels


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).

Reeves continues, “Lip balms are a great option for those with sensitive, dry, or chapped lips – just make sure it’s natural and free of fragrances; typically lip balms made with a base of a base of shea butter or coconut oil enriched with vitamin E are a safe bet, and bonus points if you also grab something with SPF!”

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).


Image – Unsplash


“Always try to avoid rubbing, picking, or peeling skin; whether you have sensitive skin or not, skin is delicate and oftentimes the best bet (in addition to keeping skin moisturized) is a less-is-more approach – try not to overdo it on your skincare routine, go crazy with exfoliating, or use any harsh mitts or peels, especially if your skin is feeling extra sensitive,” advises Reeves.

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 the 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.

Reeves also draws attention to her top ingredients for sensitive skin, saying, “Some of my favourites are jojoba oil, rosehip oil, coconut oil, kava, cacao, and calendula, but there are so many more – find what works for your body and what it responds well to.”


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 suck 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.

Yu offers, “Extreme temps can increase your sensitivity, so it’s important to try and maintain a relatively comfortable environment with adequate humidity.”


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.


Image – Pexels


Reeves confirms, ” Daily SPF is a must – if there is one thing you add to your daily routine or get better at keeping up with, it would be this; using SPF daily is widely proven to help boost skin’s appearance and longevity, while fighting off free radicals in our environment (and don’t worry, you’ll still be absorbing plenty of vitamin D if you spend time outside).”


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 are normally better for sensitive skin as opposed to chemical sunscreen,” confirms Yu.

My favourites are Ren’s Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30, The Inkey List’s SPF 30 Daily Sunscreen, and Paula’s Choice Defence Essential Glow Moisturizer SPF 30.

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).

Reeves agrees, adding, “Masks can be a fun treat now and then (and can provide some momentary relaxation and relief) but make sure you’re also keeping up with your day-to-day skincare routine, too – and if masks aren’t your fave, there’s no reason to go out of your way to add them.”


Meet the experts

Kiana Reeves is a certified health and wellness expert


David Yu is a co-founder at Prossence.


Melanie Speed is the Founder and Aesthetic Injector at Flawless Med Spa.


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Sally Underwood is a journalist, *serious* beauty fan, and Editor-in-Chief of Live That Glow. Formerly Editorial Director of one of Europe's largest newspaper groups, Sally has been a beauty obsessive since her teen years spent dragging her long-suffering (but immaculately-groomed) friends around every beauty counter in London. She now leads Live That Glow's editorial operations.

Expertise: Skincare, Body care
Education: University College London

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