They say your skin can take on a personality of its own. Boy, that's true for me. My complexion's character could be compared to that of a 13-year-old: moody, unpredictable and decidedly sensitive.
Turns out, I'm not alone. "Only 30 percent of people in the 1980s said they had sensitive skin. Now that number has grown to 70 percent," says Jessica Wu, MD, a dermatologist in Los Angeles and author of Feed Your Face.
While there's no official definition for a sensitive complexion, most derms agree that the term refers to four main issues: breakouts, redness, rashes and extreme dryness. But you don't fill the bill just because you've had symptoms once. "Sensitive skin means you're frequently irritated by many common ingredients," says Neal Schultz, MD, a dermatologist in New York City and founder of Dermtv.com. Sound like you? Try these no-fuss strategies for calming your complexion.
If you have…Redness
What you see: Blood vessels, bumps, enlarged oil glands and thick skin on the nose, cheeks and chin. These symptoms are often a sign of rosacea, a condition that affects more than 16 million Americans. Those with rosacea flush easily, thanks to facial blood vessels that become dilated, says Leslie Baumann, MD, a dermatologist in Miami and author of The Skin Type Solution.
Prevent it: Look for soap-free products with anti-inflammatory ingredients, like oatmeal, feverfew and algae. Try feverfew-fueled Aveeno Ultra-Calming foaming cleanser ($7; at mass retailers) followed by algae-infused First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Liquid Recovery ($38; sephora.com). Avoid rough facials and spa treatments, such as chemical peels and microdermabrasion, as well as acidic skin-care products like glycolic acid and vitamin C. When it comes to food, skip spicy dishes, but pile your plate with omega-3 fatty acids: Research shows they help fight redness and irritation, notes Dr. Baumann. Flaxseed and salmon are two smart sources.
Treat a flare-up: For a step beyond your gentle cleansing and moisturizing, go with treatments that ease inflammation. One potent depuffer: green tea. Find it in Paula's Choice Clinical Instant Calm Advanced Redness Relief ($18; paulaschoice.com). For more stubborn or persistent rosacea, talk to your derm about prescription options, such as metronidazole (an antibiotic) or sulfacetamide (an inflammation fighter).
If you have…Breakouts
What you see: Acneand you're not a teen. Pimples can pop up for a number of reasons, including stress, lack of sleep, overactive oil glands and exposure to occlusive productsbut sensitive-skin types are particularly susceptible because their complexion is prone to inflammation.
Prevent them: Be a detective and note products or situations that bring on pimples. If you break out after wearing a specific type of makeup, say, stop using it (obviously) and pay attention to any ingredients that could be to blame. Wash with a mild cleanser, such as L'Oréal Paris Ideal Clean foaming gel cleanser ($5; at mass retailers). Then spot-treat with a gentle treatment, like Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing gel ($25; clinique.com), which couples sea whip extract, a soothing redness reducer, with the standard zit zapper salicylic acid. Not only does salicylic acid have an anti-inflammatory effect while helping to unplug clogged pores, it's also less irritating than benzoyl peroxide, which can be too harsh for sensitive skin. Once you've found products you trust, stick with them. And take a peek at your dinner plate, too: "Eating a lot of iodine, found in spinach and shellfish, can cause acne by clogging hair follicles," says Dr. Schultz.
Treat a flare-up: When you have fussy skin, it's important to proceed with caution. "Overtreating pimples can make them worse," says Karen Kim, MD, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Two or three times a week, use a treatment with sulfur, which draws oil out of blocked pores and inhibits breakouts. Find it in Proactiv+ Skin Purifying mask ($12; discoverproactiv.com).
If you have… Allergic eruptions
What you see: Stinging and splotching and burning, oh my! This type of reaction is almost always an immune-system response to something that doesn't agree with you, says Dr. Schultz. Itchy rashes are often caused by genetic abnormalities in your skin's barrier function, according to studies at the University of Vienna and the University of California, San Francisco. (Skin barrier function is how well your skin is protected from the environmentthink of it as your skin's raincoat.) In other words, if your dad developed rashes on a dime, you might, too. These reactions seem to be on the rise, and derms have a hypothesis: "There are more products with more chemical ingredients that are potential irritants," explains Dr. Kim.
Prevent them: Your new skin-care motto: "'Less is more,'" says Dr. Kim. "The fewer products and ingredients you use, the less chance of irritation." Steer clear of common irritants like fragrance and propylene glycol (a humectant that helps skin absorb active ingredients), and wait 15 minutes after washing your face before applying creams, since ingredients penetrate damp skin faster, says Dr. Wu. Try this one-two punch: Cetaphil Gentle Skin cleansing cloths ($6; at mass retailers) followed by Simple Ultra-Light gel moisturizer ($11; at mass retailers). Also limit sugary foodsthey've been linked to inflammationand toss more zinc-rich items in your grocery cart: Oysters, grass-fed beef, beans, cashews and fortified cereal are all full of the naturally anti-inflammatory mineral, says Dr. Wu.
Treat a flare-up: To immediately ease the itch and calm redness, Dr. Schultz suggests homemade milk compresses: Soak a cloth in equal parts warm water and milk, then place on irritated areas. "After that, start with simple things like aloe or even over-the-counter cortisone to reduce inflammation," he says. Try hydrocortisone-packed Glo Therapeutics Remedy gel ($21; gloprofessional.com).
If you have… Ultra-dry patches
What you see: In dehydrated skin, the cells can start to lift, causing skin to peel, explains Dr. Kim. The most likely cause is an irritant in a productor damaged skin.
Prevent them: If you wash your skin twice a day, consider doing so just at night. "The best thing is to stick to one regimen," says Dr. Kim. "Keep it simple, and avoid irritants: No toner, astringent or products that contain alcohol." Try sulfate-free Dove DermaSeries Ultra Caring Gentle cream face cleanser ($16; dove.com for information) and Yes to Carrots Intense Hydration night cream ($13; yestocarrots.com).
Treat a flare-up: Start with the gentle soap-free cleanser, and don't try to scrub away flakes: Harsh exfoliants can worsen the problem. Then opt for a super hydrating cream. "Look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, which hold in moisture," says Dr. Wu. Shea butter is another hydrator. Find it in Boots No7 Dry Skin Rescue ($15; target.com). And be generous, advises Dr. Kim: "I tell my patients with this type of dryness to apply emollients two to three times a day."
4 more ways to baby your sensitive skin
1. Spot key terms
Two to look out for: "Hypoallergenic" (it means the ingredients typically cause fewer allergies and less irritation than others) and "fragrance-free" (it tells you there's no added scent).
2. Mind your makeup
Certain cosmetics are kinder to your skin: Powders, pencils and silicone-based foundations are often free of irritants. When in doubt, go for black: Ebony mascara and eyeliner tend to be the least allergenic.
3. Lose scented laundry detergent
Many people are allergic to perfumes in detergents, notes Dr. Kim. Choose soaps labeled fragrance-free.
4. Diminish dairy
Sensitive skin is inflamed, so avoid inflammatory foods, like dairy, which can be hidden in whey protein," says Dr. Wu. Research has linked dairy to acne, tooanother reason to lighten your milk intake.