How to Deal With Red, Irritated Skin

Chapping, rawness, and stinging are the body’s ways of sending out an SOS. When skin becomes inflamed and irritated—from windburn, an allergen, even a new retinoid—it turns red because blood rushes to the site with oxygen and immune cells to fix the damage, says New York City dermatologist David Bank. We asked dermatologists to describe the symptoms that may show up and how to treat them.

By Jolene Edgar

IF YOU SEE: Raw, dry patches
YOU MAY HAVE: Sensitive skin aggravated by wind, sunburn, overwashing, anti-aging ingredients, or even stress
TREAT IT WITH: Apply a soothing moisturizer containing ceramides or the antioxidants feverfew or licorice extract. Then smooth a pea-size drop of 1 percent hydrocortisone cream over irritated areas twice a day for up to two weeks. The hydrocortisone “chases away inflammatory cells and constricts blood vessels to get the red out,” says Bank. (Using it for longer than two weeks can ratchet up redness by creating more blood vessels.) If there’s no improvement, see a dermatologist for a stronger cortisone or a prescription barrier-repair cream. You’ll also want to rethink your anti-aging routine if it involves a retinoid: Stop using the product until your skin heals completely to avoid even worse irritation, then ease back in, using it only every second or third night to start and putting it on over a thin layer of moisturizer to prevent skin from drying out.

IF YOU SEE: Redness and scaling in the creases of your nose, around the eyebrows, or behind the ears, often accompanied by a flaky scalp
YOU MAY HAVE: Seborrheic dermatitis (a.k.a. dandruff). “It means your skin cells are turning over too quickly, getting sticky, and not shedding as they should,” says Heidi Waldorf, the director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
TREAT IT WITH: Help loosen the flakes by washing the area once a day with a mild 0.5 percent salicylic acid cleanser. Follow this each time you wash with a gentle moisturizer. Finally, apply a 1 percent hydrocortisone cream twice a day. If that doesn’t work, try spreading a fungus-fighting cream, like over-the-counter Lotrimin, over the affected area. Do this part twice a day for three to five days. If you can’t get the dermatitis under control in a couple of weeks with these methods, contact your dermatologist.

IF YOU SEE: Itchy, pink splotches or rashlike blistered skin
YOU MAY HAVE: Contact dermatitis, which strikes after you touch something you’re allergic to. Common culprits include ingredients in fragrances, lanolin, parabens, the nickel in costume jewelry and metallic makeup, and formaldehyde resins in certain nail polishes and lip liners.
TREAT IT WITH: Start by applying a cold milk compress to the area for about ten minutes; the anti-inflammatory molecules in the dairy fat will help settle things down, says dermatologist Amy Wechsler. Then treat any remaining rash by gently dabbing a 1 percent hydrocortisone ointment on the area twice a day. Ointments are generally preservative-free and therefore less irritating than creams, says Joshua Zeichner, an assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. If your skin is blistered or open, you’ll also need to apply an antibiotic ointment, like Neosporin, twice a day to avoid infection. And before bed, take some Benadryl. “Oral Benadryl can quell any itching or swelling,” says dermatologist Jeannette Graf. To figure out what you’re reacting to and need to avoid, make an appointment with a dermatologist for patch testing.

(Photo: Getty Images)