Seeing Red

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When hypersensitive skin struck beauty editor Danielle Fox in her teens and evolved into rosacea in her late twenties, the effects ran more than just skin deep.

The timing was less than ideal. Mid-pitch to my then-editor, I could feel the familiar hot flush rising up my neck as I neurotically tried to pull my hair forward in an attempt to hide a welt that had appeared on my cheek. As my skin flared, my confidence ebbed and I began to frantically plan an exit strategy.

I have dermatographia, a chronic skin sensitivity, also known more poetically as ‘skin writing’. My immune system releases excessive amounts of histamine, causing capillaries to dilate and bumps to rise on the skin’s surface when lightly scratched, lasting around 30 minutes. It’s always been a part of me, but while my teenage years exacerbated it, in my twenties it became overwhelming. You would think my profession as a beauty journalist would have helped me, but far from it – I was in denial. I simply lived with it as opposed to addressing the problem. Despite all the products and skincare experts I had access to, I didn’t know how to tackle it, and it seemed no one else did, either.

It was a chance meeting with dermatologist Dr Rachael Eckel, who also has dermatographia, that changed all of that. I’m not a crier, but the day I met Dr Eckel and heard the words, “I want to help you, there is something you can do”, I couldn’t stop myself; the emotion was overpowering. And so started the battle with my high-maintenance skin. A battle that, though only five percent of the global population share it, is a familiar one.

Dermatographia is part of a wider family (including rosacea and contact dermatitis), which, according to a recent report by Mintel, is on the increase, with sales of sensitive skincare products now estimated to be worth more than $202million globally.

“Up to 50 percent of my patients have some form of sensitive skin,” says Leslie Baumann (derm.net), dermatologist and Professor of Dermatology at The University of Miami. “Rosacea affects at least 15million Americans and our exposure to allergens has never been greater.”

Discouraging statistics, yes, but while a cure for skin sensitivity is yet to be discovered, innovative products and regimes that can ease reactions are paving the way forward to skin salvation.  

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Know what’s in your skincare

“We still don’t understand why some people have a tendency to feel a sting from certain skincare ingredients,” says Baumann. “It’s believed to be down to the different nerve receptors in the dermis.” As a rule, look for moisture-catching ceramides or glycerin in your product ingredients, and avoid sodium laurel sulfate, which can aggravate. Sensitive skin often lacks moisture, so opt for a non-comedogenic moisturizer (one that doesn’t clog pores), such as This Works In Transit Spray-On Moisture.

“For more results-driven treatment, I would suggest seeing a dermatologist to get the correct diagnosis,” advises Baumann. “When treating acne, which is often a by-product of rosacea, you need topical antibacterial like silver or benzoyl peroxide, retinoids such as retinol, and pore-cleaning salicylic acid. Anti-inflammatory ingredients such as licorice extract or argan oil will also ease ruddiness.”

Try Oxygenetix Oxygenating Foundation Acne Control, which releases even doses of salicylic acid into the skin throughout the day, ridding the face of dead skin surface cells while covering and calming redness, and protecting your complexion.

Basic instincts

The surge in hypersensitivity has also prompted makeup brands to create more intelligent bases. “Most corrective formulas embellish redness as opposed to masking it,” says Creative Director of Armani Beauty, Linda Cantello. “I’m currently developing a base that covers and corrects with my laboratory team.” When selecting your base, use a yellow or green-tinted formula like Clinique Redness Solutions Daily Protective Base SPF15 to combat redness and even out skin tone, plus UVA/UVB protection to shield skin from harmful sun exposure.

Solutions to swallow

Acne and redness can be symptoms of a ‘leaky gut’ – when larger-than-usual proteins get through the intestinal wall into the blood stream. To protect the gut lining, try taking the amino acid L-Glutamine, such as Solgar L-Glutamine tablets (solgar.com). A probiotic supplement can also help: a recent study* conducted by L’Oréal Research and Innovation reported that taking an oral probiotic for two months had a beneficial effect on reactive skin. Natural health and nutrition expert Shabir Daya recommends Viridian Clear Skin Complex. “It contains a blend of probiotics to enhance digestion, selenium to reduce inflammation and burdock to remove toxins,” he says. “It also has gotu kola, a herb that encourages micro-circulation and aids the removal of compounds that cause skin sensitivities.”

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Your face is what you eat

An anti-inflammatory diet rich in fruit and vegetables, lean protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats will help you maintain clearer skin. “Complex carbs from vegetables are more beneficial than those found in grains, because your body handles their digestion differently,” says Daya. Insulin increases the production of sebum leading to acne and sensitivity, so get your carbohydrate intake from vegetables rather than grains, which raise insulin levels.

Change your mindset

“Studies have shown a strong link between emotional well-being – stress, depression and anxiety – and sensitive skin,” says Dr Eckel. “It can have a direct physiological effect, which causes skin to become more reactive.” While cosmetic interventions can have a positive effect, changing your way of thinking is intrinsic to feeling comfortable within your skin.

“Embrace what makes you unique,” says US artist Ariana Page Russell (arianapagerussell.com), who uses her sensitive skin to create images that explore the body as a document of experience, currently on display at Brooklyn’s The Magnan Metz Gallery. “I used to be embarrassed by my dermatographia,” she says. “I started doodling on my skin, taking pictures of it, and then my [college] professors encouraged me to exhibit. Now, ten years later, I’ve turned what I thought was a hindrance into what defines me as a successful artist.”

As for me? Well, I’ll always be on a quest to find a ‘cure’, be it a product, pill or an oversized Marc Jacobs rollneck. I recently attempted a course of topical retinoic acid, which led to an emergency FaceTime call with a dermatologist due to the amount of skin I was shedding and the pain I was in (I managed seven out of the 18-week course – I applaud anyone who completes it), and I’ve popped so many antihistamines that operating a Clarisonic Cleansing Brush, let alone heavy machinery, is problematic. But treatments aside, I’ve realized that my hypersensitivity is a part of me, it always will be, and that’s what makes meme. There will be days when I struggle within my skin, but I follow this mantra someone once told me: “If you are proud of your skin and think it’s cool, so will other people”. For that, I thank you, dermatographia.

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Sensitive-skin saviors

Ultra-gentle formulas to cleanse, nourish and protect

Estelle & Thild Bio Calm Extra Nourishing Night Cream: Oat extract, black elderflower and apricot oil will calm even the most sensitive skin.

RMS BEAUTY Raw Coconut Cream: A richly whipped cream that cocoons inflamed skin while treating it with antibacterial properties.  

Aurelia PROBIOTIC Skincare Revitalise & Glow Serum: Probiotics can help to ease stress- and environment-caused inflammation.  

Try The Ultimate Deep Cleanse: Soothing coconut oil, calming castor oil and healing herbal extracts give irritable skin instant relief.

Soveral Volcano Ash Purifying Mask: A blend of palmarosa to regulate oil production and peppermint for its antiseptic qualities.

*Beneficial Microbes July 23 2013