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It’s common these days to hear people say their skin is sensitive or allergic. You can even make a case that “sensitive” is the new normal.
But according to Dr Low Chai Ling, medical director of aesthetic clinic SW1 Clinic, these terms are often wrongly conflated.
“They have slightly different meanings. ‘Allergic’ does not describe a skin type. You can be allergic to a particular substance like paracetamol. Some patients have normal skin but are allergic to one ingredient alone, say glycolic acid.”
“On the other hand, ‘sensitive’ describes skin’s overall predisposition. If you have sensitive skin, you may be more prone to redness or other signs of irritation than the normal population,” she says.
There can be overlaps: You can have sensitive skin and be prone to allergies, or have several skin allergies that cause skin to be more sensitive, adds Dr Low.
Dr Ker Khor Jia, a consultant dermatologist at Dermatology & Co, says your skin is considered prone to allergies if it reacts to allergens. Common ones: air pollution, dust, sweat, fragrance, preservatives and chemicals like methylisothiazolinone, commonly found in soaps and shampoos.
“It can result in rashes, an itch or even blisters if the reaction is intense,” she adds.
What can you do about allergies? There’s no way to cure one. If you know what the allergen is, the best way to avoid having a reaction is to steer completely clear of it. Your GP or dermatologist can also prescribe antihistamines or topical steroid creams to calm flare-ups and reduce itching.
You can also manage the condition by using intensely soothing skincare with anti-inflammation properties. They can’t make the allergy go away, but they can help reduce redness, itching and discomfort.
“Choose fragrance- free products. Opt for a gentle, soap-free cleanser. Your face moisturiser should preferably contain ceramides – proteins that help repair the skin and reduce its sensitivity over time,” says Dr Ker. Products with short ingredient lists are also good picks, as they tend not to contain common skin allergens.
Sensitive vs sensitised skin - what's the difference?
Sensitive skin is in-born, meaning you have genetic traits like thinner skin or less pigment.
Sensitised skin is temporary and usually caused by lifestyle habits like lack of sleep and stress, or environmental factors such as temperature changes. Both conditions can be managed the same way ± with calming, moisturising skincare that strengthens the skin's barrier function.
This story was first published on Her World's January 2020 issue.