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A woman enters your retail space and asks if you have products for sensitive skin. The question is a reasonable one—her skin feels prickly, itchy, tight, dry in patches and may even bristle with red blotches.
The term “sensitive” is one that has been in the consumer vocabulary for decades, yet it’s generally used incorrectly and is misunderstood as the basis for both professional treatment and product selection. When clients say that they have sensitive skin, this declaration is your cue not only to treat and recommend products, but also to educate.
According to Diana Howard, PhD, vice president of global education for The International Dermal Institute, “Sensitized skin is a reflection of a client’s environment, lifestyle and physiology. Pollution, stress, hormones, cosmetics, climate, alcohol, diet, medical procedures and other factors can all lead to sensitized skin, which is defined as skin that displays a more reactive response to substances that are tolerated by the general population. It is now known that this condition is the result of three key factors: a compromised lipid barrier layer, traditional immune activity and the newly discovered neurogenic response in the skin, which is a newer area of research studying the effect of the nervous system, and its relationship to inflammation and sensitive skin. Although all of these factors contribute to sensitized skin, each must be addressed individually to control this condition; otherwise, continued exposure to the stressor can result in inflammation that can lead to more serious skin disorders and premature aging.”
For years, the term “sensitive” has been used by skin care product manufacturers as shorthand for skin that is highly reactive and displays allergic responses to common ingredients. These manufacturers identify sensitive—as well as dry, oily and combination—as a skin types. This approach has contributed greatly to the current misinformation and confusion about the subject. The real downside is that often, a client’s skin is not correctly treated, so problems persist and sometimes worsen as a result.
“Skin type” is a simplistic term that persists in the language of manufacturers, and it serves as convenient for marketing purposes. Skin type is inherited from parents, similar to blue eyes or curly red hair. It’s genetically coded. More often than not, however, skin conditions are what cause trouble, and they are mutable, changing, and the result of interaction with outside forces, as opposed to what’s simply in a person’s DNA.