Sweet Relief: What I Do To Soothe Irritated Skin
My skin is not sensitive, but it is prone to becoming seasonally sensitized (my own term for the red, rosacea-like blotchiness I battle come winter).
I regularly use retinoids and glycolic acid peel pads, which means I don't have many dead, dulling surface skin cells (a good thing). But all that sloughing also leaves my complexion vulnerable to environmental assaults, like frigid temperatures and blustery winds. After walking Rocco, our Miniature Schnauzer, in below-freezing air, I can look sunburned. Drinking red wine often has the same effect; I will literally feel the heat swimming over my cheeks with each sip .
But, because I’m not willing to give up my Retin-A (or my red wine), I've developed a strategy that keeps winter flares in check. First, however let's briefly discuss the why behind seasonal sensitivity: Simply stated, your skin's “barrier function” or BF for short, is malfunctioning. What’s a BF? The ability of your stratum corneum (a.k.a. the skin’s outer layer) to keep irritating particles out—and hold moisture in. Like a brick wall, the BF is usually pretty impenetrable…until a brick comes loose, or the mortar between the bricks breaks down, allowing moisture to seep out and irritants to sneak in. Common causes of a disrupted BF are (you guessed it) very cold or very hot, dry temperatures combined with too much exfoliation.
My solution is to first scale back on the exfoliating. As I wrote here, I am usually a two-to-three times-a-week retinoid user. I downshift to once a week when the flares start. Then, whenever I can, I slather a protective layer over my whole face so my BF can begin to repair itself. The best protection is an occlusive ointment, like Aquaphor or Bag Balm, available at any drugstore. I use them at night, on the ski slopes, if I am running outside or when I walk Rocco. They are thick and greasy-looking though, so not really appropriate for everyday use. When I have to be seen in public, I opt for a rich oil instead. It is not quite as protective as an ointment, but it shields better than most creams or lotions and it doesn't leave you looking like a frosted donut. Some of my favorites are here—or I will just roll Milk Sunshine Oil over my cheeks and forehead, where my skin is thinnest and most apt to become irritated. Think of the aforementioned products as a stand-in for your BF, keeping moisture in and the bad stuff out.
My second step is to help patch up the BF, in case my protective layer gets wiped off or grows thin, and for that you need products that contain lipids or ceramides, which are sticky substances that literally plug up the gaping holes. Fortunately, these formulas are easily absorbed so can be worn any time. Some I love: Bobbi Brown Extra Repair Moisturizing Balm with lipids—or First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Face Moisturizer (or if I am very irritated, the Cream Intense Hydration) with ceramides.
Finally, twice a week (or anytime blotches appear) I make time for a mask that soothes with chamomile or cucumber or shea butter. A few favorites: Mario Badescu Calma Mask and Yes to Cucumbers Soothing Sheet Mask. And sometimes, if I'm feeling lazy and don't want to have to apply then wait fifteen to twenty minutes to wash off, I will just slather on an extra-thick layer of Beauty Rx Soothing Cream and leave it on overnight.