Hi there, you may know me as SELF’s beauty editor — and, maybe, as someone who has sensitive skin. I also have rosacea, tons of weird food allergies, and am just generally wary of Cool New Things and the concept of Having Fun. But, as a beauty editor and beauty enthusiast, I have both professional and personal motivations to test new products out and play around with them.
So, how do I make it work without walking around with red, flaky skin all the time? For me, it’s a combination of an overall cautious approach to new things combined with a backbone of a gentle, basic skin-care routine made up of products I can count on.
Here’s exactly how that works for me:
1. I patch test anything new before putting it on my face.
One of the most important things you can do for yourself if you have sensitive skin is actually take the time and effort to patch test your new products. It makes me feel lame and delays the experience of getting to use a fun new serum, but it’s always worth it to have that extra layer of confidence when I do get to put the product on my face.
You can get a patch test done professionally in a dermatologist’s office, and if you’ve never had one before, that’s probably the best thing to do. But if you’re a little more experienced with your sensitive skin, you can do a casual home patch test by applying a small amount of the product to your inner arm and wait 24-48 hours to see what happens.
If you’re worried about allergic reactions or irritation due to rosacea, your inner arm is a pretty good (but not perfect!) measure of what to expect on your face. If you’re patch testing for breakouts, though, you’re better off putting a small amount of product behind your ear or along your jawline.
Depending on your skin situation and your triggers, you may be able to adjust that a little bit. For instance, I know that gentle moisturisers without too many botanical ingredients or essential oils are usually going to be fine for my skin, so I might just do a patch test overnight for a few hours or skip it altogether. But when it comes to serums — especially those with floral ingredients — I know I need to give it at least a full day on my skin before applying it to my face.
2. I don’t tempt fate with products I know won’t work for me.
At this point, as I said, I know generally what does and doesn’t work for my skin type and skin issues. I know that toners and chemical exfoliants—even those that claim to be “gentle” or “for all skin types”—are more likely to cause problems on my skin, especially at high concentrations.
Do I want to try a fancy-looking serum with 7 percent glycolic acid, 10 percent lactic acid, and like a million percent of every other acid out there? Yes, of course I want to try it! But I know it’s just not going to be good for me, so like an adult, I exercise a little restraint.
Likewise, I know my rosacea triggers and sensitivities and do my best to avoid them, even if it breaks my heart. Like, for some reason nearly every skin-care product out there seems to have rose in it, but I’m sensitive rose and have to pass on those.
3. If something doesn’t work, I don’t force it.
If a new skin-care product is causing irritation, it might not be for me. A little bit of stinging or redness is expected at first with some products, and I can usually tell that’s going to happen from a patch test. In that case, I might try to use it another one or two times to see if the irritation lessens. If not, I have to give it up.
But if the product is causing a more serious reaction, like it’s causing burning, itching, or so much redness that it looks like my face is swelling at all that’s a huge no-no. I wash the product off with cold water immediately, maybe use a cold compress, and, when the reaction starts to subside, I put on a gentle moisturiser with as few ingredients as possible. Depending on how serious the reaction is, I may be able to go back to my normal skin-care routine the next day. (Pro tip: Always use stuff for the first time at night in case you do have a reaction.)
If it’s not healing, though, I may have to stick to a super simple routine for a few days. That includes a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen during the day. At night I might use a thicker moisturizer or even something with centella asiatica or aloe in it to calm things down.
4. I stick to a consistent, gentle skincare routine — and just test one new product at a time.
By far the most important thing for me is sticking like hell to a simple, gentle routine that I know works for me. Then when it comes time to add a new product, I know exactly which one is most likely to be the issue and I can adjust to that or cut it out entirely.
For me, that includes micellar water to remove my makeup (Simple Micellar Cleansing Water, £3.29), a gentle cleanser I can use in the morning and at night (SkinCeuticals Gentle Cleanser, £31), my trusty azelaic acid to quell my rosacea (The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%, £5.50), a moisturiser with sunscreen in the morning (Paula’s Choice Essential Glow Moisturizer SPF 30, £30), and non-irritating, super hydrating moisturiser at night (First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream, £10).
But if I’m in the middle of a reaction, I usually skip the azelaic acid and swap in a product with calming ingredients, like centella asiatica (Dr. Jart Cicapair Tiger Grass Cream, £36, or La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5, £5.60) or aloe (Holika Holika Soothing Aloe Gel, £7.16, or Tony Moly I’m Real Aloe Sheet Mask, £5). And, if the occasion calls for it — like I’ve been itching at something — I might also use a more occlusive product like Aquaphor to create a protective barrier.
Then, I know I need to just be patient. My skin may be reactive, but it’s also really good at healing itself if I just keep it hydrated and let it be.
Ultimately, the only way to completely avoid a reaction is to not use any products on your skin, which simply isn’t an option for me. So, I know that I’m always taking some amount of risks when trying new things. But, thanks to these strategies, it happens rarely. And when it does, I feel equipped to take care of my skin while it heals, which is just as important as trying to avoid the reaction in the first place.