Welcome to another How Do I Look? interview! I am fascinated by skin, visible differences and how others view themselves. I have rosacea but I wanted to open the conversation about skin positivity and visible differences so I can cover (and educate myself about) many different topics. Every week I am going to be talking to an inspirational and interesting person in order to share their story and experiences to educate, help, and support others.
Today’s post features Judy talking about her sensitive skin. ‘Sensitive skin’ is often used as a catch-all term, but it’s rare than people have truly sensitive skin. Judy is one of these people and also works as a beauty journalist (a job where you are required to constantly try new products and treatments) so I thought she would be a fascinating person to chat to.
Tell me a little bit about your skin…
“I think I’ve always had sensitive skin, but really it’s only been an issue since my teens. I’ve always been interested in beauty, having watched with awe as my mum and sisters applied their makeup, and my mum has always been obsessed with skincare. But after a few years of using different products in my teens I found that – unlike theirs – my skin was extra dry, prone to reactions and just generally a mess. I’d always used perfume (shout out to So…Inspired and Exclamation Mark, the best fragrances of the 90s). But gradually my reactions to things became more common and more severe – and I’m fairly sure I’m now allergic to fragrance. I became much more sun sensitive too; we never went abroad as kids but I used to tan really well, an amazing bronze shade despite my fair colouring, while my family all struggled with heat rash and sunburn. From my teens though it all changed and I developed the same issues!
I think the real turning point was when I had a major reaction to something when I was 18 – we now think it might have been a roll-on deodorant, but at the time I couldn’t tell (other than the fact it was bad under my arms) as I’d used the same one for years. It started with an itch and turned into skin that no longer looked like skin – it was rough, bumpy, red, and even began weeping. Obviously this is all very attractive! It then spread, and I had huge red lumps all up my neck which became quite swollen – my doctor was absolutely baffled but also quite fascinated, and spent a lot of time heaving through a huge medical book to try and find a photo that looked anything like my skin. I think I had a combination of topical and oral drugs to deal with it, but mainly I remember that even once the reaction calmed down, the skin under my arms was really dark – pigmentation left behind from the inflammation – and I was completely self conscious about it for years until it went back to normal. And sometimes these things really do take years (I had a similar reaction on my legs after a spa treatment and wouldn’t go bare-legged for about three years).
I’m not sure of the science behind this theory, but I believe that since that huge reaction I’ve been far more sensitive: perfumes started giving me instant red rashes, hence why I now think I’m allergic, and I struggled with skincare throughout my early 20s (I still do but I’m more clued up now). I’ve also never dared try a different deodorant again; I have been using the same Dove Original roll-on for about 12 years!”
What are the common misconceptions, comments, or questions about sensitive skin?
“Firstly – and even brands and people who work in the beauty industry get this wrong – many people don’t understand what it really means to have truly sensitive skin. The problem is, it’s a huge spectrum: you might be a bit dry and sensitive, or you might have felt the odd sting when using a potent product before. But for me, it’s about having skin that can’t tolerate much and that will react to even the smallest thing.
Most people want to know what it is I react to, and I don’t really have a concrete answer for them (believe me, I wish I knew!). I now try to only use fragrance-free products, only spray perfume on my clothes (if at all) and I avoid strong essential oils and chemical sunscreen filters too, but really the only way I can be sure I won’t react to something is to patch test it, three times over consecutive days. It’s my rule!
Comments wise, it varies – some people will just ask if I’ve tried a certain brand (always yes) or sometimes they just think it’s really strange (to be fair, I’ve had some very weird looking reactions before) and suggest I go to a doctor. Like I hadn’t thought of that…!”
What do you wish people knew about sensitive skin?
“When it comes to brands, I wish they knew just how important their labelling is for people like me, how hard it is to find products I can use and how much easier they could make it if they didn’t use misleading terms – or could at least be consistent in leaving fragrance out of their ‘sensitive skin’ ranges, for example.
I wish people generally knew more about sensitivity and how limiting it can be – whether it’s the fact that a day out in hot sun is actually quite stressful for me (I need shade!) or that a trip to the spa is quite a source of anxiety, ironically. I always feel like I’m just being difficult, but it’s because I know how awful it can be when my skin is bad. I just have to look after it, because no one else will!”
How does your skin make you feel on a day to day basis?
“Anxious! Well, often it does anyway. I never take a good skin day for granted – having had such random reactions previously that have come out of nowhere, I’m always closely checking for any redness or telltale itches. It’s like I’m on high alert at all times, because I know if I have had a reaction to something, the quicker I can put something on it the better. It can also make me feel quite trapped, or limited. A trip to the beach (or even just the beach holiday itself) is nothing for someone else, but for me I have to make sure I’ve got the right kit and don’t use anything that I shouldn’t (I’ve suffered really badly with prickly heat before). Even putting someone else’s SPF on makes me anxious – they always have fragrance-filled creams and I hate having it on my hands in case I react.
A beauty journalist’s career is so focused on trying products and treatments, how have you balanced this with caring for your skin?
I often joke that I’m in totally the wrong career – but I’m kind of in exactly the right one too. I have found it difficult at times; obviously you have to test new products, you can’t just bang on about old and reliable ones all the time, but the expert advice is always to find a routine that works and STICK WITH IT. I have to introduce new products all the time, so I do it one at a time and patch test everything religiously. It does mean I’m probably slower to cover new things but it’s not something I can really compromise on; and I’d rather write honestly about my experience with it than just make a guess based on the INCI. I also steer clear of testing anything I’m unsure of when I’m really stressed or if I’ve recently reacted – it takes a while for my skin to feel ‘normal’ again and it needs to be in a good place for me to introduce something new.
To be honest, I say no to most treatments – I’ve reacted to spa treatments before in a big way, so am very careful as to what I’ll try. It’s not worth the stress for me, nor the money and time for them! I don’t like to waste anything, so if I’ve ever felt something isn’t right for me I’ve made sure someone else can test it instead. From now on my plan for enjoying spas is to either go where there are brands I love and use, or take my own products for them to use on me.
What are your thoughts on media visibility of sensitive skin?
I think the rise of online publications has meant that it’s better than it was when I was growing up – a big part of wanting to be a beauty journalist was that I used to read so many magazines, obsess over the beauty pages and find nothing that suited my overly sensitive skin (though often something would be labelled as such, and then I’d react to it having blindly trusted the piece). However, this is also why I wanted to write my column (Sense and Sensitivity, at Get The Gloss) because I just didn’t feel anyone was really covering it. There was never anything in detail in other magazines or websites about the everyday problems you face if you’re sensitive or what it felt like to deal with irritable skin. I love it when I see it covered elsewhere, but sometimes you can tell it’s been written by someone who doesn’t have first-hand knowledge. There is so much PR spin of products claiming to be great for ‘sensitive skin’ (just because they contain chamomile or some other calming ingredient) makes it into editorial and that frustrates me.”
How do you deal with bad days?
“Usually I want to put a bag over my head/insert area of reaction, but this just isn’t practical… I have my go-tos: strong antihistamines, calamine and aqueous cream which is about £2 but I swear it fixes everything, hydrocortisone cream, and basic skincare that I stick to whenever things are feeling scratchy.
If it’s really unbearable, I will go to the doctor because I know only too well how quickly things can get worse. I always tell people too – I’m ridiculously honest (or perhaps an oversharer?) and would rather they know what’s happened rather than sit there feeling like they’re looking at me. There’s something about a rash that can just look or feel dirty, so it always makes me self conscious – and I deal with that by telling everyone…
If you have consulted the medical community for your sensitive skin, how were those experiences?
I’ve been to the GP about my skin so many times I’ve lost count, with differing results. A few have been very sympathetic – it helps if the reaction looks shockingly angry, and even more if you cry – but most will take one quick look, suggest you shouldn’t change your washing powder (I haven’t for 15 years!) and give you a steroid cream to try and calm it down. It can be very frustrating, and I often feel bad for taking up their time for something so trivial, but some reactions have been painful or even stopped me from sleeping completely because of the itch, so sometimes it’s necessary.”
In the past few years there have been more conversations around the link between skin and mental health, what are your thoughts?
“I definitely believe there’s a link – I’ve written a long piece on stress and sensitive skin and I was so fascinated by it at the time I honestly could have turned it into a book. It makes perfect sense and works both ways; when I’ve been through heightened stress I’ve experienced rashes, spots or irritation that has come out of nowhere, but likewise when I do have bad skin I can really struggle. It makes you feel self conscious, the constant itching sensation makes you feel really agitated and anxious and I definitely feel down if my skin is looking bad in any way. I met a facialist once who does bespoke products/treatments according to what you need, and she asked me loads of questions about my life rather than my skin; she summed it up perfectly when she said ‘It’s not your skin that’s sensitive, it’s you’.”
Have any positives come out of your sensitive skin?
“Definitely! Some of my career highlights have come from writing about sensitive skin – I won an award for a piece I wrote about the effects of chemo on skin (it makes it far more fragile) and I was invited to be a judge for the Free From Skincare Awards for two years running. I’ve also learned so much about skincare by being able to write about it as a journalist – and I’ve met some wonderful people who really ‘get’ it, like you!”
Top tips for living with sensitive skin?
“Find a routine that works and stick to it! I would if I could…
Seriously though, the main thing is to patch test and ideally try and work out your triggers. If you’re just generally sensitive, it means your skin barrier isn’t up to scratch – read up on it and look for soothing, barrier-building products to get it back to its best. If it’s impaired, that’s when you’ll react or feel uncomfortable.
I also really believe in less is more when it comes to skincare. I know we all have things we want to address so there will be certain products you want in your routine, but putting too much on your skin is not going to help.
Also, I don’t care if it’s cloudy – wear sunscreen! And get a great, gentle cleanser to take it off at the end of the day.
Judy’s favourite products:
- Sunscreen: Ultrasun Family 30;
- Cleanser: La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo Cleanser or Pai Camellia & Rose Gentle Hydrating Cleanser;
- Moisturiser: Toleriane Ultra Fluid or Avene Skin Recovery Cream;
- Serum: Superdrug Simply Pure Serum or Vichy Mineral 89;
- Treatment: Clarins Beauty Repair Concentrate.
Read the other posts in the How Do I Look? series here: MICHELLE talking about her scars; SOFIA talking about her acne; NATALIE talking about vitiligo; SUSIE on her Telogen Effluvium (hair loss); AMY on her port wine stain birthmark; GEMMA on psoriasis; AMARA on eczema; and GRACE on her scars.
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