How To Soothe Irritated Skin: Causes, Remedies & A Derm's Expert Tips
Being irritated is, well, no fun: You're constantly on edge—and the slightest poke just may be the thing to set you off. No one wants to regularly feel like this, no? For such reasons we're encouraged to turn to stress-relieving techniques, breathing exercises, moving our bodies, getting enough sleep, and being in touch with our emotional health. We repeat: Being irritated is no fun—and we should take precautions to avoid it.
Well, guess what? Your skin agrees. See, irritated, angry skin is a sign that something is going awry, be it external or internal. And so to remedy it, we must first identify what's going on—and then we can dive into solutions. (If we're being honest, it's not that much different from when you're feeling emotionally irritated.)
So here we explain what's going on with angry skin and then dive into solutions specific to the causes.
Why our skin becomes irritated.
Irritated skin comes down to skin barrier function. "[Our skin barrier] protects us from mechanical injury, low humidity, cold, heat, sun, wind, chemical exposure, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other pathogens," explains board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., stating that, "a healthy barrier is critical to normal skin function." And when your skin isn't doing this—when it's not performing its function—you start to see symptoms show up in the form of inflammation and irritation.
However, there's a major problem that comes with tending to irritated skin: There are many, many reasons your skin's barrier may become compromised and thus your skin may become angry! And with a plethora of reasons come a plethora of remedies. (Or it can even be a combination of a few factors that contribute to the skin's inflamed state—further complicating the matter.)
So in order to decide what solution may work for you, you'll need to first understand why the irritation might be occurring—and what, exactly, is causing damage to the skin barrier. Once you have a better understanding of that, you can put in the work to calm your finicky complexion.
Perhaps this seems obvious, but dry and sensitive skin inherently has more easily irritated skin. In fact, sensitive skin is literally defined by the fact that it's more irritated than other skin types. As board-certified dermatologist Purvisha Patel, M.D., explains, "Sensitive skin is characterized by skin that is not able to tolerate harsh conditions, chemicals, environments, or even diets."
As for dry skin, you may not be as finicky with external or internal aggressors, but you'll likely have many of the same symptoms. "Dry skin includes flaking or scaling of skin, roughness, and often itchiness. In fact, dry skin is one of the most common causes of itchy skin," says board-certified dermatologist Jaimie Glick, M.D.
This is because these skin types have a naturally compromised skin barrier, which isn't as effective at keeping irritants out—nor keeping the water in.
The fix: Look for calming and hydrating ingredients.
Well, we encourage you to put in the extra work in the hydration and soothing department. There are several ingredients that can help you get there. Look for these on your ingredient lists to soothe and moisturize the skin.
- Fatty acids
- Botanical oils
An imbalanced microbiome
More and more we are learning about the importance of a diverse, thriving skin microbiome—and all the repercussions of having a damaged one. "The microbiome aids in wound healing, limits exposure to allergens, minimizes oxidative damage, and keeps the skin plump and moist," says physician and naturopathic doctor Kara Fitzgerald, N.D.
One such issue that research is showing is that skin is more prone to irritation when it has an impaired biome. In fact, recent research shows that having a diverse microflora (in both the skin and gut) helps crowd out potential allergens and irritants.
The fix: Look for microbiome skin care products.
In an ideal world, your skin microbiome would be able to flourish on its own—and you wouldn't really need to worry about it too much. However, given modern hygiene and skin care practices, lifestyle changes, and so on, our collective microbiomes are taking a hit.
Because of this, skin care experts and consumers alike are turning to microbiome skin care, or formulas designed and formulated to nurture your skin microbiome with the use of pre-, pro-, and postbiotics. The idea here is that we've been able to identify certain strains of bacteria that are highly beneficial for skin health or strains of bacteria that we may be lacking, and through the use of advanced formulas we are able to help nurture them on the epidermis.
Here's a quick breakdown of what each does topically:
- Prebiotic: Prebiotics are a newer theme in skin care and are born of the idea that the living, dynamic shield that is your microbiome needs a certain amount of nutrients to help it keep on doing its job. You can think of prebiotics as food for live organisms.
- Probiotic: These are actual, live strains of bacteria that are naturally found on your skin, replanted via topicals to make sure your skin has sufficient levels. Be sure to only purchase from reputable brands who have evidence their probiotic strains are able to survive in topical formulations—as that's not the case for some.
- Postbiotic: The newest iteration, these are highly selective, beneficial outputs—such as peptides, fatty acids, and enzymes—from the bacteria themselves that are infused in topical products. When using quality strains, these are highly effective at improving barrier function and cross talking with your skin.
Inflammatory skin conditions
Skin types play a role in irritated skin—as do skin conditions; these may include eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis. In fact, research indicates that many of these diseases can be traced back to impaired barrier function. For example, researchers believe that eczema is caused by a mix of an overactive immune system, an abnormal barrier function, and a weak microbiome1. Another study found that patients with rosacea had decreased lipids in the skin barrie2r, limiting epidermal barrier function.
Essentially the inability of the barrier to perform its duties naturally leads the skin and body to be more susceptible to other irritants, causing flare-ups that may look like rough patches, overall dryness, discoloration, bumps, sores, and physical sensations like burning or itchiness.
The fix: Monitor your behavior and visit a pro.
First things first: Visit a professional, like a board-certified dermatologist, who can help you diagnose and monitor these conditions. While there is no cure for eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis—you can keep symptoms in control with medication, products, and lifestyle choices.
One thing you can start doing now is creating a skin care journal, a tip from famed esthetician Alicia Yoon, founder of Peach & Lily. In it, you can track how your skin looks and feels on a daily basis while also noting what products you use, how you felt emotionally, what you ate, and any additional information you feel is relevant. This way, you can start to identify the things that may set in motion a flare-up. (Hot tip: Take it to your derm or doctor if you decide to make an appointment—it can give them valuable info for your symptoms!)
But the journal can do more than that: It can provide context for what you're going through—and perhaps provide a gentle reminder to not be so hard on yourself or your skin. "When I get flare-ups, I remember it lasting longer than it actually did," she notes. "I look back to my journal, and it was only three days when it felt like two weeks."
Technically speaking, acne does loosely fall under the category of an inflammatory skin condition. However, acne's issues are twofold—so we decided to break it out into its own section. First, acne is inflammatory by nature: "Acne is caused by a combination of excess oil production, overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria in the skin, sticky skin cells that block the pores, and inflammation," according to board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. Second, the way we often treat acne can cause additional irritation itself, as many of the traditional acne-treating products on the market lean aggressive.
The fix: Go for anti-inflammatory topicals.
When tending to breakouts and acne, it's important to be sure not to rely on acids and exfoliators too heavily. Of course, things like lactic and salicylic acid can have a place in your routine, but you need to be mindful of just how much you are using them.
"The most important tip is 'less is more.' You want to exfoliate just enough to increase cell turnover and reveal fresh new skin," says Ife Rodney, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Eternal Dermatology. "Most people with normal, acne-prone, or combination skin can get away with twice- or even thrice-weekly exfoliation. Those with more mature, dry, or sensitive skin may only want to exfoliate weekly."
Additionally, you should also be mindful to use anti-inflammatory acne ingredients, which can calm skin and mitigate angry zits and breakouts. (Even better: Find AHA or BHA products buffered with calming ingredients so they don't overdo it!)
A few key ones to look out for:
- Green tea
- Manuka honey
Speaking of aggressive products or overdoing, several harsh topicals—including retinoids and exfoliators—can strip the skin barrier, leaving otherwise "normal" skin irritated. It's a phenomenon many derms, including board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., have coined "sensitized" skin.
"This is something you are doing to yourself," says Bowe, who also notes this is not an official diagnosis. And it's done by stripping the top layer of skin. Essentially, you can turn balanced skin into reactive skin by exfoliating away that protective layer with scrubs, face brushes, acids, harsh toners—or even just overwashing. "It's a tricky balance: You want to remove dead skin cells so you get a nice glow but don't want to do it too much and thin out that layer," warns Bowe. "You need to be careful."
The fix: Just chill out, OK?
The fix here isn't that complicated: Stop using the products immediately, nurse your barrier back to health with moisturizers, then you can fold exfoliating topicals back into use sparingly. But in case you need some indication of the products and ingredients that may be causing the barrier damage, keep your eye on retinoids, AHAs, BHAs, physical exfoliants, and strong face cleansers. We repeat: It is so important to use potent topicals in moderation and as tolerated.
Allergic or irritant contact dermatitis.
This is essentially an allergic reaction (usually in the form of a rash) to something that's touched your skin. Common causes are allergenic topicals (like certain essential oils, fragrances, methylparaben, or butylparaben) or even things like physical rubbing and tugging (like from dirty makeup brushes or masks).
The fix: Identify your allergen, and avoid further contact with it.
There's unfortunately not too much to be done to immediately alleviate the rash once you've developed it, other than finding natural anti-inflammatory and anti-itch salves (like Earth's Care Anti-Itch Cream) to ease the symptoms temporarily.
From there, the most important thing you can do is to identify your major triggers or allergies and avoid using them as best you can. Sometimes, this is easy: If you know you're allergic to a certain herb or plant, you can just double-check ingredient labels. (If you're unsure, spot-check on your wrist before applying it to your face.) Other times, it requires being more mindful about your habits, such as making sure you wash makeup brushes and towels regularly. And still others, it's unavoidable—like is the case of masks. In these situations, try your best to soothe your skin after the fact as much as possible.
Stress, sleep, diet, and more.
Skin irritability can come from the inside, too. Chronic stress, poor sleep, inflammatory diets, and more can show up in your skin—especially if you are genetically predisposed to a skin condition such as acne or rosacea. This is called the brain-skin axis, and with each year we learn more about how intertwined our mental and skin health are.
"We all know that stress is an inevitable part of life and arises when we are under mental, physical, or emotional pressure that we perceive exceeds our ability to adapt to it," says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. "Our brain plays a major role in the stress response, which exerts its effect on the skin mainly through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When this response is activated, stress hormones such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), glucocorticoids, and epinephrine are released. This results in a wide range of physiologic and immune reactions that can trigger or exacerbate skin conditions."
The fix: Attend to your mental health.
Let this serve as a reminder that your mental health is just as important and valuable as your physical health. Carve time out during the day to care for it through meditation, movement, talking to loved ones, journaling, a creative hobby, or whatever helps you.
We'd be remiss not to include the much-loathed pollution, windburn, and sunburn! These can all damage skin immediately and over time, causing rashes, texture and tone woes, and premature aging. See, since your skin is a barrier—it often takes a hit while protecting your body from the elements. While these present themselves differently on everyone, unprotected exposure to harsh elements does trigger oxidative stress, which may result in symptoms of irritation.
The fix: Protect, protect, protect.
Be sure that your skin care routine contains hydrating elements, antioxidants, and sun protection. The hydrators can keep the moisture barrier intact, antioxidants fight free radicals, and the sun protection shields the skin from UV rays.
General tips & tricks.
We've covered some of these above, but there are just some good general tips and tricks from pros that most people will benefit from—so we condensed it down into one simple list. Good to have these ideas on hand when you have a flare-up:
- Monitor your flare-ups. This way you can keep track of any potential trigger, known or unknown to you.
- Manage stress. We know it can feel daunting when your skin is irritated, but feeling stressed about it will only further worsen the issue. Practice breathing exercises, stretch, and be kind to yourself.
- Protect skin. Acting as a barrier is a pretty taxing job—be mindful of how you protect yourself with SPF, antioxidants, biotic ingredients, and so on.
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Since food can be a trigger for many skin conditions, you can give your skin a head start by starting in the gut.
- Mind your microbiome. A healthy, thriving microbiome is key to skin health, we have come to learn. Help yours thrive by choosing barrier-supporting products.
- Never overdo it. Skin care is best in moderation. Don't overuse potent active ingredients, and if you have happened to go overboard--chill out for a while until your skin recovers.
Irritation comes via several avenues—but can ultimately be traced back to a damaged skin barrier. You can tend to skin by first figuring out what is compromising your skin, and then tending to it accordingly.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.