Sensitive, inflammation-prone skin is characterized by a delicate moisture barrier, leaving it susceptible to dryness, flaking, and irritation. When conventional dermatology proves too aggressive for these skin types, holistic skin care, which emphasizes barrier resiliency and anti-inflammatory treatment from the inside out, often holds the key to managing symptoms.
Build up the skin barrier.
The skin barrier is responsible for both protection and moisture-retention; skin with poor barrier function is extra vulnerable to irritation and inflammatory reactions. "Similar to the concept of 'leaky gut,' we can also develop 'leaky skin,'" says holistic dermatologist Mamina Turegano, M.D., of Sanova Dermatology, who explains that chronic dryness via transepidermal moisture loss can then lead to inflammation—exacerbating unhappy skin. A damaged skin barrier also allows microbes, allergens, irritants, and pollutants to penetrate the dermis more easily, causing inflammation and redness.
Thus, protecting and enhancing the moisture barrier of your skin is vital. Use barrier-strengthening ingredients. Here, a list of the best skin-barrier-strengthening actives to look for:
- Ceramides: Ceramides are lipids that regulate our skin cell function. Without the proper ratio of ceramides, the skin's barrier can become compromised, leading to dryness, itching, and irritation.
- Manuka honey: This natural ingredient is famous for its natural healing powers. Research shows it's effective at promoting tissue repair1, balancing your skin microflora, and managing moisture content.
- Niacinamide: Vitamin B3 has been shown to improve epidermal barrier function2 when applied topically.
- Squalane: Squalane is a naturally occurring part of our sebum (the oil on your skin), so by replenishing it, you can help repair skin previously irritated by oil-stripping products.
- Biotic ingredients: These are biome-supporting actives such as pre-, pro-, and postbiotics. They support the natural organisms living on the skin, which are vital for your barrier function.
Seek out anti-inflammatory active ingredients.
Along with building up your skin barrier strength, you should also look at anti-inflammatory actives (they often go hand-in-hand). Start with antioxidants—see our favorites here—as they neutralize oxidative stress, the main cause of inflammation. A few other holistic skin care favorites are turmeric3 (i.e., curcumin), plant oils4 (i.e., olive, argan, safflower, sunflower oils), centella asiatica5 (i.e., gotu kola), comfrey6, and hemp or CBD. Judit Konrad, Ph.D., pharmacist and cosmetic chemist, notes that the skin's immune cells have CB2 receptors that bind to hemp or CBD, cueing the skin's return to homeostasis via our body's own endocannabinoid7 system.
Avoid ingredients that strip and irritate your barrier.
Turegano's top ingredients to avoid are the common contact allergens like fragrances, artificial dyes, and preservatives like methylparaben. You will also want to steer clear of other additives, like plasticizing phthalates and overly harsh sulfate cleansers that can harm the skin barrier. A leaky barrier's high permeability also means that harsh actives—including the ever-popular retinol and exfoliating acids—can cause or exacerbate irritation. Some dermatologists recommend avoiding all chemical exfoliants (i.e., glycolic, lactic, salicylic, citric) if the skin is irritated or highly sensitive. Glycolic acid, with its small molecular size, can be especially aggravating for the skin. Remember: Your skin's sebum is your best protection. Harsh ingredients that strip the skin of its natural oils are not the answer for your skin type.
Supplements that can help manage overall body inflammation should have a positive effect on your skin.* (Turegano says you'll be best served with a tailored supplement regimen, so consult with your health care practitioner.) A few good places to start:
- Vitamin D: It works by managing the release and proliferation of cytokines―chemical messengers that initiate inflammation.*
- Hemp: Its phytocannabinoids have been found to activate the endocannabinoid system in the skin8, calming flare-ups and managing normal production of oily sebum.*
- Probiotics: This could help manage9 problems like eczema, acne, allergic inflammation, and hypersensitivity by supporting your gut and skin microflora.*
- Chlorella: This nutrient-dense ingredient has been shown to reduce overall inflammation and promote wound healing10.*
- Turmeric: Turmeric inhibits the production of pro-inflammatory genes11, blocking the inflammatory response pathway.*
- Omega-3s: This fatty acid manages inflammation and provides your skin with essential building blocks12 for healthy skin cells.*
- Collagen: Collagen and elastin are the main structural components of your skin—without them, your skin cannot function properly. Hydrolyzed collagen supplements have been shown to promote your body's natural production of these proteins13.*
If you're a tea person, herbalist Lori Barron, master of Chinese medicine, also recommends drinking teas that contain marshmallow root, slippery elm, and cordyceps mushrooms—at room temperature (to avoid too-hot temperatures, which she says can exacerbate redness).
Eliminate inflammation-causing foods.
"Skin is a manifestation of the internal state, so spend time on diet and supplements rather than simply topicals," says Turegano. "In certain patients I will also order a food sensitivity test." Even without testing, there are general food guidelines to follow. She shares that acne sufferers will want to avoid dairy14, whey15, and processed sugar (including foods with a high glycemic index16). For both eczema patients, Turegano suggests eliminating dairy and sometimes gluten17. As for rosacea-sufferers, a top offender is alcohol.
Eat a balanced diet.
We know that making dietary eliminations is extremely difficult—so much so that it helps when you can shift your focus to what you are incorporating into your diet rather than on what it now lacks. "I overall encourage a whole foods, plant-heavy diet," Turegano instructs. She supports eating multiple servings of vegetables and fruits with every meal. Turegano adds that there is strong evidence to suggest that the Mediterranean diet can help with that, as the diet prioritizes plant-based eating, with daily consumption of veggies, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats.
"I also encourage a diet rich in prebiotic and probiotic foods, and healthy fats," she says. Prebiotics are essentially the food for probiotics, the "healthy" bacteria that makes up a balanced skin and gut microbiome. Think garlic, onions, chickpeas, fermented foods like kimchi, as well as various veggies, fruits, and legumes. As for healthy fats, you can turn to salmon, coconut oil, avocados, extra-virgin olive oil, and more.
Try red light therapy.
Light therapy has become extremely popular in the wellness space, with benefits ranging from hair growth to immune support. In skin care, red light is used to stimulate collagen, promote wound healing, and to temper inflammation. The various phototherapies18—including UVB light—have been found to be especially therapeutic for psoriasis-sufferers, while the low-level laser therapies19 have been found to be beneficial in skin healing and the management of inflammatory diseases.
Tend to your emotional health, too.
"Inflammation is often triggered by your mental health, which is most commonly derived from stress and anxiety [both] physical and emotional," begins Konrad. She explains that intense, stressful emotions cause the body to secrete cortisol and other hormones that trigger inflammation. "The skin's response [is] our body's way of letting us know that it needs our attention."
Chronic stress, in particular, keeps the body's production of cortisol in overdrive20, which will appear on the skin. For example, there is a strong connection between cortisol and developing hormonal acne, which is well researched and vetted by skin care experts. As with so many other health woes, inflammatory skin conditions can be ameliorated with some good, old-fashioned stress-reduction and self-care.
The bottom line.
By treating inflamed, reactive skin internally and externally, you can ease redness, dryness, and irritation. Whether your sensitive skin is a result of overly harshly skin care products, a chronic condition, or it's just your skin type, there are ways to manage your symptoms—and target the root cause.
Jessica Ourisman is a therapist-turned-freelance writer covering topics related to beauty, fashion, and wellness. She has a master's degree in social work from Columbia University and bylines that include Brit Co., TheThirty, PopSugar, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Cosmopolitan AU, FabFitFun, Glam.com, and more. She is the founder of the blog, Beauty-Stoned, and currently lives in Paris, France, with her two miniature schnauzers.