Our skin is a fickle organ, especially when it’s on our faces.
It can go from clean and clear one moment to red, itchy and irritated another, with no discernible cause. It’s frustrating, to say the least. But don’t stress if you find yourself dealing with skin that simply seems angry. (Seriously, that can make things worse!)
There are a few things you can do to soothe irritated skin. As always, though, it’s good to consult with a dermatologist if you think the irritation might be due to a more serious issue.
First Things First: What’s The Cause?
There are a few things that could be causing your irritated skin.
Products that contain benzoyl peroxide, alpha hydroxy acids or beta hydroxy acid may be helpful in treating breakouts, but they can also be irritating for people with sensitive skin, said David Lortscher, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of skin care company Curology.
Excessive exfoliation may also be the culprit, Lortscher said, as rough or sharp particles in certain scrubs can actually cause microscopic tears in the skin. Debra Jaliman, a New York-based dermatologist and St. Ives spokesperson, agreed that overexfoliation, and overuse of products in general, can leave skin feeling irritated.
“We see people who are red, peeling, dry, irritated skin because of product overuse,” Jaliman said. “It’s either one product they’re overusing, or they’re just using every acid on the block.”
“If you want to use an anti-aging product, that’s fine, but pick one,” she said. “Don’t use every one all together, like a smorgasbord of every product. That’s no good, especially if you have delicate skin.”
Angela Lamb, director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice in New York City, echoed Lortscher and Jaliman, adding that irritation is more common in the winter because our skin can be more sensitive during the colder months.
“The serums and exfoliating products that you could use in the summer and spring may be too hard for the fall and winter,” Lamb said.
Irritated skin could also be caused by an underlying issue, such as eczema, or an allergy, which Lamb said can be developed at any age.
Since our skin tends to be drier in the winter, we need to moisturize to keep it happy. (Here’s a thorough explainer on how best to keep your skin hydrated throughout the cold months.) Insufficient moisturizer use could also lead to irritation, Lamb said.
“I opt for protecting your skin barrier better with a simple moisturizer that will not irritate things even further,” she said. “If you want something more fancy than Vaseline, I like the Elizabeth Arden 8-hour protectant. [It] has a low ingredient count and is ‘greasy,’ which tends to be less irritating than things that are creamy.”
What Products And Ingredients Should You Look For?
There are plenty of skin care ingredients ― natural and otherwise ― that can be effective when it comes to soothing your skin.
All three dermatologists recommended looking for products with aloe in them, as aloe is known for its soothing and healing properties. (Lortscher suggested Burt’s Bee’s daily face moisturizer for sensitive skin.)
Colloidal oatmeal is another ingredient that can be great for calming the skin and relieving itchiness because it supplies antioxidants, Lortscher noted. It’s also said to reduce redness and inflammation. (He recommended Eucerin skin calming creme.)
Lamb said she likes jojoba and olive oils, as they have calming properties. As an added benefit, oils also contain antioxidants and fatty acids that can help with anti-aging.
Soy is another ingredient to look out for, Lortscher said: ”[It] contains a variety of active components that help restore barrier function and replenish moisture, provide antioxidants, and smooth and soften skin.” (He recommended Aveeno’s Positively Radiant daily moisturizer with broad spectrum SPF 15.)
Of course, there are also some soothing skin care ingredients that are only available with a prescription. These ingredients may not be right for everyone, and you should always consult with your dermatologist if you think you require more than just natural ingredients.
One such ingredient is clindamycin.
“It has anti-inflammatory effects (like ibuprofen for a swollen knee), soothing irritation that can make acne worse,” Lortscher said, noting that it also stops a certain type of bacteria from multiplying.
Azelaic acid is another prescription-only ingredient that Lortscher said “calms the inflammation that causes rosacea and bumpiness by reducing swelling and redness in your skin.” It also helps with skin cell production and helps clear acne, he added.
What NOT To Do If Your Skin Is Irritated
Even if you haven’t found the perfect product yet, there are a few things you should avoid doing when trying to help your irritated skin.
For starters, you shouldn’t wash your face with baking soda. Some people use the kitchen staple to wash and exfoliate their faces, but Lortscher explained that its high pH level (baking soda is pH9, while the skin is generally between 4.5 and 5) can actually disturb your skin’s moisture barrier.
As mentioned above, it also makes sense to be mindful not to overexfoliate. If you must exfoliate, try using baby washcloths, which are soft and gentle. (Jaliman is a fan.)
You also shouldn’t be overwashing your face, Jaliman said, because your skin needs some oil to stay balanced. That said, it’s still a bad idea to go to bed with your makeup on.
It might be a good idea to stay away from lemon juice, which some people claim helps with acne. It does help exfoliate away dead skin cells, according to Lortscher ― but it can also cause significant dryness and irritation.
If you’re dealing with skin that’s red, itchy or inflamed, you may also be inclined to start piling on products in hopes they’ll help. It’s fine to try out different products, like acids or retinoids, but Lortscher suggested starting with one ingredient and adding another “only after you know that your skin is tolerating the first, without dryness or irritation.” (For a helpful explainer on what products you should never mix, click here.)
And as hard as it might be to scale things back, sometimes your skin just needs a break.
“Simple is best,” Lamb said. “When you run out and start buying more complicated products to fix the problem, sometimes it just makes it worse.”