You know the symptoms: red, hot, lumpy, itchy, flaky, dry, or burning… or maybe it’s some fun combination. What’s going on?! Your skin is freaking out and you need to get it back to a place of calm. But what will return it to peace? And what’s causing this issue in the first place?
Skin irritation is an unfortunate thing, but it’s usually a big red flag — your body telling you that something is not right. Whether you already have a diagnosis and you’re looking for some soothing solutions or you suspect the problem and are trying to temporarily ease your pain, here are some fixes you can try on your own. If you aren’t sure what’s going on, but your symptoms are listed below, make sure you head to your dermatologist ASAP to get the right diagnosis.
Possible Culprit: Rosacea
If it feels like your face is constantly flushing or blushing, combined with constant, pimply breakouts, it’s possible you have rosacea. Referred to as “the curse of the Celts” because of its tendency to bedevil fair-skinned descendants of the Northern Isles, its causes are still largely unknown, although genetics may be involved.
Rosacea typically causes blotching and flushing, although acne-like breakouts and bumps may also occur. You probably need a prescription medication, but there are steps you can take on your own as well.
For starters, sunscreen can help to prevent flare-ups — UV exposure can greatly irritate rosacea patients. You can also begin to keep a journal to track what triggers your flare ups. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that stress, sunlight, and certain foods/drinks (caffeine, alcohol, dairy and gluten are common culprits) are often triggers. You can also use the same journal to track reactions to products. Those with rosacea often have extreme reactions to skincare and cosmetics, as many irritating chemicals and ingredients do the opposite of soothing your skin. Especially when you introduce something new, it’s good to have a record.
For in-the-moment immediate relief, try a cucumber face mask (we love this DIY one!) or a cool compress — some choose to add calendula or chamomile for further soothing effects. Oatmeal, aloe vera, and apple cider vinegar are all known for their soothing effects, and can be good options for at-home rosacea treatments. There are many collections specifically created for rosacea prone patients — from SkinCeuticals and iS Clinical to Repêchage and SkinMedica.
That said, if you have, or suspect you have, rosacea, make sure you are always using products specific for those with sensitive skin.
Possible Culprit: Breakouts
Out of your teens and still dealing with zits? You’re not alone. A University of Alabama study found that more than half of the women polled experienced adult acne while in their 20s and more than 35% in their 30s. Pimples are commonly brought on by hormones (hello PMS!) and stress, although the products you’re using may also be the culprit.
What can you do about the problem? For the immediate relief, opt for powerful spot treatments (we’re partial to the SLMD Spot Treatment and Dr. Pimple Popper version, too!) or a salicylic-based overnight treatment that will zap your zits while you sleep.
For the long term, check the ingredients on your skin care — some dermatologists say that using overly heavy moisturizers or not completely rinsing residue from conditioner may be the culprit. Research your prescriptions — you might know that hormone-based birth control can cause acne, but so can some anti-depressants (such as lithium), B vitamins (B6 and B12), and oral corticosteroids, among others. You can also try isolating certain foods from your diet and seeing if that breaks the breakout cycle: some women find that it helps to eliminate dairy or high-sugar foods.
Possible Culprit: Sunburn
We’re not the first (and won’t be the last) to nag you to wear sunscreen. But your burnt now, either because you forgot to reapply or missed your back entirely. So now you’re paying for it. Painfully.
Most sunburn leaves you hot and wincing at contact, but a bad burn can mean swelling or even blistering. To cool things down a bit, you can soak a washcloth in milk and apply it as a compress to burned skin. Dr. Oz suggests the home-remedy of adding a cup of apple cider vinegar to a cool bath and soaking in it for 10 minutes; baking soda or black tea can also be added to baths or compresses to ease sunburn. Avoid hot showers — they’ll burn and further dehydrate your skin.
As for topical options, any gels or after sun lotions that are super hydrating and contain aloe, chamomile, cucumber, vitamin E, or lavender will help ease your symptoms. Make sure you drink plenty of water to replenish your body.
Possible Culprit: Heat Rash
Presenting as a red rash with little, liquid-filled white bumps, heat rash is extremely common in adults and children during hot, sticky weather. Yup, that means now is prime time.
Heat rash presents when the pores become blocked but sweat can’t escape — usually because there’s friction against the skin’s surface, either from clothing or body parts rubbing against each other. That’s why heat rash is commonly seen in the armpits, between the thighs, or in our elbows.
Heat rash isn’t (or shouldn’t be) painful, but it can be jarring to look at. Avoid tight clothing and don’t use thick lotions — these both block pores even more. Cold compresses (do we sound like a broken record yet?) can also ease the symptoms, and products with cooling menthol can also ease symptoms, though heat rash should dissipate on it’s on relatively quickly.
Possible Culprit: Allergies
Blotchy, bumpy, and blistery were not members of Snow White’s squad — but now they’re suddenly part of yours? What gives! You can kick them out (sorry, guys) but it may take a little detective work.
Allergies can pop up at any time; some common adult-onset allergies are nuts and shellfish, but you (likely) are having an allergic reaction to something topical (perfume, skincare, even contact with a fabric). Notice a small flare up whenever you eat dairy or gluten? We think of allergies and allergic reactions as dramatic, throat closing, can’t breathe episodes, but they can present very mildy too.
Especially if you have regular occurrences, you’re probably longing for a solution beyond the usual recommendation of cold compresses. While cold compresses are the easiest quick fix, you can also try taking quercetin, a homeopathic supplement made from buckwheat and citrus. Soaks and compresses, including a solution of oatmeal or the apple cider vinegar mentioned above, may also help to fight the burn.
Possible Culprit: Eczema
This systemic dry, itchy rash often presents more as dry, flaky skin, but for some it looks like redness too — and can certainly stay or become more red if you’re constantly touching, picking or rubbing at your skin. We’ve been there — eczema is no fun.
The best way to quell eczema is to avoid hot showers, soak in oatmeal baths, use specially formulated lotion as often as possible, and journal (like the rosacea-prone) to do your best to discover what’s causing flare ups.
Eczema doesn’t have a cure but it can be controlled — for some that means having a consistent skincare moisturizing routine, for others it means skipping irritating body washes, for others it means saying adios to dairy.
The bottom line
Having sensitive skin doesn’t mean that you’re a slave to its whims. It just needs a little extra kindness. So go easy, especially with any kind of manipulation or exfoliation. Plan any spa time carefully — massages and facials may particularly aggravate sensitivities, especially if any new products are applied, and saunas and steaming may also set your skin off. Try any treatment well in advance of an occasion, so you have time to make other plans if you do have a reaction.
Keeping a journal (or just a note in your phone) that logs what you ate and put on your skin each day is a surefire way to catch the culprit of your on-again, off-again redness. And try to stay consistent with your skincare routines.
When you’ve found a drill that makes your skin happy, stick to it. Finally, remember that an ongoing or unresponsive condition means that you should talk to your doctor or dermatologist.