Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why You Gotta Be So Sensitive?

Anyone else remember Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Man from Singles?


There's no such thing as sensitive skin. Well, that's not quite right—I mean, the 60% of Americans who believe they have it can't all be delusional, right? Let's say this, then: There isn’t a clinical definition of sensitive skin, or at least dermatologists don’t agree on what that definition might actually be. But that’s not to say that it’s solely a marketing term—lots of people do have skin sensitivities, and there are plenty of medical conditions that render one’s skin sensitive. In fact, panels that test products for sensitive skin are typically made up of people with rosacea, atopic dermatitis, or cosmetic intolerance syndrome. What’s that last condition?, you ask. Well, it’s...sensitive skin, actually, usually caused by overusing harsh products like acids and scrubs—that is, it’s something that’s more about a product than a person. Then you’ve got that “dermatitis” bit: there’s irritant dermatitis, in which a product makes your skin itch or redden or blister for no apparent reason, and allergic dermatitis, in which your body has an autoimmune response to a particular ingredient. Let’s not forget atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema—eczema basically being dermatitis, except chronic, except not chronic by some definitions.

You see the problem here is simply trying to figure out what these conditions, or syndromes, or diseases, or whatever, are even called, much less what they actually are. No wonder around 60% of us consider themselves to have “sensitive skin”—who hasn’t at some point gotten a little itchy from something? So part of the sensitive skin conundrum is that the meaning of the term is largely subjective. A dermatologist might be able to look at your red, rashy skin and say that it looks like a reaction to a cosmetic, but when it comes to other symptoms of sensitive skin, you’re the only one calling the shots. There’s no medical threshold you need to cross to proclaim that your skin feels “tingly” or “tight.” 

Skin—unlike, say, the spleen—is an organ generally thought of in terms of appearance, not health, at least if you’re judging where consumer dollars are spent. Its unique place on the health-beauty spectrum means that we imbue skin with all sorts of judgments—some of which might be accurate, some of which might not be. For example, I used products meant for “oily skin” for years because my face is always shiny, but in truth I have utterly normal skin—I was just self-conscious about my shine, and by using products meant for a skin type I didn’t have, I was actually hurting my skin, not helping it. 

Sensitive skin’s openness to interpretation makes it a prime candidate for marketingspeak. Like most cosmetics claims, there’s no legal or industry standard for what products can claim to be “safe for sensitive skin.” Which is not to say that products marketed toward people with sensitive skin are bogus—like “hypoallergenic” products (another term with no industry standard), these products usually have no dyes or perfumes, and active ingredients may have been tweaked to be more mild. But there is something...odd? fishy? about a market full of people who have been largely self-diagnosed turning to the beauty industry for what amounts to self-treatment—especially in cases where it’s a beauty product that provokes a skin reaction in the first place. 

Which leads to the big question here: Why do so many of us believe we have sensitive skin? Natural beauty advocates would posit that the cosmetics industry, being basically unregulated, uses all sorts of chemicals that have no place on our bodies. Certainly there’s a big argument to be made here about skin sensitivities, natural products, health, and the environment. But it’s not like sensitive skin products are solely in the realm of the natural-foods store: Having a “sensitive skin” market benefits the mainstream beauty industry. I remember reading a bit in Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping about how if a consumer believes that a product has been specifically recommended for her, she’s more likely to buy it. Logically, then, if a consumer puts herself into a market of people with special needs, she’s more likely to buy products recommended for people in her particular niche.

Still, sensitive skin isn’t actually a niche: More people believe they have it than believe they don’t, with up to 60% of us reporting sensitive skin. But the term sensitive implies something different, a little special, a little unique—and who doesn’t want to believe there’s something unique about us (even if we’re actually in the majority)? And if it’s something that has a nice ring about it—something that allows us our human frailty but under the guise of having a medical-ish condition, one that’s not serious but that needs some tender care regardless—all the better. Much of the time women are told not to be so sensitive. If there’s an umbrella that allows us to be as sensitive as we damn well please, why wouldn’t we take it?

But! Men are included in that 60% figure. In fact, according to recent research from Procter & Gamble, 70% of men believe they have sensitive skin. Now, obviously P&G has a stake in finding and reporting a submarket among their existing Gillette consumers, so I’m not going to put tons of stock in that number. But the sudden appearance of all these sensitive-skinned men correlates time-wise to the overall rise in skin-care products for men. (In fact, it may be that that makes men realize they have sensitive skin—since many forms of the condition only result in a sensitivity toward products, women have a higher chance of recognizing their sensitivities since they experiment with more products.) And I also can’t help but wonder how the word sensitive relates to men here—the beauty industry is hardly shy about painting men’s and women’s needs as being so different as to require different terminology. (Grooming vs. beauty, for example.) So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the industry has kept the word sensitive in describing products for men. It might be tucked in among all sorts of hypermasculine terms—say, the Gillette Mach 3 Turbo Sensitive razor—but it’s there, not coded as allergy-prone or irritable or pissed-off (we’re talking about an industry that features products named things like Butt Taco, okay?), plain old sensitive, same as the ladies. By gently introducing into male-marked spaces terms generally applied to women, the beauty industry—excuse me, the grooming industry—subtly primes its market for other feminine markings. Sensitive men might not cry, but would they wear concealer? Perhaps.

I’m not trying to say that people with sensitive skin shouldn’t have a market directed toward them, or that we’re all making it up to feel like a special snowflake, or that we’re all just pawns of the beauty industry, or that we should be turning more to dermatologists. Obviously sensitive skin exists on a wide spectrum, and I don’t think you need to have weeping wounds before you start to investigate if niche products would be less problematic for your skin. Believing that your skin is sensitive is enough to make it sensitive—and what’s the harm in buying a product with fewer irritants? Maybe the beauty industry would be wise to flip it: Begin with a baseline allergen-free product, and build up to products meant for “hardy skin.” Think of the swagger that would come with announcing that you’ve started on Olay’s Level 4 Hardy Skin regime! Until then, though, we’re left with sensitivity as the exception, not the rule—even though it’s really the other way around.

Do you have sensitive skin? If so, when did you start to think you might have it? Do you use products designed for sensitive skin? Do you have a skin condition that makes your skin particularly sensitive, or is it more of a sensation that something isn't right?

25 comments:

  1. I really loved this post - I love all your posts.

    I always used to think I had sensitive skin. I don't know when, why or how I came to this conclusion. I've had really prolific acne since puberty and it hasn't subsided. (I also pick at my skin insistently which causes more break-outs as well as scars). I probably thought I had sensitive skin because the OTC acne medication I was using wasn't working.

    And I've used a variety of acne medication that hasn't had any effect on my skin. So while I should probably see a dermatologist, I felt that my skin must be sensitive in some way if I couldn't just yank something off the shelf and have it work. I would need something specialized to help me.

    These days I don't use anything, though I want to get something from Sephora. I borrowed the kind my friend has and it feels really nice. I worry daily about ever having clear skin - I think I've just about given up.

    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suspect that this sort of gradual realization is how most people come to start using sensitive-skin products. And the relationship between acne and sensitive skin is interesting--acne makes your skin sensitive, but then lots of products that are designed to help acne are also highly irritating, so then what do you do?! (And yes, it would be good to see a dermatologist if you still have acne. There are options out there that aren't as harsh as they were just a few years ago. Acne took up a lot of my mental energy when I had it--it went beyond vanity into something far deeper.)

      Delete
  2. I have really nice skin. (Aging a bit now and all that of course.) Clear, used to have absolutely invisible pores, the lot.

    There are many, many products I've tried, over the years, which have:
    Caused breakouts of tiny red bumps all along my hairline
    Caused cystic breakouts (!!!) on my cheeks and chin, which left scars that took years to fade (!!!)
    Made my pores look all large and unhappy, usually followed, if I don't quit the product, with
    Little whitehead breakouts all over the place, especially nose and cheeks by the nose
    Peeled my skin like a sunburn
    Made me itch
    Made my eyes itch and swell up (not, perhaps, technically a "sensitive skin" issue but WHYYYY must companies put fragrance in facial products?)

    Do I have sensitive skin? I don't know. My skin's perfectly happy with mild soap (usually Pears) which most authorities condemn as being so bad for you, and with the most basic moisturizers as long as they're not too greasy. It likes the handmade aspirin masks, as seen on the Internet, which don't strike me as being particularly gentle, but it's been upset over plenty of more complicated and expensive exfoliants.

    Sometimes, though, I have a suspicion that many companies know perfectly well that their products cause a reaction, and all they do is convince the buyer that they need MORE products to "fix" the issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Re: your last point--that's exactly it, and I wish I'd put it as succinctly as you did. I mean, if a major cause of sensitive skin is products, why are we turning to products for a fix? I think people are getting wise to the game--hence in part the rise in natural products (including products not marketed as beauty products, like coconut and olive oils or kosher salt)--but it's still there.

      Delete
  3. Oh man I love the outfit Bridget Fonda is wearing in that scene!

    I have always thought of myself as someone with "sensitive skin" -- as a baby I was diagnosed with eczema and throughout childhood I always had rashes all over my body. I was allergic to a lot of things (pets, dust, plants, etc), and sweat made it worse, as did scratching, and I was a kid so of course I didn't have much self-control. It got better as I got older, then ramped WAY back up in my mid-20s when I went through a breakup and a lot of stress. Now it's pretty under control again, but my skin still hates pet hair and sweat, and sunscreen! Still, my skin was much more "sensitive" in Boston and less so in Denver, so I think part of what we consider an underlying, permanent condition can actually be a reaction to weather, water, etc. Maybe "sensitive" is just a matter of having more than a couple of allergies?

    Marketing ploy or not, I gravitate toward products for "sensitive skin" WHEN they seem to have shorter, simpler ingredient lists and less perfume. But I mostly look for things that I personally know I'm "sensitive" to, like dimethicone and titanium dioxide.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If we lived in the same town I'd suggest that we dress as Bridget & Matt for Halloween--

      I think your approach is the one that makes the most sense (avoiding specific ingredients that you know you're sensitive to), but in order to do that one has to know what specific ingredients they have a reaction to, which I imagine would be difficult--especially when the reactive ingredient is one that's often sold as an *aid* for sensitive skin (like dimethicone). How did you realize it was those ingredients? Process of elimination, patch test, cross-checking symptoms? I feel like consumers are more knowledgeable than ever about ingredients, but the increasing science/clinical end of marketing has also meant that there are products with more ingredients than ever.

      Delete
    2. Sorry so late in replying! Forgot to subscribe to comments.

      I can't say with 100% scientific certainty that those are the ingredients that bother me, it's just best guess knowledge based on process of elimination, cross-referencing etc. For example primers always break me out and usually dimethicone is the first ingredient. Sunscreens break me out or cause rashes and almost always contain dimethicone in addition to the actual sunscreen chemicals, which I'm only sensitive to in certain places and if I'm wearing a lot of them (oddly, makeup with SPF doesn't bother me, but straight-up sunscreen does). "Mineral makeup" breaks me out and I've read that it's the titanium dioxide in mineral makeup that is usually the problem. It's weird -- I'm sensitive to the stuff that's supposed to be good for you! The supposed bad stuff like fragrances rarely bother me...

      Delete
    3. Interesting! That does seem to be the inverse of most people's experience, but I think that actually somewhat goes to the point here: It sounds like you have sensitivities to certain ingredients that you've been able to identify, which makes for "sensitive skin." But the fact is, plenty of people are "sensitive" to, as you put it, the bad stuff--does that mean they have sensitive skin or just...human skin that shouldn't be flooded with synthetic perfumes?

      Delete
  4. As for the topic, I, too, am self-diagnosed with some kind of sensitive skin. And I don't even remember the first time I came to that conclusion; the word "sensitive" seems to have been around forever. But what I do know is that in my case the tightness is caused by hard water, redness by use of agressive products, and itching tells me that something doesn't work with my skin. So, as long as I use moisturiser after washing my face and abstain of using those agressive, inappropriate products - I'm more than fine. Also, the price of product doesn't matter much any more, it's all about what my skin reacts positively to. I used the old good trial-and-error method to get these small revelations.

    "Skin—unlike, say, the spleen—is an organ generally thought of in terms of appearance, not health, at least if you’re judging where consumer dollars are spent." This sentence reminded me of a recent conversation that I had with a friend. She's studying to become a doctor and she said something like this: dermatologists will always have work and obedient patients because people care about their outside appearances way more than their insides. For example, cardiologists have hard time explaining why exactly the current unhealthy diet will cause some long term problems. Because who actually cares about what you can't see and feel as a threat to your life quality? Having some innocent acne (that purely an aestetic problem kind) will push people (young girls especially) to use teratogenic medication that kills liver in just few years and messes with reproductive system, because if you have a bad skin - your chances to achieve something big and get positive attention drop in almost every category which involves human contact. You can't get people to use such medication for the "inside" conditions unless they're life threatening. Weird human priorities.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fascinating insight from your medical-student friend! And, you know, the dermatologist is the only doctor I see annually besides my gynecologist--more for a precancerous check, but I don't think that it's a coincidence. (Skin cancer runs in my family so there is a heightened risk--but I also have some other inherited health conditions that I'm not nearly as vigilant about monitoring, ha!) I wonder if there's a "bell curve" of sorts--before I became a regular exerciser, for example, I used appearance as a motivator to get me to work out. Becoming trim was my #1 fitness goal--my only one, really. But once I discovered all the other benefits of exercise, that became far less of a priority and now my motivation to go to the gym really is those "inside" conditions and a sense of well-being. But I wouldn't have gotten there if I hadn't wanted the outer rewards first.

      Delete
    2. That reminds me of what my mom always says: "Dermatology is the best medical field to go into, because your patients never die and they never get better." Obviously not 100% true (skin cancer kills, yo), but I always thought it was a funny, acute observation!

      Delete
    3. Ha! And when they DO get better, they practically evangelize on your behalf--free PR!

      Delete
  5. I always thought I had sensitive skin, but it turns out that I am just allergic to salicylic acid, which is in a majority of face soaps--even ones that are for general use and not targeting acne. Once I stopped using those soaps, things cleared up for me--less peeling, fewer rashy bumps, etc. For a while I thought I might have ringworm, because the peeling along my hairline would further irritate my scalp. (And google did not help--it just freaks you out more--but my doctor told me no, it wasn't ringworm, it was just me.) I also started washing my face less frequently, which I believe helps.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ouch! Yeah, salicylic acid is in a lot of products--I actually purposefully looked for low-dose salicylic acid in my twenties and was surprised at how frequently it popped up. Glad you figured it out--and WORD on washing your face less frequently. I haven't used anything on my face for a couple of years now besides water and a weekly exfoliant, and my skin looks better than it used to.

      Delete
  6. I've never truly belived that I have sensitive skin, however it is just an easy way to explain a bizarre allergy to just about every man-made scent on the planet. I've had allergic reactions (usually a rash, sometimes hives) since I was a baby and allergic to the synthetic materials in my disposable diapers. It took years and years for my mom and I to figure out what scented things I need to avoid, which is most of them. Here's the kicker, and why I don't necessarily believe I have sensitive skin, just a weird allergy: I'm not allergic to poison ivy. I think what many people define as reactions due to sensitive skin are actually reactions to the chemicals and dyes the big companies put into their products, and not just cosmetic companies. Starting with the allergen free line as a base would be the best idea since it seems so many people are allergice to something in these products, but then how could they justify charging more for the "hypoallergenic" version of the same product if people are reaching for that one first.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! How odd that you don't have an allergic reaction to poison ivy but have all these other allergies! I think you're absolutely right about companies' motivations for having regular products ("regular," of course, meaning containing highly common allergen) and hypoallergenic products--even when they cost the same, the company gives the impression of being receptive to consumer needs.

      Delete
  7. Great topic! I actually do have sensitive skin. I get hives and reactions to the most random things from foundations to peanuts. I don't know anymore! I found a good dermatologist I trust, and he thinks i might have rosacea. I always err on the side of caution and just go "Sensitive skin" for most products.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The more I think about this, the more grrrr I get toward the mainstream beauty industry--why aren't "sensitive skin" formulas the baseline?! Rosacea is indeed a condition that makes you highly sensitive, but, man, it's not like we lose anything viable by having a fragrance-free product!

      Delete
  8. I recently wrote a post on this topic too. You are right, there isn't a universally agreed definition of sensitive skin. I personally like the one that focuses on the thickness of the epidermis as the critical factor. In any case, it's good news there is no clinical definition of sensitive skin - thankfully it is not a medical condition.
    Here's my own blog post on the topic in case anyone will care to have a look
    http://www.herbjar.co.uk/blog/looking-after-sensitive-skin/
    By the way, I just discovered your blog. It's a well informed and well written one. I will come back!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Luca, I like how you mention cleansing oil in that post--once I started using coconut oil on my face I couldn't believe the difference. And I hear you on the lack of a clinical definition of sensitive skin ultimately being a good thing--that's the last thing we need, the pharmaceutical industry pathologizing "sensitive skin" to sell us some drug to "cure" it!

      Delete
  9. I love this post! I'm such a hypocrite on this issue, as on the one hand, I gravitate to those products, and on the other, whenever I read some beauty-routine profile and the woman profiled explains that she has "sensitive skin," I think that she's just providing a pseudo-medical justification for why she can't buy normal products at the drugstore like everyone else.

    But yes, 100%, re: products being behind much "sensitivity." I think people are prepared to believe makeup causes blotchiness, because to wear makeup is to sin, to dare try to look prettier than one is. But we'll buy into the idea that something in a pharmaceutical-looking, no-nonsense bottle must be good for us. Even if (as inevitably reveals itself to be the case) some unexciting bar soap like Irish Spring will turn out to be better for our skin than a more complicated and elegant routine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heh, I actually thought of you when I was writing this--not because of the topic so much but rather the angle. Certainly I'm a hypocrite on the matter too, and I had to correct a few things in editing this post because I realized it sounded like I was saying sensitive skin didn't exist, when in fact I know from my own (mild) sensitivities that they damn well do. Ugh!

      Interesting re: makeup sensitivities, as opposed to skin care like lotions and cleansers. And, you know, just from thinking about my forays into drugstore aisles, there aren't nearly as many options for "sensitive" formulas for cosmetics as there are for skin care--and yep, I think that idea of sin lies beneath. That's part of why they ("they") always say the #1 most important thing to do for your skin is to wash off your makeup at day's end, I think. Because I've skipped it plenty of times, and yet the world continues to revolve on its axis, and my skin fails to break out.

      Delete
  10. Just discovered your blog. Usually I do not comment but since this is an issue that has been the bane of my existence, I couldn't resist. I have had atopic dermatitis since my childhood. The problem seemed to go away in puberty--I guess to allow my skin to be taken over with severe acne into my twenties--even though I had dry skin. Looking back I wonder if the acne treatments I used just made my "sensitive skin" worse. When the acne got better, I developed an allergy to fragrance and the eczema returned. Now that I am in my early fifties I still have issues with eczema so stick with hypoallergenic products. I also find that my accupuncturist is more helpful then any dermatologist I have known. I wish I had known that in my teens.

    The end result is a lifetime of "beauty" issues that I still struggle with.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi all and sundry! In Laser scar amputation Klink Esthetical is the best clinic in Delhi. It can remove all type of scar due to Laser usage, because I was take their service for skin care products for mentheir package is very good & better in inexpensive.

    ReplyDelete