sensitive skin: a user’s manual


  • a brief introduction to this individual skin
  • ten commandments for looking after sensitive skin, very generally speaking
  • the revelation of some secret ancient knowledge!
  • a minimalist routine
  • and a section called “also” that includes CHOCOLATE.

The Gingerrama is a redhead with the typical matching skin: PPP, Mac sub-NW10, dainty shade of pale Smurf. And sensitive (Baumann DSNW). Fine, physically / structurally thin, delicate, easily roughened up, bruised, abraded. Reacts to all sorts of things: irritable, easily irritated (red flaky bits, itchy, and lovely zitlike visitations). Sometimes just plain gets fussy and has hissy fits. Prone to dryness (taut, even cracking), occasional dry patches, late-onset cystic acne (now under control). Had mild childhood eczema which returns under stress, duress, anxiety, and sometimes just for the heck of it. Burns easily – has been known to burn under northern European late winter cloud and rain. Comes from a family of sensitive skins, including several proud generations of serious dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, and Scottish and Irish freckle-heads (I’m a card-/passport-carrying dual national, complete with funky accent, though living elsewhere for work reasons.)

But: all these things having been said: it could also be called “normal” in that it is actually normal when its caretaker is careful and minimal in product choices. Late 30s but looks less.

If any of the above rings bells with you, the following might just be helpful. The tips come from a combination of routines prescribed by docs I’d visited, “just in case” routines for future reference; and stuff I’ve done some research on online, then tried and tested, and found to work. Do check around MUA Boards (and elsewhere online) and the many (much more) excellent MUAers’ notepads, and some of their blogs and external sites; and I’d also recommend The Beauty Brains, QuackWatch, and Bad Science for more information (though, as you’ll see from The Gingerrama Manifesto, being pure scientist-types, they don’t take ethical issues on cosmetics into consideration).


    Read labels carefully, as well as all advice, information, others’ useful tips, and so on. This includes words of wisdom from mothers, friends. the advertising industry, old wives’ tales, folk wisdom – and doctors. Distrust everything until you have worked it out, understood it, reasoned through it, and made YOUR decision to accept it for yourself. This advice came from a (very good) doctor, twenty-odd years ago, who probably saved my teenage skin …
    and cynical. Be wary of all claims made by packaging (and its prettiness), marketing and advertising campaigns. Read all reviews carefully so as to distinguish between the copy-pasting of publicity materials, and a reviewer’s actual views based on actual experimental usage. Sniff suspiciously at any negative guidance to consumers along the lines of “avoid X because it’s toxic” combined with “buy our Y because it’s non- or anti-X.” Learn to dissect aesthetics and rhetoric from content and hard fact.
    on ingredients – Wikipedia is often a good start, and Google “sensitive skin,” “dermatitis,” and suchlike to find more specialized appropriate sites. This is so as to learn to read ingredient listings for yourself. Paula Begoun is also often useful: her approach is exemplary – suspicion, rejection of marketing blurbs, avoiding being ripped off by aesthetics or good rhetoric, doing your own research, reading labels carefully. She has, however, sometimes been guilty of just reading, not trying out; and of skim-reading or misreading the scientific literature, so as to come out with blanket claims about things like all fragrance being irritating.
  4. Look out, very roughly speaking, for
    fewer of them, and functional ones, in a formula. In choosing products, avoid those containing any other substances known to irritate you, or that have been known to irritate skins like yours. Note: this does not mean avoiding anything that’s ever been known to irritate anyone ever. That would not be reasonable (see 1 and 2 above). It would, rather, be feeding into paranoia, conspiracy theories, and all sorts of associated b******s. See 9. below re. preserving your liberty from encroachments by The Man. For example, in common with many sensitive-skin people and with many people prone to The Spot, I have no issues with mineral oil – quite the opposite.
  5. For example:
    in skin products, except for a few known to be OK with your skin. Mine is usually fine with rose and sandalwood; at various stages, it’s been known to be fine with chamomile, and even with lavender and some (other) commonly irritating ones. Even when highly irritable, there are some oils I can use in teeny amounts in the form of scent, but cannot use in skincare products, let alone as a pure essential oil. These things vary from product to product, in relation to the formula as a whole, and will vary from month to month and day to day. Sorry.
    But: if in doubt, avoid all fragrance and only experiment with reintroducing it very slowly, one ingredient or item at a time. I avoid anything calling itself unspecified “fragrance” unless I’ve tried that company’s products before and am OK with them in general (ex. Clarins), or have checked with the company and they’ve sent me a list of the sub-ingredients contained within “fragrance.”
    I’d also recommend getting tested, properly and fully, regularly, for allergens. Been doing this for years; they’ve changed from place to place and time to time, sometimes with a link to life and lifestyle: stress, overwork, and undersleeping always show up first in my skin…
    test products out as scientifically as you can. First and foremost: before buying, patch-test any new product (or indeed ingredient) on the skin of the inside of your wrist, and in corner of neck under and slightly behind ear. Do so as early in the day as possible, to give the product a fair time to react. If there is going to be a massive irritated reaction, that will usually take place within ten minutes of application (and you’ll know you’ve been irritated!): if that happens, remove product immediately and clean area. If there’s a lesser reaction, that can take between about an hour and a day. Hence trying stuff out at the beginning of the day. A lesser reaction may involve a reaction followed by its subsidence: hence worth keeping a product on for longer, in case it “settles.” Unless it hurts and skin is inflamed, in which case be sensible: remove product and clean testing area. If a company representative refuses to let you test out a product in this way (this happens a lot in Ireland), do not buy it, and write to the company in complaint. But be nice and civil about it – the dermatologically insensitive often simply don’t know any better (and see 10. below). If a sales assistant attempts to feed you placatory guff on how sensitive-friendly a product is, whilst refusing to let you test it, you may be more entitled to express verbal irritation.
    on what you’re using and how it’s working. Start out by going to absolute basics. Once you’ve found a basic routine and basic products that work, and skin is stable (i.e. 2-4 weeks later, start adding items – whether favourite old products, to see if you really do react to one specific product or ingredient; or new ones. Add new products one at a time. If skin starts to react, remove products from routine so as to test out whether skin is reacting to one specific product or to two or more in combination. Above all – as with reading labels and researching ingredients – be patient. This whole process may take time.
    if in doubt, don’t buy or try, but contact the company making it, and check out whatever your niggling doubt is with them. Most companies’ details can be found online these days, and most are emailable, so it costs you no money and little time.
    What you buy is your choice. No-one’s forcing you to buy their stuff. A brand has no right to your unquestioning belief or loyalty; it has to be earned, and earned honestly. Don’t buy into commercial myths, or hand over your hard-earned cash and confidence to The Man (see 1. and 2. above). Speaking as a female and a feminist: we and our mothers and sisters did not fight for freedom so as to hand it back over as well as our hard-won acceptance as rational equal beings – and, amusingly, pay for the privilege. Earning more, in a higher-status job, and with more power should not necessarily equate to buying into more (and sillier) b******t. Give the surplus away to charity. Do something to help your fellow human beings who are not as comfortably off (financially and otherwise).
    Remember (see 1. above) you are a person, like anyone else, with the same rights – but also responsibilities. Be an educated consumer, and educate others in turn. Including sales assistants, shop employees (ex. department or drug stores), and other company representatives: this is much more productive for all concerned than just getting upset, or angry, or not saying anything about it. It’s not fair on someone who may genuinely not know any better (see: reasonableness principle in 1. above). You’ll be less stressed (and irritated) and you blood pressure will be the healthier for it. Staving off one cause of early death from heart attacks. Promises of extending your life and improving our quality of life aside – you’re helping someone else out, and they may in turn help out other prospective consumers. Including other people with sensitive skin. Finally, do go back and tell company representatives (of the various sorts, from SA to emailing Marketing HQ) when one of their products  works: it’s something like 100 times more likely for them to receive negative than positive feedback. This can only be good: a compliment will increase the happiness of at least one person, for at least a moment, let alone if they then do their job properly and pass it on. What goes around comes around.



“I have sensitive skin. Will [X] irritate / clog / break me out?”


Here is the answer:

  • all that anyone can ever give you as an answer is a probability, which in turn is going to be more or less accurate, reliable, useful, fiable, etc. In Disraeli’s immortal words : “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
  • there’s a lot of other things to take into account about you, your skin, what else you’re using on it, what else you’ve used, genetics, lifestyle, diet, stress-extent, etc., etc.: things that I don’t know. And indeed very few people would know that much about themselves!
  • alas, I’m just a human being behind a virtual identity; I have no special powers for predicting the future (or knowing people better than they know themselves).
  • the other factor to take into account, if you experience irritation (or clogging, or worse) with any finished product, is what else is in there: so you could be irritated by one ingredient, or by that ingredient in combination with one or more others, or by the amount of that ingredient (dose/rate, percentage). The delivery system can also be a factor: water-based solution, one in alcohol, colloid, gel, serum, lotion, cream,… and what’s in the base for it (water, alcohol, aloe vera gel, an emollient formulating base like Glaxall, etc.).
  • so: you need to TEST THINGS OUT ON YOURSELF.


Because there’s often little way to tell in advance how your skin’s going to react to something—even after reading loads of reviews, inc. by people whose skin seems similar to your own and who can and can’t use the same stuff on it—alas, testing stuff out on yourself often turns out to be the only way to find out.

So: test everything, basically, of you want to be sure. Not all over, in case of disaster. In patches.

I do this:
(1) behind one ear and on the earlobe (just like gets done to unwilling experimental subjects, such as rabbits in laboratories)
(2) under my chin
(3) inside of one wrist

If that’s OK, I’ll also test
(4) one side of neck, from ear down to just below the collarbone
(5) corner of nose, being thin-skinned and zit-prone.

Once a product has reached stage (5) without breaking me out, clogging, irritating, etc.: then it’ll go into longer-term “split face” (and/or body) testing. With my previous usual product (ex. moisturiser) on the other side. If I’m being very methodical, I’ll take photos of both sides before the start of the experiment, then daily for the whole testing period. Monitoring other things (feel of skin, etc.) regularly along the way. I’d only declare something “safe for use on me” for a good 6 weeks, so as to see how the stuff jives with hormonal fluctuations. I’ll only test one item at a time, of any sort of product (so only one moisturiser, though I might also be putting a mascara through its paces too).

On the subject of secret ancient knowledge:


    (morning and evening): First wash hands. Assemble tools: a very mild cleanser, tepid or cool water, and a washcloth. No scrubbing or rubbing, and use hands as much as possible (being gentler). If skin is really reactive: no tapwater, cleanser removed with a cloth (anything in a soft fine cotton-type fabric: I use an old T-shirt kept for the purpose), and bottled slightly-warmed-up mineral water (Avene also actually, IMHO, *good*). On the wash- or other cloth: I change mine every two days (then it goes in the wash). On seriously unhappy skin, to reduce the chances of bacterial transfer, use a fresh cloth each time. Afterwards, pat almost dry with clean towel (and the same applies to towels as to face-cloths): no rubbing, and to leave face slightly damp. Skin should not feel dry or tight, nor have a greasy film left. Comfortable, slightly moist. Milk and yoghurt recommended (if lactose issues, try sheep or goat milk/milk powder in solution, or almond- or oat-milk products).
  • TONER:
    If in doubt, just use cold water, be that tap water (if your local one is good quality), or out a bottle, or in a spray (again, I happen to like Avène). If feeling more secure, try a really mild toner: water- rather than alcohol-based, and containing things like witch-hazel, rosewater, glycerin; eventually, depending on skin tolerances, green or white tea, chamomile, calendula, liquorice root extract.
    something really straight-forward, and not necessarily one moisturiser all over. Not necessarily on oilier or spottier places (they may be sufficiently non-dry from cleanser). Consider using oil(s) as well/instead.
    (some sorts of acne, not all–it is a varied and many-splendoured thing): problem area – all depends on what skin can take. If very reactive: witch hazel – not the fancy stuff, just distilled solution (and not the kind in/with alcohol). Possibly try salicylic acid based stuff, applied only to individual spots, and a tiny dab at that: ex. Paula’s Choice BHA range. Many are fine with this, though I Got Stung as it were. Salt water. Aspirin mask. Basic disinfectant, antiseptic, antimicrobial first-aid ointment/gel; the kind with minimum ingredients, and not too greasy. Tea tree oil and manuka honey dotted onto spots. And sleep.
    light veil-like texture, mineral/physical blockers only. Also a lipbalm with sunscreen during the day. Scary but unsurprising stuff, in “celebration” of Melanoma Awareness Month, c/o

    • (2009-05-18) The Irish Cancer Society recently published a report showing that not only have new cases of skin cancer in Ireland risen by 36% over the last 10 years, but there has also been a 75% increase in females under 50 years presenting with malignant melanoma.
    • (2009-05-13) Research released today from Hamilton, the Australian suncare brand, reveals that 23% of Irish women never use sunscreen, and only 29% know that skin cancer is the number one cancer in Ireland.
    OK, eye make-up, and not counting lips. Careful around lips: too much scent can irritate, and the wrong kinds of oils/waxes can irritate skin too, if there’s any migration (as lip stuff does) around mouth. No primer, foundation, concealer, powder, blush, etc., etc. Not until skin has stabilised: and then, only introducing one item at a time (see The General Rules above re. scientific method).
    for sunscreen and eye make-up. Pre-cleanse if need be – if more makeup (mineral oil works well, as well as sunflower, safflower, or other lighter, less irritating, and less comedogenic oils): applied either using hands then removed using tepid-water-soaked cotton-wool pad or a cloth (cut up old T-shirts for ex.); or oil applied on cotton-wool pad/cloth, and rinsed off with water using hands. Then cleanse.
  • If you find products that are good but dislike the packaging – Allergenics, for instance, is one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen – transfer it to another container that you like better and make your own label (always put ingredients down, so you remember). Then paint all over label and beyond its edges with clear nail varnish, to waterproof it for bathroom use. I love Muji for this purpose.
  • In the event of disaster and rapid irritation: see in case of emergency


  • Drink water, good diet of proper real food, exercise, sleep, avoidance of known stressors (aka other sorts of irritant) both in food and lifestyle/activities.
  • Avoid–how shall I put this politely and without offending the cultural sensibilities of the third-largest country in the world–I don’t think it’s possible: it is humbly suggested that it might be a good idea to avoid eating crap. Pseudo-food. And those silly fizzy drinks. Apart from cocktails, of course. They are by definition sensible and grown-up. Some of them may indeed be fizzy, but proper cocktails are never ever silly. Cannot be, by definition.
  • In short: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
    And no, I don’t think the dude’s a guru, though I admit to skim-reading some of the books and articles (and he seems a decent enough bloke); but I did so because I’d already been into this whole veggie/ethical stuff since some considerable time before 2007. Common-or-garden veggies of the poorer variety have of course been doing it for yonks. Though without such an elegant snappy way of summarising what it was they were doing. So the chap’s worked wonders for green and veggie PR.
  • Check other skincare items: if face is unhappy, do pay attention to your shampoo and conditioner, and any hair-styling products.
  • Oatmeal baths and washes.
  • Another skin-stabilising factor was daily consumption of omega-3, -6, and -9.
    Omega 9 is easily taken through inclusion of olive oil in daily diet.
    Omega 3 (aka alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) in my case through one 1050 mg flaxseed oil capsule. I’m a vegetarian – you can also get them through fish oil caps, such as cod liver oil.
    Omega 6 (aka gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA) through 1050 mg evening primrose.
    I found Omega 3 made a positive difference, Omega 6 no really noticeable. Plus zinc (in daily multivit/min tab). Tested using method of stopping use; tested over a bit over a year.
    So I ditched the vitamins and went back to my previous method, of eating lots of nuts and seeds (for -3 and -6) and not worrying about exact quantities. That seems to be OK.
  • I don’t know if eating quite a lot of the following has actively helped, not having taken a scientific approach to own diet (cos I like eating and do it for pleasure), but it doesn’t seem to have hindered:
    • yoghurt, preferably full-fat (and like most of the dairy I eat, organic, grass-fed, etc.–mostly for environmental and animal-welfare reasons),
    • cereals and grains  (much oats, barley, quinoa)
    • green vegetables (especially broccoli, greens, kale),
    • fruit juices,
    • tofu and tempeh,
    • roasted vegetables: you name it, it can probably benefit from roasting, and might even be transformed and a revelation: parsnips, beets, cauliflower, kale, good old (or new) potatoes, and anything lurking in a vegetable basket,
    • mushrooms grilled, fried, roasted portobellos, stir-fried, on toast, in soup, in risotto,…
    • nuts and seeds (hazels, walnuts, pecans, macadamia, almonds, pistachios, very small quantities of peanuts–I’m not allergic, but they and cashews lead to zitorrrama, pine, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame),
    • chickpeas (especially as houmous, eaten at least once a day), lentils, fresh braod-beans, butter-beans, assorted beans and pulses,
    • anything fried with onion and garlic, preferably with butter too,
    • Quorn sausages (fried gently in olive oil, put into a panini-style sandwich with BBQ sauce), which sadly as not available here in Canada as their legal status is somewhere between “data gap, insufficient evidence for suitability as food” and “unfit for human consumption.” Vegan Dad has an excellent recipe for the best other veggie sausages I’ve ever encountered; The Beloved made them, so I’m not sure which of the two recipes he used, but it’s either the breakfast sausages one or the homemade sausages one. Other beans or pulses can be substituted in this recipe, chunkiness and texture can be varied, ditto herbing and spicing. Amazing lovely wonderful things, these sausages.
    • [I digress…]
    • honey,
    • good cheese, almost exclusively sheep or goat (and without animal rennet)
    • wine and whisky (separately and in moderation),
    • loads of herbs and spices (yay ginger),
    • fresh greens in pleasant salads with so much other stuff–nuts and seeds, roasted veg, interesting dressings–it looks too decadent to be good for you; preferably with cheese, too,
    • grilled Halloumi, preferably on a BBQ,
    • red berries and dried fruits (apple-sweetened cranberries, unsulphurated apricots, raisins),
    • and the luxury of bread, especially gorgeous freshly baked bread.
    • Inordinate quantities of very dark (min. 70% cocoa solids, and lower sugar) chocolate.
    • Strawberries and really sweet cherry tomatoes: like sweeties, but good for you (and to those obsessed with sugar intake, unless diabetic, I say sugar schmoogah).

There will be a post, at some point–making mental note to self–comprising a list of favourite veggie cook-books.

la vie mode demploi

One comment

  1. Piedad Semple

    To fight acne, it really is advisable that we know some thing about acne and what causes acne. Acne as discussed earlier is really typical. It’s triggered by a wide range of elements which include genetics or heredity, hormonal imbalance, anxiety or too much tension, property and function environment, insanitation or poor sanitary habits, pregnancy, puberty and far more.

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