in case of emergency

I have sensitive skin. Have had for 38 years. Have had to look after it on my own, like a grown-up, for about 25 of these years. Based on past experience, doctors’ advice, and doing my own research, here’s some suggestions on what to do with irritation.

That aside: good luck, and may the Force be with you. Whatever force that might be. In the event of irritation, any force will do. You know irritation is bad when you’re ready to renounce all principles, reason, and so on–and bow down and worship any dagnabbèd force that does anything…


Stopping whatever the current routine might be and substituting:

  • CLEANSER: oil or emollient/barrier cream; washing as little as possible, i.e. once a day max.
  • TONER: nothing, or water (tap water if it’s soft, or mineral water, or distilled water at a pinch)
  • MOISTURISER: oil or emollient/barrier cream; topped up as needed; shea butter or petrolatum (own-brand Vaseline-a-like, Aquaphor) on lips and around eyes
  • SUNSCREEN (a.m. only): Vanicream SPF 60; or none, just covering up and avoiding sun, if skin very upset.
  • HAIR: unscented shampoo and conditioner; washing as little as possible, ideally get someone else to do it for you . Ex. hairdresser, but using your own unscented stuff, and no styling products etc. Head backwards over sink being one of the positions that keep product/skin contact to the minimum. Putting hair in plaits/braids otherwise (I find that can add at least a day, usually comfortably two, before hair needs washing again)
  • DEODORANT & SCENT: just zinc oxide nappy/diaper cream



1. Check your water, soften it if necessary (Brita filters on taps, shower head, better still at the tank).

2. Use as little water as possible when washing, and tepid–slightly cooler than body temperature.

3. Only shower once a day max.

4. When I’ve been really dry and eczematic, I’ve actually used emollient creams/balms/barrier-repair creams (Allergenics, E45, Elave, Glaxall-base-alikes, A-Derma Exoméga, etc.) for cleaning skin–feels like a cold cream or creamy cleanser–rather than a detergent-based actual cleanser.

5. Leave skin damp, apply oil, let that air-dry; while still slightly oily, apply balm/cream to seal in moisture.
Oils used: mineral, sunflower, safflower, sesame, almond are my reliable ones that are always OK, never any reactions.
If in full eczematic mode, I’ll also use borage-seed oil. Buy the capsules (meant to be ingested), cut one open, spread on skin. Great stuff.
If skin is suffering horribly: mineral oil.

6. Smooth all potions & lotions in the direction of flakes & scales, not against them; if they’re very rough and raw, just pat down on top of them. (And no scrubs, exfoliation, etc.: if skin is raw and hurts, just–no!)

7. No perfume or scented products. Inc. deodorant–rec. Mitchum unscented smart solid (men/women, same stuff); or the deodowich.

8. Keep a diary/logbook of what you use, how much you sleep, what you’re eating, symptoms felt (with times and description), also take photos of skin morning and evening, same time every day. It often helps doctors.

9. Change laundry detergent and household cleaning products to fragrance-free minimalist ones. No fabric conditioners. Wear rubber gloves when doing the washing-up. Keep windows op0en when hoovering (better still, get someone else to do it while you’re out…).

10. Avoid excessive heating and air-conditioning.

All of these for SO / flat-mates / rest of household too. Total quarantine.



1. Only clean skin once a day.

2. If very irritated (and I mean medical-textbook-scary-picture irritated):
—clean with very plain basic emollient cream or oil (esp. mineral) and fine cloth, not water.
—do not do anything else to it. No moisturisers or anything else. If going outside and it’s sunny, cover up. No makeup.
—This is what people will do to your skin if you’re in hospital. It’s as basic and medical-grade as it gets. I first met this when in hospital for serious contact dermatitis. There will be a slight “film” left on your skin afterwards. That’s fine: leave it alone. It will keep skin moist, prevent it drying out.

3. If it’s not *that* irritated:
—clean with something very simple: cream or milk/lotion
—use *tepid* water–skin temperature, not colder, not hotter
—if your water is hard, soften it (brita filter on tap for ex.)
—tools: just use your hands. No cloths, sponges, scrubs, brushes, Clarisonics, etc. And wash your hands before approaching face.
—moisturise with something simple: plain mineral oil, emollient cream, similar simple cream or lotion, the functional part of things sold as “barrier creams.” All over (less on oilier parts), including eyes.
—avoid sunscreen to start with, cover up if in sun: long sleeves, sunglasses, hat, parasol, whatever… The most irritation-friendly sunscreen I’ve used is Vanicream (spf 60 my favourite, 30 is heavier, 35 is mixed physical/chemical so no for me). As recommended by various allergy, eczema, etc. associations around the place.
—by “basic” I mean really basic; minimal, few ingredients, no fragrance.
—nothing else. No makeup.
—careful on hair and rest of body: recommend similarly minimalist approach there too. I use similar stuff on body as to face.
—hair: often irritation on forehead, sides of face, and neck are from shampoo and conditioner. Change them to similarly minimalist stuff. No extras–no styling products, leave hair to dry naturally.
—look seriously at diet, sleep, work and stress, exercise, and other lifestyle elements.
—keep a diary of what you’re doing and using (inc. sleep, food, etc.); take photos of skin, in same place with same lighting, at the same time every day; would rec morning and evening. Keep these pics with diary.
—stay with the minimalist routine, AND NOTHING ELSE, for at least 6-8 weeks.

Some things to put on skin —on irritated patches, breakouts, zits, etc. or all over larger expanses—in alphabetical order. Note that not all people can use all of these things, all skins are different, reactions vary, and reactions may change (ex. from time to time I can’t use aloe, or only in limited doses):
alcohol: two forms and uses:
(1) rubbing alcohol / surgical spirit / isopropyl alcohol / isopropanol: for disinfecting. May sting. (May also trigger skin reactions: rash, inflammation, etc. It’s OK, if you’re me this just happens dramatically then it goes down and all is well.)
(2) the drinkable sort, for its usual purpose and extra easing of pain. May help encourage sleep if taken in hot toddies before bed.
aloe vera juice: preferably squeezed straight out of the plant leaf. Or keep some fresh juice in the fridge (often found for drinking purposes in the medicinal section of health-food stores, or in the diet/bodybuilding department elsewhere). Avoid things that claim to be long-life and/or are gels: check ingredients. NBBB: “gel containing 100% aloe vera” ≠ “100% aloe vera”. If the stuff is refrigerated and the only ingredient is aloe vera leaf juice, you’re good.
antihistamines taken orally
antiseptic cream/ointment, if you’ve scratched at itchy bits, now have open wounds, and risk infection
arnica lotion, cream, etc.
—that old childhood classic, calamine lotion
calendula ointment/cream
chamomile in creams, DIY poultice, tea compresses, etc.
comfrey in a poultice
corticosteroid / hydrocortisone cream/ointment, used sparingly, seldom, for a very short time, and as a last resort
cream: barrier repair cream / emollient cream
frozen peas & ice: brings down swelling
neem oil
oats: fine-ground powdery meal for washing face (mix with water to a smooth paste) or as a mask or poultice (mix with yoghurt etc.), seek it out and its components in product ingredients
oil: avocado, borage/starflower seed, hemp, meadowfoam seed, mineral, safflower, sunflower, sweet almond
water: tepid/body-temperature. Out the tap if your water is soft; otherwise get a central filter installed (the kind that uses salts), or fix Brita or similar filters to individual taps (for both washing and drinking/food-use). Or distilled, on skin. Or bottled mineral water, if you’re stuck. Bit of a luxury though.
witch hazel distillate or hydrosol, water-based, no alcohol. Unless you know for a fact that your skin is fine with the standard 14% vol kind. Actually: let’s be practical. If you’ve not tried the stuff before, get the standard alcoholic one and see how your skin copes, because it’s much more common and easy to obtain, and it’s cheaper.
yoghurt as a mask: full-fat yoghurt, the kind whose ingredients are just milk + bacterial cultures (so: NO skim milk powder, milk proteins, stabilizers, gums, etc.). I usually get organic, sheep or goat rather than cow if possible (but that’s as much for environmentalist reasons as anything else).
zinc oxide cream/ointment of the diaper/nappy rash, baby butt paste sort


The three categories should overlap.




BAGS UNDER EYES / FATIGUE / GENERAL LETHARGY: run cold water over 2 teabags (normal kind, with tea in, containing tannin & caffeine & c.) then apply to closed eyes, holding them there for a few minutes until skin feels tighter and more refreshed. Can productively be combined with making tea for partner (I’m a coffee gal in the morning…). That is, using the teabags myself after his tea, not the other way around. I’m not that mean.


  • Allergenics Emollient Cream
  • Avène Soothing Eye Contour Cream
  • Weleda lip balm
  • Avène spray

IRRITABLE SKIN SYNDROME: The slightest whiff of the start of a hunch of skin going grumpy and uncooperative:

  • Avène water spray. Spritzed on, left for a minute, then patted dry. Repeated whenever necessary.
  • Yoghurt and honey face mask for about 30 min, twice a day: 2 tablespoonfuls of plain natural yoghurt, about the same of honey, mixed together, and applied to clean dry skin.

REACTIVE SKIN: Upset and full-on cranky outbreak (dry AND spotty AND disagreeing with everything – wheee!):

  • Yoghurt mask, plain and simple
  • (UK/Ireland) Elave Wash + Intensive Cream
  • Avène Tolérance extrême Cleansing Lotion + Cream
  • Avène Extremely Gentle Cleanser + Skin Recovery Cream + Soothing Eye Contour Cream.
  • A-Derma cleansing bar + Skin Care Cream / Exoméga + Epithéliale around eyes
  • And frequent spraying with the Avène water, plus using it soaked into cotton pads as cold compresses.

ZITTORIFIC CALAMITY: Just treating skin gently and minimising irritation seems to have worked best of all.
Immediate relief:

  • icecubes or frozen peas, applied wrapped in fine cloth, like a super-cold compress.

Short-term management:

  • Cotton-wool pad with witch-hazel and three drops of tea-tree oil, patted onto the offending areas.
  • Then honey (preferably manuka, UPF 10 fine for this purpose, UPF 20 or above if you happen to have it around for first-aid purposes). Dotted on with a Q-tip/cotton-wool bud, and left there for as long as possible. Ex. first thing in the morning, then have coffee etc., and rinse off in shower; in the evening, apply just before bead and leave on overnight. Depending where the zits are, it might help to put a sticking-plaster on top, to avoid smearing pillow and hair …
  • Tisserand Tea-Tree & Kanuka Blemish Stick: mainly witch-hazel, tea-tree and kanuk oils, castor oil. Not listed on MUA yet (will get on the case…): better than any other similar sponge-tip/roller-ball/etc. on the spot gels I’ve tried.

Longer-term maintenance:

  • keeping hands very clean
  • resisting all urges to scratch or pick at spots
  • whenever the itch gets too great, applying one of these magical no-water alcohol-based cleansers to hands, and using an Avène water cold compress on the itchy bit (= water sprayed onto a cloth or cotton wool).

While the following things didn’t make matters worse, they didn’t make them better either. Other things used previously on persistent zits – all of these, evening only, and applied using cotton-wool bud/Q-tip (for hygiene + so as not to dry out any surrounding skin):

  • Avène Cleanance;
  • Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid;
  • Origins Spot Remover dabbed on gently and only on the spot itself.
  • Various sponge-tip, roller-ball, dabbing on, etc. etc. on the spot concoctions, based on witch-hazel, salicylic acid, tea-tree oil, and sulfur.
  • If still no improvement, leave area alone for a couple of days (and no makeup, no matter how painful that is); then zinc oxide cream (aka baby nappy/diaper-rash cream/ointment).
  • Also Bacitracin or Neosporin or other basic anti-bug stuff (i.e. disinfectant, antiseptic, antimicrobial).
  • If it’s a general outbreak, I’ll go onto emergency skincare: Elave Wash + Intensive Cream (or similar – E45, Eucerin, cold cream, etc.) until it’s over;
  • If that takes more than a week, it’s the final weapon in the arsenal: on the telephone to The Mother, then off to the pharmacy, then the doctor.

Dryness – Avène Tolérance extrême cream on top of current moisturiser.
Extreme dryness – Allergenics Emollient Cream dotted on top of usual moisturiser, in drier areas.
If very very dry, add a thin layer of oil in the shower aft




See also: MakeupAlley Product Reviews: Yogurt Mask (all reviews)


See also: MakeupAlley Product Review: Honey (all reviews)



(Gingerrrama) sensitive skin: a user’s manual

Context is, I’m sure, all; but every context I can think of makes this sign comic. It’s in the syntax. Further context: found on genuine health & safety site.

Image at top: Zazzle

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