For the last few years, exactly two times a week, I’ve been drenching my skin with a $117 exfoliating toner. It’s the most luxurious part of my routine, by far, and I wake up on the mornings after I use it with smooth, glassy skin that hasn’t got a dead or dull cell in sight. But last night, when I applied it exactly as I have been since 2017, my face freaked out. It broke into a red rash of hives that required an entire arsenal of cica-infused products to calm down. Thankfully, it only lasted a few hours, but I was understandably confused and shocked.
According to dermatologists, there’s a reason why your tried-and-true products might stop working, the way mine did, based on the shelter-in-place situation we’re all currently in. “Any changes in your regular routine, which has so many variables, can cause skin to freak out,” says board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD, founder of LM Medical. Considering we’re all stuck at home, it’s safe to say that our regular routines are experiencing a lot of changes right now. A few of the big ones that might cause skin sensitivity? Switching up your cleansing schedule, wearing a face mask, and testing out new products or at-home beauty treatments (like waxing your own mustache and eyebrows) as a way to fill your time.
“Skin could be more sensitive because you are adhering to your skincare routine with more frequency, or because you may be doing less, like using less moisturizer and sunscreen, which means less emollients and things that hydrate the skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, MD. “Then you put AHA or BHAs [alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids] on the skin which cause skin to exfoliate and dry out. They remove layers of the skin’s normal barrier so you get more penetration of your other active ingredients, and possibly more irritation from them.”
That’s not all. Shifts in your diet may also show up as sensitive skin, since things like caffeine, spicy food, and alcohol can be inflammatory and increase the likelihood flushed skin. And while stress (which I think it’s safe to say we’re all feeling to some extent right now) has traditionally been linked to acne, board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, says that it can also trigger flare-ups of other inflammatory skin conditions, like eczema, rosacea, and hives.
If you’ve found that your skin is suddenly very sensitive, Dr. Campbell says that the first thing you should do is lay off of the hardcore exfoliating acids. “Instead, use things that restore the skin barrier,” she says. She points to soothing ceramides, collagen-boosting peptides, and hydrating hyaluronic acid and emollients as ingredients that should top the list. “If you are dry, itching, and irritated, a little hydrocortisone ointment can help calm an allergy-irritant or contact allergy,” she adds.
Your best bet for keeping skin calm when everything else feels out of control? Stick with the basics. “Drink water, eat healthy, wash your face twice a day, spot-treat acne with spot treatments of colloid acne pads, and—most importantly—try not to pick,” says Dr. Rabach. Limit your retinol use to once a week (it may be worth trying the “retinol sandwich” method if your skin isn’t able to tolerate it on its own), and if you really need to exfoliate, stick with gentle chemicals, like lactic acid, instead of the more intense ones. When this is all over, our skin will be grateful, and we’ll be able to we take our tried-and-true products out of retirement.