Updated 1/21/18. As an esthetician with 30 years of experience, I’ve seen every type of skin condition. One that I see frequently is extremely dry, flaky skin on the face and other areas that’s red, irritated, and acts overly sensitive. When my client, Tracey Schwartz, first came to me complaining of all of these symptoms, I ran through my usual list of questions for this type of skin. (Note: those who have eczema and rosacea will also benefit from the information in this post. Both of these conditions are related to a weakened skin barrier, which I discuss in great detail below.)
During my consultation with Tracey, she expressed the following concerns.
- “My skin is always red. Every product that I apply stings, so I have to be really careful with what I use.”
- “I have to keep my skincare routine really simple. I use products for sensitive skin, but my skin still feels irritated.”
- “My skin is constantly dry and flaky and always looks red.”
- “I’ve always had sensitive skin, but it started to get worse in my mid 40’s.”
- “My doctor diagnosed me with rosacea and gave me a prescription. I used it for a while, but it only made my skin more irritated so I went off of it. And I don’t want to be on a prescription if I don’t have to be.”
Looking at Tracey’s skin, there was no doubt in my mind that her skin was extremely fragile. I knew I had to go easy. However, my diagnosis of Tracey’s skin was pretty simple, since I see this condition frequently. She had a damaged protective moisture barrier. This was the true underlying cause of all the dry, red skin on her face and other areas, along with its hypersensitivity. She’s a classic skin type #9. (Take this easy Skin Type Quiz to find out yours.)
Before I go into all the ways that I helped fix Tracey’s dry, flaky skin on her face and other areas, it’s important to know that depending on your skin type, you may have either dry or dehydrated skin. It’s important to know the difference between these. Read this post.
What is a damaged moisture barrier?
Your skin has a barrier made of natural lipids that help keep moisture in and irritants out. When this barrier is damaged (due to age, hormones, genetics, incorrect products and more), it creates tiny, invisible cracks in the skin. These cracks allow moisture to escape, causing dry, flaky skin on the face and elsewhere. Also, irritants then enter more easily. This makes even sensitive skin products cause a stinging, uncomfortable sensation. This sensation might not normally occur if the skin was in a healthy state. In the case of Tracey’s skin, all the moisturizer she was slathering on wasn’t doing anything to help. Her skin’s moisture barrier was in desperate need of repair.
How to fix a damaged moisture barrier causing dry, flaky skin?
There are so many things you can do. The sooner you start, the quicker you’ll see improvement. It’s important to know that it can take up to three weeks to notice a visible difference, but the dry, red skin should feel better quickly.
Avoid washing your skin with anything that leaves it feeling tight.
Look at your cleanser ingredients and make sure to avoid Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. These only further damage the barrier, causing dry, flaky skin on the face, hands, and other areas. If you’re using too strong of a cleanser, you’re instantly stripping the moisture out of the skin, which is the worst thing you can do. (Tracey loves using a foaming cleanser so I had her use Moisture Protecting Cleanser. This is a gel-to-milk cleanser that’s incredibly gentle on red, dry and irritated skin types. A cream-based cleanser can be very effective, too. Vitamin-Infused Cleansing Emulsion is a soothing formula.)
Always use an alcohol-free toner to hydrate your dry, red skin
Toners are misunderstood. People aren’t really sure what they do. Furthermore, many have had bad experiences with alcohol-based ones that left their skin feeling tight and dry. I’m here to tell you that toners are incredibly hydrating and reparative to the skin’s barrier. They’re actually very important to use for the skin’s health and integrity. (For Tracey, I recommended Moisture Infusion Toner. It’s so effective for improving the skin’s ability to retain moisture. As with any toner, you’ll want to leave it damp on the skin before you apply your next product. This helps seal its hydration properties deep within the skin.)
Use a vitamin C or antioxidant serum for dry, sensitive skin daily
It’s been proven over and over that the ingredient vitamin C effectively protects skin cells from environmental damage. However, for red, sensitive and easily-irritated skin types, you need to be very careful about which type you use. Many vitamin C serums are too acidic and can be very reactive for those with a delicate barrier.
There are two general categories of vitamin C serums.
Stable forms of topical vitamin C:
This means the product won’t discolor. It won’t break down and lose its effectiveness over time, so it’s good to the last drop.
These ingredients are:
- Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate: also a proven skin lightener that fades brown spots and discoloration from age, sun, breakouts, and hormones
- Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate
- Ascorbyl Methylsilanol Pectinate
- Ascorbyl Palmitate
- Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate
Unstable forms of topical vitamin C:
This means the product will turn dark yellow or golden brown over time. Air oxidizes the formula, resulting in fewer skin benefits. This unstable type, due to its acidic nature, can cause stinging when applied. This then results in irritation, especially for sensitive skin types, and retinol/prescription retinoid users, and those who exfoliate their skin regularly.
These ingredients are:
- Ascorbic Acid
- L-Ascorbic Acid
The one that I recommended for Tracey was Vitamin C&E Treatment. It’s a stable, no-sting, non-irritating formula that delivers the best and safest results for her dry, sensitive skin.
To further understand the oxidation process and unstable vitamin C, think about If you take a bite of an apple and set it down on a table. What will happen? it will start to discolor and turn brown within 20 minutes. This happens because the air is oxidizing the apple. (Check out this cool experiment I did with an apple and a vitamin C serum.) When you’re using an unstable form of vitamin C, it can quickly oxidize on the face. This means it has started to lose potency and your skin may not be reaping all its benefits.
Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day is a must.
UV rays from daylight cause inflammation in the skin which only makes sensitive skin more reactive. Apply a generous coat to the face and neck every day under makeup. Weightless Protection SPF 30 uses zinc oxide, which is known to be a calming anti-inflammatory. This makes it ideal for sensitive, easily-irritated skin.
Use a moisturizer with lipid-rich oils
This tip is really important. A lot of moisturizers may feel hydrating, but they won’t necessarily fix a damaged barrier causing dry, red skin if they don’t contain these special repairing ingredients. Look for moisturizers with ingredients like:
- Linoleic Acid
- Soybean Sterols
- Jojoba Oil
- Borage Oil
- Merospheres (liposome encapsulated rosemarinus officinalis)
- Kukui Nut Oil
- Grapeseed Oil
- Rose Hips Seed Oil
Many of these are found in Phytolipid Comfort Creme and Pro Remedy Oil (which I suggested for Tracey) since they are both formulated to repair the skin’s protective barrier deep down, where damage begins. I told Tracey to use the cream at night followed by a few drops of the oil on top. Within four weeks, this greatly reduces (or even eliminates) visible redness and skin sensitivity. (Trust me, this cream and oil combo work. However, the skin usually needs so much repair that you should give them time to work their magic.)
Be sure to use products for your skin type..
From the very start of my esthetics career, I learned that every skin is unique. The ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ is simply not effective in achieving healthy, balanced and beautiful skin. Classifying skin into the standard oily, normal and dry skin types is just so limiting. Many cosmetic companies still say, “this product is for all skin types” but all skin types have such different needs! I believe there are nine different types of skin. My skin type quiz will let you know exactly which one you are. (However, more than likely if you’re reading this post, you’re probably a skin type #5 or #9.) Take my Skin Type Quiz to find out yours.
I recommended that Tracey purchase skin care products formulated for skin type #9. She was apprehensive about purchasing the complete collection, as she has experienced so many false promises from other skin care professionals and salespeople. However, I’m thankful that she trusted me because she felt that I really understood her skin and the underlying cause of her concerns. I will say that I definitely suggested she introduce the products slowly by only using one new product every few days. (Read how to introduce new products to your skin.) To start, I suggested for the first few days that she use Phytolipid Comfort Creme and add a few drops of Pro Remedy Oil to it.
When I checked back in with her a month later, her dry, flaky skin on her face and other areas had improved so much. The combination of the products had improved the redness and dryness dramatically, and she was so happy with the results. Her skin felt less warm to the touch, and she didn’t have that feeling of constant irritation. She is a loyal and happy lifelong client and has referred so many of her friends and colleagues to us through the years. Thank you, Tracey. I knew my trusty magic skin wand would cure you—without you having to resort to harsh prescriptions!
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”