updated 28 Jan 2013, 11:50
Login password
Sun, Jan 27, 2013
The Straits Times
Email Print Decrease text size Increase text size
Doctors seeing more patients with sensitive skin
by Gladys Chung

When Ms Fitrina Lim first read about creams made from snail slime that promised smoother and clearer skin, she was intrigued.

The 24-year-old undergraduate had never had problems with skincare products in the past, so she decided to order a bottle from an online store.

"The benefits sounded enticing and I do want perfect skin," she says.

After using the snail cream for a week, however, she developed painful, red and pus-filled bumps on her face.

"It was horrible. My skin became extremely sensitive; I could not even smile properly due to the pain and no concealer could hide the bumps," she recounts.

The doctor told her she had suffered a bad reaction to the product and gave her antibiotics and prescription creams. It took six months before her skin cleared up, but not without some scarring.

Ms Lim's experience might be an extreme example, but she is among a rising number of patients who suffer from sensitive skin caused by beauty products and procedures.

But "sensitive skin" is a layman's term rather than a medical condition. It usually refers to skin that is inflamed and easily irritated. As the term is used loosely, Dr Raymond Kwah, a specialist in dermatology at Raffles Skin Centre, says more than half of those who consult dermatologists claim to have some form of sensitive skin.


Doctors are seeing more patients who report skin problems caused by the use of beauty products and treatments.

Dr Harneet Ranu, a consultant and specialist in dermatology at Raffles Skin Centre, says she sees about 60 such patients a month, a 30-per-cent jump from 2011.

She attributes this partly to a rise in new anti-ageing and whitening products, as well as a growing number of affordable beauty brands being launched here, making such products more accessible.

"The average patient is also more affluent nowadays and is able to afford expensive serums, creams and beauty treatments," she adds.

Over the same period, Associate Professor Giam Yoke Chin, senior consultant dermatologist at National Skin Centre, observed a 10-per-cent increase in such patients. Last year, she saw about 70 of them.

When Urban asked its Facebook readers to share their experiences with sensitive skin, more than 10 offered anecdotes on how beauty products caused their skin to itch, flake and turn red.

There are many reasons for skin inflammation and it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the causes, especially when one's beauty ritual involves many products.

Besides, ingredients react differently on individuals, says Dr Alain Khaiat, a scientist and president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of Singapore.


Still, doctors say the use of harsh ingredients in potent skincare potions is one of the main causes of inflammation.

Formulas that promise instant results are popular but they may contain higher concentrations of active ingredients.

Prof Giam says those who are genetically predisposed to sensitive skin conditions, such as eczema, are especially prone to flare-ups when using anti-ageing creams that contain alpha-hydroxy acid. They should also avoid concentrated doses of vitamins A and C, which can be drying and irritating.

Many of her patients with inflamed skin caused by anti-ageing creams tend to be older women in their 40s and 50s, who have drier skin.

"It doesn't help if they also spend long hours in air-conditioned rooms and don't moisturise their skin," she adds.

Dr Harneet also sees many Asian women in their early 30s who have sensitised skin caused by whitening products blended from ingredients such as kojic acid, hydroquinone and azelaic acid.

"The ingredients come in small doses but, when combined, can cause a nasty reaction," she says.


Improper usage of the products is another reason some women end up with red and itchy faces.

"Hoping that the product will work better, they apply too much, too many times a day," she adds.

For instance, certain sheet masks should be used at most once a week, but some use them every other day.

"Some masks have a high concentration of whitening ingredients. If you use them every other day, your skin will become dry and inflamed," she says.

"For a product to work, it's not about how much you apply but how consistent you are in using it," she adds.

So follow the instructions on the packaging and use a new product sparingly to let your skin get used to it.

Of course, a face cream is not always to blame when a reaction occurs.

Dr Khaiat says: "We put our hands on our face all the time. A product used on our hands can also cause a reaction on the face," he adds.

"We use many products every day - household cleaners, hand wash in public areas and so on. They contain many ingredients, so determining which product is responsible for a reaction is not easy."

Urban highlights the most common types of sensitive skin conditions and tells you what precautions to take when using beauty products. WHAT INFLAMMATION CAN REALLY MEAN

Dr Raymond Kwah, a specialist in dermatology at Raffles Skin Centre, says "sensitive skin" is a layman's term rather than a medical condition.

But it has come to refer to, among other things, allergic or irritant reactions to products; genetic skin conditions that cause symptoms of burning, stinging, itching; and rashes that develop in response to the environment or food.

One common characteristic of all "sensitive skin" types is inflammation.

Due to the loose definition of the term, DrKwah says more than half of those who consult dermatologists report having some form of "sensitive skin".

He lists the top five common types of sensitive skin:

Irritant contact dermatitis

Skin feels itchy or there is a stinging, tingling or burning sensation. There may also be dryness, cracks or a red rash on the skin. Cosmetic ingredients that may cause this form of dermatitis include alpha-hydroxy acid, which is found in some anti-ageing creams; and propylene glycol, an organic alcohol used widely in cosmetics and personal care products to moisturise the skin.

Allergic contact dermatitis

A skin reaction that is triggered by an activation of the immune system. It is less common than irritant contact dermatitis. Some possible allergens in cosmetics and skincare that can set this off include colourants, fragrances, preservatives such as formaldehyde, and lanolin, a type of wax.

Contact urticaria

Also known as hives. When the skin comes into contact with a product that it is sensitive to, it may react with immediate swelling and redness. The rash usually subsides after a few hours on its own.


Signs include a red flush, pimples and broken vessels on the face. There may also be a burning or stinging sensation that can be aggravated by cosmetics or skincare products - even those that you have been using uneventfully for many years.


People with this condition, which is often hereditary, tend to have dry skin and itchy rashes. They also have an impaired skin barrier and this increases their susceptibility to skin allergies and irritations.

In all cases, visit a dermatologist to determine the cause of your inflamed skin.

[email protected]

readers' comments

Copyright © 2013 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E. All rights reserved.