Sensitive ageing skin

    I always look forward to my copy of Natural Medicine magazine. Each copy is a reference book to me. I try to keep track of articles of particular interest, but as life goes on one’s needs change, and what was relevant a year ago is not necessarily so now. I am so glad you have decided to continue online!

    An article in your July  issue 157 was very relevant to me: ‘Say no! to nasties in cosmetics’. I’m now 65, and as I have become older, I have become far more sensitive to chemicals on my skin. I’ve always had a sensitive skin, but was able to use a variety of brands without any problems in my younger days. I am now restricted to the bare basics as I am unsure exactly which chemicals affect me. Even ‘natural’ products containing herbs cause an unsightly rash that can take up to two weeks to clear. It seems that a number of ingredients cause problems.

    Because of this sensitivity I can’t use sunscreen, or moisturiser other than aqueous cream. I make my own skin toner using lemongrass from the garden (no pesticides) and cloves simmered in water. The tooth powder we use instead of toothpaste is made with bicarbonate of soda, fine sea salt, powdered cinnamon and essential oils. Can you suggest similar ‘beauty products’ that can easily be made at home using readily available ingredients, without polluting and poisoning our bodies with unwanted and harmful chemicals? Healthy greetings, Rosemary


    I am delighted to read that you want to use products without potentially harmful ingredients that will pollute your body and cause irritation. Let me state, however, that our own internal environment is a veritable chemical soup, so we need to remember that chemicals are not all bad.

    Skin sensitivity is not uncommon as one ages – this is a bit of an anomaly, since at a sensory level skin sensitivity may decline with age. So not only do ageing folk sometimes experience a diminished sense of touch, i.e. feel less, we also tend to become hypersensitive to external stimuli (chemicals in your case), or other environmental aggressors. In addition, the skin starts to thin as the epidermal barrier decreases, due to the ageing process and hormonal changes. And then there’s the collagen loss, sagging and wrinkles with which we crones also have to contend – but the compensation for such aggravation is supposed to be wisdom!

    You mention always having had a sensitive skin, so you’d be even more inclined to react to agents applied to your skin than someone who did not have such a history. You say that ‘natural’ products containing herbs exacerbate the situation – well, not all things branded as ‘natural’ are necessarily suitable for everyone (to which you can attest), and one can’t blindly assume that what’s in the pot is exactly what is described on the label, because so many products are ‘green washed’ these days.

    Based on your comment that many ingredients affect you, I would advise that you need to consider more than the external expression of your skin’s sensitive reaction, and also investigate what may be going on at an internal level. The skin is our largest organ, as well as being an important organ of elimination. It can therefore often provide us with clues about our internal state of health by reflecting disturbances, even subtle ones, at an external level. We’re exposed to so many chemical and environmental toxins on a daily basis that it’s not uncommon for people to express multiple chemical sensitivities, which manifest in all sorts of ways, including skin rashes.

    You mention using aqueous cream, which I will assume is commercial aqueous cream, and not a water-based (i.e. aqueous) cream made with ingredients that are free from petrochemical byproducts like mineral oil. Some commercial aqueous creams have label declarations that will help you to establish what ingredients they contain. I have yet to come across a commercial aqueous cream that does not contain mineral oil.

    Mineral oil-containing products are cheap to produce, and they’re very stable with regard to shelf-life, which is why mineral oils seem to be in most skin and body care products, especially the less expensive ones (though some very expensive creams often list them as an ingredient too). While mineral oil products are effective barriers, they do not actively nourish the skin like vegetable oils can. This ingredient is of little or no concern to many people, but it is not usually acceptable to those who wish to ‘go green’ or use only plant-derived ingredients. (I have relatively strong personal opinions about the over-use of mineral oil in cosmetics, but that's a topic for another forum!)

    In order to establish exactly what is exacerbating your skin sensitivity you would need to stop using all your current products, including aqueous cream and your home-made skin toner, as both lemongrass and cloves contain essential oil chemical constituents (aldehydes and phenol, respectively) that are potential skin irritants. This external elimination process is similar to the elimination diets used to determine food sensitivities. If your skin won’t tolerate a few days of ‘cold turkey’ treatment, you can try using plain jojoba oil as a moisturising agent and see whether your skin reacts to this lovely liquid wax (which is similar to the skin's natural sebum). Then start reintroducing other products, one at a time for a few days each, taking note of what happens. Make a mild bicarbonate of soda and filtered water solution to use as a fragrance-free toner, or to remove or reduce the jojoba oil effect if you find it too sticky or shiny. You don’t want to alter the skin’s natural acid mantle significantly, so add a few drops of cider vinegar to help balance the alkaline nature of this solution if needed.

    Sensitive ageing skin

    Many excellent plant-based oils can be used for natural skin care, and a wonderful plant-based aqueous cream can be made from simple natural ingredients. A caveat, though – anyone with skin sensitivity needs to take care if using beeswax as an emulsifier when making creams or lotions, as it doesn’t always play nicely with sensitive skin (natural and yummy as it can be for other skin types).

    If you’d like to learn more about natural skin care and making your own cosmetic products from scratch (i.e. not just adding essential oils, etc. to a pre-made base cream), you are welcome to contact me on [email protected]

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