SKINCARE IS A JOURNEY— Learning to Live With Sensitive Skin


Towards the end of 2018 I read a comic book called Snot Girl. The main character is a beauty/fashion blogger in LA and while the plot is definitely overly dramatic, other parts of the comic rings a bit close to home as a blogger. I was totally hooked and read through both Volume 1 & 2 in a single evening. While I really liked it, the experience of reading Snot Girl made me really reflect on what I'm doing with my online presence and what influencers I follow (and why). When I handed the comics back to my boyfriend (he was kind enough to lend me his copies) I believe my exacts words were, "I really liked it, but it makes me never want to be a beauty blogger."

Ironically, or more accurately in typical Gretchen fashion, I almost immediately turned around and developed an interest in skincare products. I kicked off 2019 by bring vlogging into my life and dedicating time to talk about my skin and my journey learning to care for it. The thing is, when I was younger I didn't need to have an interest in skincare. My skincare routine pretty much just consisted of: wear sunscreen. I rarely had acne and when I did, if it got bad it was 100 percent my own fault—I couldn't help touching and messing with stuff even when I knew it would only make things worse. I hardly wore makeup, almost exclusively using tinted sunscreen and my face and skin tone magically remained nice even if I wasn't drinking enough water, or wasn't washing my face, or getting enough sleep, or any of the other things I did in my 20s.


Developing Skin Issues

I first noticed my skin changing when I moved to China. It wasn't too much of anything, just a bit more acne popping up here or there. I wasn't alone. I had friends who were experiencing the same thing. This is actually pretty common when moving to a city where a "good pollution day" still exposes your skin to a much higher level of toxins than it's use to. A little bit after moving back stateside, my skin exploded into what was the worse acne breakout I'd ever had. According to my dermatologist, that actually isn't too uncommon for people coming back from somewhere like China and is a "temporary side effect" of my skin releasing all the toxins it had built up while living abroad. Fun!

While that one did just work itself out with time, the whole ordeal seemed to have left my skin much more acne prone than it ever was before (this may also be coupled with natural hormonal changes). Almost two years went by and I just dealt with having slightly more problematic skin; however, it was in general still pretty mellow. That was until last May/June. At first, it looked like a bad acne breakout but the more I treated it, the worse it got. The closer I looking into it, the less it acted or looked like acne. My second guess was psoriasis (as many of my readers know, I have psoriasis which is a constant battle) but it didn't it didn't look /act like psoriasis either. Baffled and confused, I found myself facing a problem that started to negatively effect my confidence and subsequently my mood.

Lucky for me, it turned out my older sister had experience almost the exact same thing in her skin around the same age. Not acne, I was experiencing perioral dermatitis, a skin sensitivity that typically reacts to Sodium Lauryl Sulfates (SLS) and/or fluoride. Purging all the products in my home with SLS and fluoride (way more than I expected, btw) my skin cleared up really fast. Unfortunately, though my skin cleaned up after I swapped to a different toothpaste and face wash, my skin has been left more sensitive than ever.



Adapting To Having Sensitive Skin

Developing sensitive skin has felt like being a pirate holding a treasure map that's cluttered with helpful recommendations from thousands of other pirates who claim to have spotted the treasure. I've tried so many products over the past year—grocery store products, high-end products, medium priced products, products that have amazing recommendations for sensitive skin—but most of them still cause a breakout or allergic reaction. I've tried enough products that I have developed a rule for myself: I only try products that I can get in a sample or travel size. Two reasons for this. First, it cuts down on the financial costs of trying a skincare product that do not agree with my skin. Second, I feel really guilty letting products go to waste, and I often don't have anyone who wants to take a partially used bottle of moisturizer, serum, or face wash off my hands for me. A travel size gives me enough product to test out how my skin reacts but not so much product that I'm tossing almost a full container of something.

Pro Tip: I participate in Sephora's Beauty Insider program, which has given me a bit more access to trial-sizes of products. I'll check the Sephora website pretty often to track what the current freebie samples or Insider point reward offers are, and I have definitely purchased my foundation or something I use regularly a bit early if there is an offer for a skincare product I've been wanting to try. If you live in a city with a Sephora or a department store like Nordstrom, don't hesitate to ask an associate if it's possible to get a sample of the product before you buy it. Often the answer is yes. If you don't have somewhere to look at a product in person, people are constantly selling unopened, travel-sized bottles of skincare products on Poshmark. It's not as nice as trying something for free, but you can often find a travel size of a very expensive product for around $10.



My Latest Skin Trauma

After I started understanding the full extent of just how sensitive my skin is over this past summer, I started to settle into a good skincare routine and things were looking up. This past December, though, I took another turn for the worse and developed another perioral dermatitis-style reaction. Only this time, I have zero clue what I'm reacting too. I also did something that I know better than to do. My skin had gotten very dry at the beginning of winter and I purchased a few products to help with that: In other words, I introduced multiple new products at the same time. Why is this bad? I don't know which product(s) I'm reacting to. Or if I'm reacting to something that has nothing to do with my skincare products, such as stress or my psoriasis medication (prolonged use of topical steroids can cause perioral dermatitis).

Since I have no idea what has caused the reaction that has lived on my face for about a month now, I'm trying to set my skincare routine back to baseline. This means cutting down to the bare minimal amount of skincare products (no fun little extras like face masks at the moment), and all products with few ingredients and mostly organic. I have a small handful of things that I feel more confident that are safe to use on my skin: I use a charcoal and tomato-based soap (body and face), Simple Miracle Water to remove makeup, and a moisturizer I made myself with coconut, tea tree, jojoba, and rose hip oils. I'm also trying to not wear makeup as much as possible. Sometimes, your skin just needs to breath.

After my skin settles back down, I'll reintroduce a few other products back into my routine (one at a time) to test them out individually. I'll also follow up with a post about my progress and what products I find work well with my hyper-sensitive skin. If you'd like to follow along with my progress in a bit more real time (or see what my face looks like currently), I'm documenting my skin journey as part of my weekly vlogs on YouTube. I find it a bit scary to let so many people see what my skin looks like without makeup right now, but I also think it's important to show what my non-perfect skin looks like. After all, perfection isn't real and we shouldn't feel ashamed of acne or wrinkles or any other imperfections on our skin.

Have sensitivity skin too? I'd love to hear about your experiences and what products you like or dislike. Leave them in the comment section below!