It’s safe to say that most of us have experienced a form of skin redness at some point in our lives, from those embarrassing moments that leave us blushing to a sudden flush of self-consciousness at work. But facial redness, for many of us, comes in a more serious form, whether it’s perpetual blotchiness, broken capillaries, or rosacea, which affects up to 13 million Americans. “Redness is an inflammatory response, and many who experience it often have a genetic predisposition to vascular flushing,” explains Chicago-based dermatologist Jordan C. Carqueville, MD.
“Redness can also be reactionary, to products or environmental factors, in those with sensitive skin,” Dr. Carqueville says. Having a weakened moisture barrier, which is responsible for keeping the dirt and bacteria out while drawing in moisture, can be a contributing factor to consistently red and irritable skin.
Along with the physical factors, there’s a strong psychological aspect to redness. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle — the more you think about it, the more likely it seems to happen. So much so, in fact, that the condition has its own phobia: Erythrophobia. And its strongest symptom? You guessed it, more redness.
Having realized in my early 20s that I was prone to super-reactionary skin, thanks to my face turning the same color as my glass of Pinot Noir, I quickly learned that understanding your skin’s triggers is key in tackling this unwanted complexion companion head-on. Unfortunately, alcohol is one of the biggest contributors to skin redness, with red wine being a major no-no. Other top triggers, according to Dr. Carqueville, are caffeine (a highly-studied stimulant) and spicy foods, particularly from the Capsicum family (that’s cayenne pepper, paprika, chili, and red peppers), as they can raise your body temperature and increase your blood flow.
The time of year can also play a major role in your skin’s behavior. While winter has always gotten a bad rap for redness, warm-weather months wreak havoc, too: “In the summer months, there are plenty of triggers for redness,” Dr. Carqueville says. “These can be attributed to sun-exposure, reactions to sunscreen, the heat, dehydration, air-conditioning, irritating face creams, as well as alcohol.” Mixing these elements, particularly for already sensitive or redness-prone types, is the perfect storm. “Skin can become overly sensitized and reactive during the warmer months, leading to repeated redness issues,” she adds.
Being mindful of what your skin is telling you, how it feels and looks, is the first step in identifying your personal triggers. “Avoidance of the known triggers is the best treatment,” says Dr. Carqueville. I certainly concur on this point, as I’ve learned that making careful choices can help considerably. By eliminating red wine and peppers completely while lowering my coffee intake significantly (I was a three-cups-a-day type), my flare-ups have lessened significantly. My tip for coffee lovers: If you can’t quit caffeine cold-turkey, try switching to green tea, which has a lower concentration and added polyphenols, which are known for their cell-rejuvenating and antioxidant qualities.
And for your skincare regime? “The best over-the-counter products for treating redness are moisturizers that contain no fragrance or irritating chemicals,” explains Dr. Carqueville. “Maintaining the skin’s barrier is very important to healing and prevention of inflammation.” And, believe it or not, the cleanser you choose is of upmost importance. Often the skin will react when washing with water, so look for a mild cleanser that’s free of harsh sulfates. Use your fingertips, never a cleansing brush or tool, to apply.
Wearing sunscreen — every day, year-round — is also essential. But because the strength of the sun’s rays can cause some chemical-based sunscreens to be more irritating on your skin, it’s best to choose one tailored to sensitive skin. Avoid SPFs that contain chemicals such as oxybenzone or octinoxate, and try those with zinc oxide instead. Also nice: formulas with shea butter, vitamin E, or Mulberry leaf extract.
Having been fortunate enough throughout my career as an editor to try a number of incredible lotions and potions for redness, I’ve found that while these products may be packed with innovative and nourishing ingredients, they’re still only a quick fix for short-term gain. If the redness remains consistent and stubborn through your lifestyle and product adjustments, it may be time to call in some heavy-hitters. “Topical prescription medications with actives like metronidazole, azeleic acid, ivermectin, and alpha-adrenergic receptor agonists can help with issues like rosacea,” says Dr. Carqueville. “They work by causing vasoconstriction, and the effects can last for about 12 hours.”
If you’re still not getting the results you’re after, you may want to consider light therapies. “There are procedural treatments that can help with persistent redness and broken capillaries,” Dr. Carqueville notes. “I recommend the pulsed-dye laser or intense pulsed light treatments, both of which are effective at reducing the capillaries under the skin that are contributing to the redness.” Multiple sessions are typically required, along with yearly maintenance.
Whatever course you decide, thankfully there is a wide range of options for treating skin redness, ranging from topical relief to longer-term results.