A World of Sensitivity

MOST CLIENTS WILL DESCRIBE THEIR SKIN AS sensitive. From your perspective, this presents a potential problem, as clients often link their symptoms with a professional treatment or their skincare products. It also offers an opportunity for growth, as it allows you to educate your clients about appropriate treatment, thus solving the problem and ensuring a return visit for continued care.



The Roots of Sensitized Skin


Skin is remarkably resilient. It endures and survives nearly constant environmental assault from pathogens, ultraviolet light, and free radicals. Historically, fair skin—Celtic-Nordic skin of Northern European genetic heritage—has been associated with inherited sensitivity, and pale skin has been linked most easily with a tendency toward flushing, blushing, and allergies. People of Northern European ethnicity also have historically been linked with the greater incidents of rosacea. However, sensitization is acquired, not inherited. In today's professional setting, we see a growing incidence of sensitization among Asian and African-American clients. The reality may simply be that lightly pigmented skin shows the symptoms of sensitization more easily. Because all skin is vulnerable to environmental sensitization, as professionals we must take special measures to utilize all of our senses to identify potential problems. Darker skin will often reveal sensitization to the touch, if not the eye. Deeply pigmented skin that is chemically or environmentally sensitized feels hot and tight, even though its appearance may be unchanged.

Soothing Inflamed Clients
Soothing Inflamed Clients


Common Causes and Triggers


Some sensitization truly is self-inflicted by clients who self-diagnose and select products with irritating artificial colors, fragrances, and preservatives. The "do-it-yourself" client can also get carried away with various forms of exfoliation. A seriously compromised lipid barrier is generally the result.

Many of the other common sensitization factors are nearly impossible to avoid. Even the hardiest epidermis becomes vulnerable when assaulted daily with literally millions of potentially irritating chemicals in our global environment. Common pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and ground-level ozones, are familiar culprits. But there are millions more. Common offenders include household cleaning products. Omnipresent paints, preservatives, sealers, laminates, plastics, synthetic fabrics, particle board, adhesives, and many other products present in our homes and workplaces emit a constant vapor of microparticles, and this causes both immediate and long-term reactions ranging from watery eyes and headaches to burning, blotchy skin that develops a sudden aversion to once-favorite skincare products.


The likelihood of triggering a sensitization response is potentially amplified by several factors, notably age. With each passing decade, the acid mantle of the skin thins, making it more susceptible to assault by irritants. Stress, medications, certain foods, and changes in hormonal levels also may serve as triggers in some individuals.


Recognizing and Treating Sensitized Skin


The most essential step to managing the sensitized client is beginning every encounter with an informative observation and examination. Train the team—starting with the receptionist or front desk crew—to pay attention to details. A client with nasal congestion, sinus problems, watery eyes, and dark circles under his or her eyes is sending a clear message of allergenic distress. This may, in turn, indicate the likelihood of sensitized skin.

The most essential step to managing the sensitized client is the consultation. Skin therapists need to be trained to give clients a simultaneous visual and tactile skin exam, as well as having clients complete a questionnaire about their history and current product use. All observations must then be noted in a permanent file, which is consulted each time a client visits. One area to probe specifically during this process is cherry-picking skincare products. Mixing products from differing brands may set up the domino effect, which can lead to inflammation and long-term sensitization.

When it comes to treating sensitized skin, the "less" rule applies:

  • Less chemistry: Use a simple plan with fewer products and ingredients.
  • Less and lighter touch: High pressure and stimulating movements may agitate skin.
  • Less heat: Move your steamer to an arm's length from the skin, and cool off hot steamed towels considerably before applying them.
  • Less time: Limit the time spent performing the actual treatment.


Be sure to extend your planning to the client's at-home regimen, as well. The sensitized skin client will become loyal for life when introduced to a product line that finally calms, soothes, and controls his or her skin (See Resources below for some suggestions). Once these results are demonstrated, you will often find the sensitized client quite compliant and obedient. This loyalty will translate into regular revenue for you in the form of product replenishment and treatments. To keep the relationship cemented, follow up each service with a phone call, just to confirm that the results are favorable.


You may also want to consider how your spa's environment contributes to skin sensitization. Fresh flowers can emit irritating pollen. Also consider your building materials and fabrications, especially when remodeling. The very glue that holds your carpeting to the floorboards may be contributing to respiratory issues, skin issues, and more. At the very least, consider switching to gentler, botanical-based cleaning products or replacing synthetic robes and bedding with organic cotton alternatives. If you do make this kind of transition, publicize this change. Make note of this client-friendly corporate decision on your website, and mention it in your advertising and menu. This is what marketers call a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), and it may prove to be a valuable point of difference between your spa and a competitor.

When we're feeling overwhelmed, it's natural to wish all of our clients were low-maintenance. But the fact is, clients with sensitized skin are in acute need of professional guidance, and their numbers are increasing exponentially. Step up, embrace the challenge, and you'll have a loyal and appreciative market segment that truly benefits from your expertise and care.

Annet King is the director of training and development for The International Dermal Institute (Carson, CA). Visit www.dermalinstitute.com for more information.