Tight is a word I’m more than happy to associate with a good pair of skinny jeans.
Tight skin, on the other hand, is not a phrase I like to hear.
Tight skin is best characterised by that feeling when the edges of your skin along your hairline starts prickling, and you’re afraid to move your mouth or smile, because it feels like it could split. It burns when you apply products, or even when you do nothing at all.
I associate the feeling of tight skin with having a raging sunburn, or being a teenager who once thought that squeaky clean was a literal statement and thus doused my face with toners so strong they could’ve been used as medical-grade disinfectant. Cringe.
You can often tell tight skin from happy skin when you press down gently on it with a finger – skin that’s tight will pull and show miniscule tension lines radiating towards the pressure point, as there’s not enough elasticity to give the skin stretch.
Especially if you’ve been trying in vain to improve your skin care routine, when your skin is feeling perpetually tight it can be downright infuriating.
Thankfully, you’re not alone and there’s plenty of reasons why your skin could be feeling tight – each with easy fixes too.
Why your skin might be feeling tight lately
Your skin isn’t feeling tight for no reason. Unless you’ve recently had some sort of allergic reaction (in which case you should see a doctor), healthy skin should feel supple and relaxed. There are three distinct reasons for skin that’s feeling tight after cleansing or throughout the day.
Reason #1: Improper products & a routine that’s lacking oil
Not having enough lipids in your skin barrier is by far the most common cause of skin feeling tight. Oil and fats are emollients that keep the skin soft, supple and flexible, and also lock moisture in the deeper layers. Just like how many people regularly condition their leather bags and shoes to stop them cracking, our skin usually produces natural oils to keep itself as healthy as can be.
This sebum is one of the components of our acid mantle – a pH-balanced barrier of sorts that keeps bacteria and other nasties out and moisture in. Not enough oil will cause tightness, as your skin loses water and pliability and starts literally stretching and tearing. Ouch. The next stage after repeated untreated tightness usually is dehydration and sensitivity – think redness, stinging and worse.
Tons of people are unwittingly overdoing it and using too-strong products that are giving them tight skin – overly foaming cleansers, drying toners, too many acids, not enough moisture or oil. One or all of these types of product choices will cause oil supplies to plummet, and so are the main cause of skin feeling tight.
Reason #2: Bad skin care technique
On top of poor product choice, if you’re washing your face then wandering away from the bathroom for more than 5 minutes, letting your skin totally dry out while you get distracted by something else, that’s a bad move! You’ve just removed the natural oils by cleansing, and now are letting all the moisture in your skin escape scot-free.
You should instead aim to put on your hydrating and moisturising products as soon as you can after cleansing or applying your active serums – without the drying phase in between. This means you can move onto an occlusive ‘sealing’ oil step sooner and finish your routine with all the hydration you need exactly where it needs to be. Aim for somewhere between immediately (or realistically, ~5 seconds) and within 1 minute.
Reason #3: Harsh environments
Alas, sometimes it comes down to where you live and the kind of climate you’re exposed to. Specifically dry, desert-like climates and extreme heat or cold which wick away moisture more greedily, upping your need for an abundance of oil to counteract its effects. And of course, an injury like sun or wind burn will cause swelling, which puts tension on the skin and makes you feel itchy.
The 4-part solution to soothe tight-feeling skin
The overall advice? Oils are your friends – so keep as much oil on your skin as you can!
Don’t wash away all your oils
If you’re stripping away every last drop of oil in your skin, it’s no wonder that when it dries it hardens like a piece of jerky. Oils lubricate the skin cells, making them flexible and elastic enough to make all the facial movements you’ll do in a day.
An easy way to ensure you’re leaving a healthy amount of oils on the skin is to switch to a creamy, non-foaming cleanser. That oh-so-luxurious lather of a foaming cleanser is a sign of a large amount of surfactants in the product. Surfactants are designed to break down oils so to allow them to be washed away by water. Strong products have really great surfactants, which wash away ALL the oils and then some. We don’t actually need to remove all the oils in our skin, so a less foamy face wash will often do the job just fine while leaving a little something behind.
Also, say goodbye to drying alcohol-based toners! These not only remove skin oils but also encourage the evaporation of water too. Just to make it more confusing, not everything with the word ‘alcohol’ is drying. Bad alcohols include: isopropyl alcohol, denatured alcohol. Good alcohols include: cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol. These are actually emollients in disguise. A rule of thumb is, a good toner should not smell like alcohol vapor or a cleaning product, should not dry on contact, nor should it sting or burn. And generally, avoid products marketed around ‘anti-acne’, astringent, or mattifying properties etc.
Add back some hydration (quickly!)
The secondary reason why we don’t want to remove oils above is because they maintain hydration aka. water.
Make sure you’re boosting your hydration levels right after you cleanse/apply your active ingredients to give your skin a fighting chance. Moisturising products with enough humectants (water-absorbers) and emollients (that have a creamy, nourishing texture) go into and amongst the cells and lend plumpness and flexibility to your skin. This can be any product of your choice – there’s such a huge range – from an essence (watery milk-gel) to a serum to a cream to a balm. It all depends on what you prefer for your lifestyle and what your skin needs.
(Obligatory reminder to drink enough water. While it may not be directly associated with hydrated skin, it’s good for your whole body.)
Replenish your oil supply
Like spackling in cracks (I am giving you some great mental images today aren’t I!), oils fill in the microscopic openings between skin cells that let water escape. And we already know how important they are to skin flexibility.
If you’re perhaps not blessed with naturally oily skin to preserve in the first place, even using the most gentle cleanser could still leave you lacking. Consider boosting your own supply with a facial oil. This step should go on last to seal in your moisturising agents, like a final protective wrap. Different oils have different molecular weights and different textures – some are thin, lightweight and dry, and some are thick, highly emollient and rich (think Olive Oil). Which one you should go for depends on the severity of your skin tightness, personal preference and skin type.
Minimise time spent in/exposure to extreme weather
Now, though it’s the ideal solution, not everyone can pick up and move to a mild subtropical region like I recently did. So we’ll just have to make do with where we live now.
You’ll want to keep all your skin care products on as long as you can through the day so they can do their job to defend your natural moisture levels. That means obviously avoiding heavy rains that would wash your skin care off, but also extremely dry air or high winds that could evaporate the products too. Spend your time indoors where possible in these conditions, and if that’s not doable, perhaps consider a protective layer like a silk scarf over your lower face to fight off the bulk of the weather assault.
If you’re indoors, make sure the air isn’t overly dry because of an air conditioning system. If it is, consider a humidifier, be it a small personal one or a large unit for your apartment or house.
Finally, at risk of sounding like a broken record, for the love of God please wear sunscreen every day!