How gentle is your skincare really?

If a product claims to be suitable for sensitive skin, it should be ultra-gentle.

It sounds simple, right? Yet, it often isn't.

The misunderstanding of mild

When Harborist launched in 2017, it was common to find claims that because a product used all-natural ingredients, it was automatically better for reactive skin. This isn't true. How gentle a product is doesn't have anything to do with ingredient origin. In fact, the complexity of natural materials can make formulating a really gentle product more challenging.

Though this misconception has largely died down, mildness is now often interchangeable with fragrance-free or with soothing actives. Yet, the reality is that you could quite easily make a product which is irritating by this standard too.

Wouldn't it be good if, instead of having to dig through claims and ingredient lists, you could instantly see where a product sits on a scale of mildness?

How a recent innovation in mildness testing gives you the information you need

The XtraMild test was developed by a vegan testing lab, XCellR8, as part of a research project funded by Innovate UK.

It uses synthetic human skin in place of human volunteers or (in the old days) animals and is particularly good at detecting differences between mild and non-irritant, which is an important distinction for those with sensitive skin. The method was validated against human patch testing, the gold standard in irritancy testing.

Once a product or ingredient is tested, it receives one of five categorisations, from corrosive to non-irritant. Though so far these results have been used for brands to internally assess their products, I wanted to give that information to the person who needs it most – you. This enables you to make a genuinely informed choice for your skin: no more vague claims.

But the test also does something else: It benchmarks the product against others in the same category.

How benchmarking works, and why we sometimes don't trust it

It's common for products to be benchmarked against a competitor's. But sometimes this can leave doubts about bias – was the worst benchmark product chosen to give the most favourable comparison? Were other products also tested yet omitted because they performed too well?

Every product tested using the XtraMild test becomes part of a database. The results are anonymised and placed into categories such as facial wash or shampoo. The tested product can then be compared against other products in that category. The comparison is free from influence from the commissioning brand. 

The results

We ran our cleanser through this test in March. Though this had been planned for around two years, we waited until a small formulation change was complete (to make dispensing easier) and, as a self-funded brand, we also needed the funds to do it after completing R&D new product launches.

The results were fantastic and showed our cleanser to be non-irritating – the gentlest of five categories.

It also maxed out the score – no other product scored higher.

What we learned about other cleansers 

Around 54% of all other facial cleansers in the database involved some level of irritation. Most of those were in the third category – mild to moderately irritating.

As the data is anonymous, we don't know what these products are or what claims they make. We also don't know how the tested products reflect what you might find on the shelf. But the data shows that all products are not equal – there is a range of mildness.

It's worth mentioning, too, that XCellR8's two-year research included tests on a range of facial cleansers and bars. found one popular product that claimed to be milder than competitors actually wasn't.

We'll be tweaking the moisturiser formulas over the next year to try out some new ingredients – once they're finalised, we plan to run the test on those too.

I hope that in reassuring you about our products, we also spark a debate on what it means to be suitable for sensitive skin and how to make the right choices for you. If you'd like to try our cleanser for yourself, you can find it here.

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