40% of people worldwide describe their skin as sensitive.
For sensitive skin is an attractive marketing claim. Sometimes it's added as an afterthought; popping up on celebrity brand face wipes, or a moisturiser which includes a soothing extract yet isn't specifically formulated for this skin type. It makes products sound comforting.
At a minimum, suitable for sensitive skin indicates a product with a low potential to irritate. The problem is this one aspect doesn't cover all the reasons your skin may react to cosmetic products.
I firmly believe you shouldn't have to spend your time and energy decoding claims, or worse, buying products that end up being thrown away.
If your skin is prone to uncomfortable sensations or reactions and you don't know what to look for, here are the three main issues your skincare should ideally address:
If a product is irritating your skin, you may notice signs of it after the first use, or it could take a few weeks before the effect has accumulated enough to show up. Irritation is the issue that a sensitive skin claim covers, to some degree. In the EU, a suitably qualified scientist assesses current ingredient data to produce a cosmetic safety report for each formula, and this provides brands with information about the irritation potential of those products.
However, recent studies indicate that some of that data may not take into account subtleties at the lower end of the spectrum, between the mild irritants and the non-irritants. If your skin is easily irritated, this part of the spectrum is important to you.
At the product development stage, there are also all kinds of nuances with ingredients, and scientists with the right experience can help to uncover these. Cosmetic scientists tend to differ in their areas of expertise, so creating a product with super low irritation potential requires working with the right one(s).
2. Skin barrier disruption
A disrupted barrier means ingredients may be getting access to parts of your skin they shouldn't! This can mean skincare which you don't typically have a problem with starts to cause discomfort and irritation. It may be that you've used too many active products like AHA's or retinol, and you need to dial it back. It could also be that you're more susceptible to a disrupted barrier, perhaps due to genetics, environment or hormones.
Either way, this is why skincare specifically for sensitive skin should not just do no harm; it should actively support your skin barrier. This isn't just about adding barrier friendly actives - instead it should be built into the heart of the formula, especially when choosing the lesser-known functional ingredients which influence how the product interacts with your skin.
Cosmetic contact allergies are talked about less frequently than irritation, yet fragrance allergy alone is thought to occur in up to 5.4% of the population¹. If you've ever had eczema, you're even more susceptible.
Allergies can develop at any time, meaning you could use a product for years without issue before a problem arises. It could be to one of the EU listed fragrance allergens, or if you're unlucky, it could be to something less common which isn't included in that list. This earlier post
has more detailed information about contact allergies if you'd like to know more.
To the untrained eye, it can be hard to differentiate between irritation and an allergic reaction. They're not the same, and just because an ingredient is allergenic, doesn't make it an irritant. Think of peanut butter - a perfectly fine food for most but not for those with an allergy.
Allergic reactions can vary from dry eczema-like patches, which could be mistaken for dry skin, to more obvious inflammation and itching. This is why if you frequently react to products, it's best to speak your GP or doctor about getting patch tested, so you can find out what's going on. This is important as continuing to use products you're allergic to risks priming your immune system for a stronger reaction.
It's not possible to eliminate the chance of allergic reaction - if you look hard enough you'll find reports of allergy to almost anything. At the minimum, low allergy skincare shouldn't contain common fragrance allergens, and ideally, all ingredients should be considered for their allergenic potential.
So as you can see, while having a product with a low irritation potential may be ok if your issue is just number 1, it still may not be right for your skin if your problem is 2 or 3.
In fact, some unlucky people with reactive skin will experience all of these - those with contact allergies may also be more likely to suffer from irritation or skin barrier problems.
This is why at Harborist, we cover all three of these triggers. While it doesn't guarantee you won't experience a reaction, it means you can feel secure in knowing that your skincare was created with the right amount of care.
When you're using skincare which is really suitable for your skin, everything works better. By encouraging better barrier function and dialling down inflammation, it'll appear more hydrated and even-toned. You'll also stop buying those things that don't work, which then go on to collect at the back of your cupboards!
And if our skincare doesn't work for you, simply let us know - you'll receive a full refund if you return your product with 30 days. For more information on our returns policy, read about our 30-day guarantee here.
It should be noted that if you're experiencing lots of problems with your skin, it's always best to see your medical practitioner to rule out underlying medical causes, such as rosacea, which will need specific treatment and care.
I hope that gives you some clarity - get in touch if you have any questions!
¹ Prevalence of contact allergy in the general population: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Alinaghi F, et al. Contact Dermatitis. 2019. PMID: 30370565