40% of people worldwide describe their skin as sensitive.
It's a number which has grown in recent years, making for sensitive skin an attractive marketing claim for brands. 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.
That I'm a little bit obsessed with sensitivity and skin reactions is an understatement. However, I firmly believe you shouldn't have to spend your time and energy decoding claims. Examples like those above only add to the confusion for those of you with genuinely reactive skin.
At a minimum, suitable for sensitive skin indicates a product with a low potential to irritate. The problem is this - this one aspect doesn't cover all the reasons your skin may react to cosmetic products. 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 we believe your skincare should 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 will be aware of these. Cosmetic scientists tend to differ in their areas of expertise, so creating a product with low irritation potential requires working with the right ones.
2. Sensitised skin
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. Rather than merely adding barrier-friendly actives, this should be built into the heart of the formula, especially when choosing the 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, and it could be to a common or an uncommon allergen. 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. 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.
We strongly believe sensitive skincare should have a low allergy potential. At the minimum, it 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, many people with reactive skin will experience all of these - skin which is prone to allergies may also be more likely to suffer from irritation or skin barrier problems. And a compromised skin barrier enables potential allergens to reach further into the skin, thus making an allergy more likely.
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. Not only will your skin feel more comfortable, by encouraging better barrier function and dialling down inflammation, it'll also appear more hydrated and even-toned, without having to use so many products. 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 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, and do 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