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Is Clean Beauty the Answer for Sensitive Skin? Expectations vs Reality

As Janice scrolls through her social media feeds, a familiar feeling combining frustration and hopelessness comes over her. Having struggled with sensitive skin, she’s spent the last year trying out brands like Tatcha, Youth to the People, and many more ‘clean’ products that have gone viral. She has pinned hope after hope on each, wishing that rashes and other skin reactions belong in the past as she tries to achieve “good” skin, but none has quite delivered as influencers have promised.

Such disappointments are not unique to Janice. In a State of Skin Sensitivity Report published in 2022 by the personal care brand Aveeno, 71% of the general population is estimated to have self-reported skin sensitivity - a 55% increase in over two decades. Whether it’s the growing awareness and consciousness about ingredients in product consumables or an ever-evolving lifestyle, we seem to lean strongly into identifying more unique and personalized skin needs for ourselves. This, coupled with increased concerns about human consumption’s impact on the environment, has made clean beauty into more than just a buzzword but an industry trend for which there’s growing demand. One question keeps coming up: is clean beauty what sensitive skin needs?

Read on to draw the line between expectations and reality about this topic and learn what’s actionable for you.

What is sensitive skin?

Less a clinical diagnosis and more a consistent but unusual response to stimuli that shouldn’t cause such reactions, “Sensitive skin is hard to specifically describe,” says Ildi Pekar, a celebrity skincare expert, licensed professional, and founder of the I Pekar skincare line. She adds, “Skin can be sensitive to touch, environment, temperature, and most importantly, ingredients. These reactions occur because something’s breaking down the skin’s protective barrier.” You may have sensitive skin if you tend to have rough, flaky patches or skin redness, irritation, and swelling when using some products or eating certain foods.

People say clean beauty is best for sensitive skin, but what exactly is it?

While a hot topic in the personal care industry, a regulatory body doesn’t legally define clean beauty in the same way that, say, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) enforces regulations and standards in using the term “organic” on food labels. With no real consensus on what constitutes a clean beauty product, we generally accept that these products favor natural ingredients while incorporating synthetics that have been deemed safe for the skin and the environment, at least for now, according to The Washington Post. Therefore, among a plethora of clean beauty products, some would be “cleaner” than others.

Ildi is also quick to point out that beyond just the ingredients themselves, "clean beauty gets to the bottom of how those ingredients are sourced, whether there's any third-party testing the brand's adopting to uphold certain standards, and how they're formulated to unlock the power of natural ingredients."

Expectation: Products labeled as "clean" are sensitive skin-friendlier than those that aren’t.

Reality: It comes down to actual ingredients and formulation.

Because different stimuli can cause a sensitive reaction, a catch-all “clean beauty” label isn’t a guarantee your sensitive skin won’t react badly. With certain chemicals scientifically proven to be safe for the skin and the fact that many naturally derived ingredients don’t undergo the same safety testing as engineered ingredients, you should look closely at what ingredients the products contain and how they were formulated. This also gives you a better understanding of your own reactions to which ingredients.

Expectation: Sensitive skin is made worse by "bad" skincare products.

Reality: Factors other than products can exacerbate your skin's condition.

Be careful not to put all the blame on personal care products just because they come in direct contact with your skin. The truth is, products aren’t always the culprit when the skin’s breaking out or is irritated. Our skin reflects what’s happening inside our bodies, so lifestyle, diet, and especially mental struggles like stress would manifest in our skin. Stress could cause inflammation, which negatively impacts skin conditions. As for diet, professionals and experts will agree: what’s good for you is good for your skin.

Another cause is the one you’re least likely to blame: yourself. Ever piled on one new product after another until your beauty cabinet starts to resemble an Ulta Beauty aisle? A good skincare routine doesn't require 12 products (or however many the latest trend tells you it should have). Aside from complex routines, misusing products such as improper application or sequencing could result in either lack of efficacy or worse, flare-ups and aggravated skin. Carolyn Li Geh, a neuroscientist-turned-model-and-clean-beauty-entrepreneur founder of Li Organics, emphasizes that if your skin starts to react from a complex skincare routine, “Take a break completely from ALL of your products and go back to a very simple cleansing and moisturizing routine for at least a week or until your skin starts to calm down again. This will help to repair and rebalance your skin within a week, and then if you wish you can start adding actives, like Retinol and Niacinamide, again.”

Expectation: Sensitive skin should avoid products with engineered or lab-made ingredients

Reality: Many chemicals have been proven to be safe for use on the skin, and "natural" or “clean” doesn't always mean safer.

What should be obvious by now is that engineered and natural are also not outright synonyms for “bad” and “good”. It would be wrong to rule out engineered or lab-made ingredients if they’re formulated well and have passed safety standards, or to think that “natural” ingredients won’t ever cause adverse skin reactions. What is important, however, is to educate oneself about what ingredients can be harmful, particularly if you have sensitive skin. For instance, Skin Deep is a database pulled together by the Environmental Working Group, where ordinary consumers can learn more about the hazard rankings of controversial ingredients and can be more informed about how ingredients are sourced. Because there’s a heightened awareness about how the European Union’s and United States’ standards differ when it comes to banning certain ingredients, resources like these are better go-tos than relying on “clean beauty” labels.

Expectation: By nature, clean beauty will always be too mild to be effective.

Reality: Proper formulation and technological innovations can make clean products as effective as previous formulations.

Though the world, particularly the US, is still figuring out how to regulate clean beauty, there are several upsides to its emergence. One: we’re given newer alternatives that expand our personal care choices - hopefully, to better match our unique preferences and needs. Two: we’re introduced to the potential power of natural ingredients previously unknown. And three: new interest attracts new innovations, and with clean beauty getting more into the spotlight, groundbreaking techniques can make it more effective than when it started out.

For example, the I PEKAR Retinol-A, a clean retinol product containing cannabidiol (CBD) and no genetically modified organisms (GMO) recently introduced in the market, has a nanometer-technology-enabled delivery system that breaks new ground in skin care. Combining its ingredients’ potency with water-soluble CBD and water-soluble retinol, this product enables the highest bioavailability possible, allowing maximum product penetration into the skin while being gentle enough for daily use.

Clean beauty and sensitive skin can go a long way together, but go levels deeper.

Know your skin, learn the personal care routine it needs, and watch out for specific ingredients and formulations. While steering clear of “really bad ingredients like artificial alcohol, parabens, phthalates, artifical fragrances, and the like,” as Carolyn points out, “understanding what exactly you’re putting on your skin is made of and into your body is equally important.” Having sensitive skin means you need vigilance, patience, and discipline when it comes to skincare, and those will go a long way.


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