With not one but two flagships opening in London, Malin + Goetz are finally putting down roots in the UK. But with SLS and perfume in their range, are they really a sensitive skin brand? Judy Johnson met the creators to find out

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When shopping for beauty, we easily-irritated customers are lucky to find a shelf dedicated to sensitive skin , never mind an entire store - but with the arrival of two stores in London, New York-born sensitive skin brand Malin + Goetz is making the dream a reality. With one flagship opening on bustling Upper Street and the other on Monmouth Street, just a stone’s throw from the ever-growing beauty Mecca of Covent Garden and with neighbours including Fresh and Miller Harris, the brand has chosen well in finding the right spot for their apothecary-inspired range.

“We found [the Islington location] first,” explains co-founder of the brand, Andrew Goetz as we sit in the immaculate Monmouth Street store. “But as we were getting it sorted out the estate agent said we have this amazing space for you in Monmouth Street, Seven Dials, so we were like… can we do two at the same time?! We’ve been in London a long time in Liberty, and we’ve been in Space NK for a while so we’ve had a presence here - but we’ve had the frustration of not having our own authentic experience, so this should be a real game changer for us."

Malin + Goetz was born 12 years ago when Goetz teamed up with co-founder Matthew Malin, who had a personal battle with sensitive skin. Suffering from rosacea, eczema, seborrhoea and fragrance allergies, Malin wanted a solution - and their mission was to not only make products that would address these kinds of sensitivities, but to simplify skincare too. The core range covers face, body and hair, and is, perhaps unusually, unisex; because ultimately, sensitivities are not gender specific. But does catering for both men and women cause problems with formulation?

Good products will work on anybody

“The biggest challenge is perception; people think [men and women] are so incredibly different,” Goetz tells me. "Men’s skin is a little thicker, but the DNA of a man and a woman are very similar and I always say - if you have strep throat, a doctor doesn’t say I’m going to give you a women's penicillin and your brother gets a men’s penicillin, and skincare is the same thing. Your skin is your largest organ and good products will work on anybody."

Though that sound you hear is the collective gasp of beauty marketing teams around the world, the man has a point. But there is a difference in how we shop for beauty - and in fact, it could be the reason we suffer with sensitive skin. "Women have been marketed to much more aggressively, so they’re better educated and they demand a higher quality of product; [whereas] men have had it dumbed down and are learning about skincare. Women know about efficacy, quality and they know how to use it - though often they use too much and if they used less, they would lessen the sensitivity that they have created among themselves."

As a sensitive skin sufferer himself, Malin agrees and says it’s what inspired getting back to basics when creating the brand. “When you’re looking at the majority of people, about 90% who come through the front door will say to you, 'I’m sensitive'. And the fact is 90% of people who walk through your front door actually have normal to combination skin but have been over-marketed to and have been using products that have created sensitivities. If you eliminate all that stuff, all the things that historically have increased sensitivity to the skin, it goes back to those staples, and that’s what we’ve done."

The range might cover the basics, but the formulations are very considered; Malin’s own skincare struggles mean that they really know their stuff when it comes to ingredients, both natural and chemical. For them, though, it’s about products which aren’t only gentle, but which work, too.

"We take great care in formulating products so that we’re eliminating as much sensitivity out of them but still keeping that level of efficacy, so that we can still treat other conditions that people have - it’s about balance,” explains Malin. “When we started looking at developing product, it was: how do you create the least irritating product that you can? Forget everything else, start with that. Anything can potentially irritate somebody, so how do you start at a place where you know probably 99% of the people who walk through the door can use this?"

"Science can actually be better for your sensitivities than Mother Nature,” adds Goetz. "Poison ivy is 100% natural!"

But if your brand mantra is to make formulas that are the least irritating possible, why, I ask, do they use controversial detergent sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) , something widely considered as an irritant for all skin types?

For Goetz, it’s about where an ingredient comes from. “You can get something that might be perceived as not a great ingredient but actually it could be really good because it’s manufactured at a higher quality. Unfortunately I think a lot of people are misinformed or because of the internet they have that idea of ‘this ingredient’s terrible’. Well, it’s terrible if you use too much of it, and it’s terrible if you’re not using a great manufacturer, but in the right formulation in the right amount, it can be a very, very effective ingredient.”

Malin thinks its reputation has come from bigger companies, who in having luxe and mass divisions are looking for economy of scale, and therefore don’t use the best quality ingredient when it comes to sulphates. "You can find [SLS] in powder forms, liquid forms and high grade levels and low grade levels. So if you find the highest grade level of SLS and use the least amount that you can in that formulation you’ll get really thorough cleansing without irritation. If you chuck [your product] full with the least expensive SLS at the highest level, so you get that squeaky clean feeling and you feel like you’re getting your two dollars’ worth of product and you feel really clean, you’re going to be irritated; and so SLS gets this really bad rap, whereas if you’re using it properly it actually is the most efficacious ingredient within certain formulas to provide the highest level of performance."

The duo feel much the same when it comes to parabens, another controversial beauty component which they have reluctantly removed from their range since launching because the customers demanded it.

We can’t use parabens in our products anymore, we stopped because the consumer has dictated that that is what we have to do

"If you want to communicate to a customer base and say, well yes SLS is bad in these circumstances, but you don’t have room to explain that then all of a sudden it’s just ‘bad'. Just like parabens are ‘bad' - well they’re not, in the right circumstances they’re the least irritating, and they have no smell, and they do all these wonderful things to a formula that allows you to sustain it over a long period of time with no irritation,” Malin tells me. "All of these are the challenges of creating a great product that’s good for sensitive skin; we can’t use parabens in our products anymore, we stopped because the consumer has dictated that that is what we have to do, but it’s not the most effective or efficient use of a formula for us. Those preservative systems that we then do use so that we can sustain our products are not as effective, they’re not as good, they don’t limit the irritation as much. In certain instances, they can create more irritation!"

Goetz recalls one customer who complained back in the early days when they had parabens in their range. "We were sitting in the shop and and somebody called up, irate, saying ‘I can’t believe you have parabens in your shampoo!’. I try to explain, and then I hear her [he inhales sharply] - and I say 'Excuse me, are you smoking a cigarette?' And she says yes. And I said ‘You mean to tell me you’re more worried about the peppermint shampoo taking you out than the Marlborough?’ It comes down to education."

Whatever their own views, it’s refreshing to meet a brand that listens and makes changes to the formulas in order to deliver a product that customers are comfortable with; a rare find in the beauty market. Their packaging is also refreshingly clear, for once making  labelling  as easy as possible for the customer - how many other skincare brands do you know that put their ingredients lists right up there on the front of the bottles?

"We wanted to be very transparent,” Goetz enthuses. "When we brought in the design company, we brought in these old apothecary bottles which are really beautiful, everything was very transparent; 150 years ago it was very simple. We said we want to create something like this but for the 21st century. So they took our brand and put all our ingredients in this beautiful gradation - they made something if not timeless then something iconic. But it’s easy to navigate - we didn’t want to create an art project, we wanted it to be beautiful but we wanted it to be very shoppable."

Despite their passion for ingredients knowledge, as a luxury brand they’re in no hurry to be the first when it comes to new technologies and advanced anti-ageing, preferring to let others take the risks first.

"[Bigger brands] can do the work for us - they can experiment with technology, they have to push newness into the marketplace all the time so they’re constantly testing products on customers saying this is the newest, greatest breakthrough... then six years down the road when they find out it’s bad or too many people are irritated by it, we’ve not even got there yet,” says Malin.

We don’t believe that miracles exist

Goetz sees playing it safe as part of their ethos. “As a brand we tend to stay away from unchartered technology knowing that the best thing we can do for your skin is prevention; and having a great cleanser and great moisturiser is a much safer bet than looking for a miracle that might turn out to be a nightmare down the line. We don’t believe that miracles exist, we prefer honesty, it’s built into the DNA of the brand."

If there’s one risk they have taken, though, it’s in fragrance - the brand has a perfume range which, unlike the skin and hair care products, is made of synthetic fragrance. Why, I wonder, would you create perfume when your very co-founder is allergic, and when synthetic fragrance is one of the most common allergens?

“We don’t put artificial fragrance in skincare, we never wanted to make you a human diffuser,” explains Andrew. But their premise is that if you want to use perfume (and aren’t allergic like Malin) then you can, though they’ve stayed away from organic scents because of their hippy reputation - they wanted a more polished, luxurious approach.

"There was the concept to develop more allergy-free kinds of scent, fairly single note, fairly rudimentary in what they did and how they worked, and we thought there was a lot of synergy for the brand for that but we had to develop more complex dynamic scents because when you’re selling fragrance there is an expectation,” explains Malin, who says he’s been able to use many of the perfumes in the range despite his allergies. "Our skincare addresses your needs and so does our fragrance… there might be a little more opportunity for you to [react], but they are as allergy free as possible.”

Though I’m not convinced enough to spray it on my skin (having an allergy to synthetic fragrance myself), I have to admit the small edit of perfumes on their sparkling shelves are very light; nothing like the heady, heavy scents you get from bigger brands. Much like the SLS issue, this is what Malin says makes the difference between a low-risk product and something that’s likely to cause sensitivity. They’re quick to clarify, too, that some of their fragrances are naturally derived - though EU regulations make that difficult to communicate on the label.

“Because of the European Union we have been mandated to call any fragrance compounds in our fragrances a ‘parfum' or fragrance,” Malin explains. "So even if they’re naturally derived but there’s some compound involved, so we’re using lavender and chamomile, that becomes a compound, a perfume. Of course that could all change June 23rd!"

And so it is that the brand really is a tale of two halves; Malin + Goetz; men and women; perfumed and non-perfumed; natural and scientific; clearly labelled and yet bound by packaging regulations. Following suit is their latest product and first foray into the anti-ageing market, a Recovery Treatment Oil, which launches in July - the first of its kind in the range which until now has been based on oil-free formulas only. It’s incredibly light, disappearing almost instantly into the skin, and is about as far from an oil as an oil can be, a theme which seems to run through the brand from top to bottom. What’s clear is they’re willing to go as far as they can towards efficacious, luxurious skincare, while always holding back wherever needed in order to create something that will minimise sensitivity; and that’s no less than what we sensitive folk deserve.

Product Picks

Eucalyptus Deodorant , £18: Surprisingly for a luxe brand, this natural deodorant is their bestseller.

Lip Moisturizer , £10: The best lip balm I've ever tried - I'm never without it.

Recovery Treatment Oil, £62. The first oil from the brand launches in July and is sure to be a hit among oil-avoiders. Light, fast absorbing and almost like a serum, much like the new shop locations it could be a game changer...

Find  Malin + Goetz  in London at their two new stores, Upper Street and Monmouth Street