It’s the word to watch for 2018 according to trend forecasts, but while ‘irritant-free’ sounds great on paper, it means little when it comes to what we’re putting on our sensitive skin. Judy Johnson reports

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

I’ve considered my skin to be sensitive  for most of my life, having experienced reactions to all sorts of products which everyone else around me were slathering on with glee; which means I have to be very discerning about what’s in my skincare. So when I read in The Future Laboratory’s 2018 beauty forecast  that ‘irritant-free’ would be ‘a key beauty watchword in 2018’, on the face of it I was pleased - hurrah, I thought, finally my needs and those of the growing number of women who feel they have sensitive skin are being put first! I mean surely, we’d all want all beauty to be irritant-free as standard, right? After all, it’s a pretty low bar to set.

So why the emergence of this term now? "In the past few years, there has been a shift in beauty towards more natural products as consumers’ desire for transparency in ingredients moves from the things they eat and drink to what they put on their skin,” said the report. "With consumers becoming more educated about synthetic and natural ingredients, the issue will be more narrowly defined in the future.”

Low tolerance for labels

The organic and natural beauty market is most certainly growing; in their 2018 Organic Beauty and Wellbeing report, the Soil Association announced a 24 per cent growth year on year, with £75.9m worth of sales in the UK in 2017 alone. But the natural beauty sector is already known for murky labelling and confusing messaging (transparency is something the Soil Association and others are working on with the new COSMOS certification ). ‘Natural’ is overused by brands who are anything but, ’toxic’ is bandied about without any factual explanation, ‘clean beauty’ is a vague phrase I think we can all agree is as unhelpful as its predecessor clean eating became , and don’t get me started on meaningless reassurances such as ‘ hypoallergenic ’.

unless brands follow a standardised consensus on what it means, it becomes yet another confusing label that, in the end, means nothing for the end consumer.

"Claims of ‘natural’ will no longer be enough for beauty brands. As consumers seek efficacious formulas that truly protect their skin, beauty ingredients will come under increased scrutiny,” the Future Laboratory’s report went on. "Next year, ‘zero-irritants’ will become the new standard in natural beauty.” So could ‘irritant-free’ really be the ‘narrow' definition we’re all craving for our sensitive skin?

Therein lies the issue; it’s anything but specific. My personal definition of ‘irritant-free’ would be something that’s free from fragrance , SLS, high levels of essential oils and chemical sunscreens , because they’re the ingredients I know I have problems with. For you, it might be something completely different - and more importantly, unless brands follow a standardised consensus on what it means, it becomes yet another confusing label that, in the end, means nothing for the end consumer.

Skincare expert and blogger Caroline Hirons  believes it’s impossible to define. "Honestly I don’t think that irritant-free exists, purely because it is possible for anyone to be allergic/sensitive/irritated by any ingredient. Obviously some things are shown to be more irritating than others, but I worry it will simply become the next ‘buzz’ term."

What do the formulators think? I asked the founders of two of my favourite natural skincare brands what their definition of ‘irritant-free’ would be. Dr Pedro Catala , founder of Twelve Beauty , says: "To me irritant-free is everything that does not interfere with the skin's health; it goes from natural substances classified as irritants, to even plant based oils that have gone rancid - which is more common than we think in natural/organic skincare. Once the oil is oxidised it generates some compounds (called radical peroxides) that can trigger an allergic reaction on the skin.” So far, so not as simple as it sounds on paper.

Sarah Brown , founder of Pai , agrees it’s a confusing phrase. “Irritant-free is a very subjective term so customers need to be cautious. Some people can be sensitive to hard or soft water!”(Yes, it’s true - even water can eventually be an irritant ). "There are some ingredients that are common and well known irritants such as alcohol (usually written as alcohol denat), sulfates like Sodium Lauryl and Laureth (SLS / SLES)  and Propylene Glycol,” Sarah continues. "We always avoid these but this scratches the surface - there is a pretty long list of cosmetic ingredients we would never use on the grounds of irritancy concerns.”

The complexities of skincare

The report also singled out essential oils  as something that they predict 'beauty consumers will be increasingly wary of’, citing Peet Rivko and Marie Veronique as brands who have created essential oil-free ranges. Having reacted to potent essential oils before, I’d welcome the concept as an option across more organic brands, but again this isn’t as clean-cut as you’d hope - it’s more about how you use them than whether you use them at all.

"Most of my products (Ultra Revitalising Elixir, Ideal Moisture Level Serum, Ideal Rebalancing Level Serum, Ideal Brightening Corrective Serum, Rapid Eye Treatment, Hyaluroil Lip Treatment) are ‘essential oil free’,” says Dr Catala, agreeing that it could be a positive approach when formulating for sensitive skin but it’s not always necessary. “In others I use traces of essential oils for two reasons - for their properties and also to cover the sometimes unpleasant smell of the natural ingredients. A well formulated product shouldn't give you major issues. We shouldn't demonise certain ingredients as long as they are used within the recommended doses.”

It’s a complicated issue, and one which comes down to the individual as Sarah explains: "Essential oils can have a world of benefits when used in the right proportions - but it's a delicate balance. High levels of essential oils can irritate the skin so we use very low levels of the right oils. If you think you may be sensitive to essential oils you need to get into the chemistry of them – as you may be allergic to just single molecules within them.”

Irritant-free, then - open to interpretation as it is - probably won’t cut it in terms of making the beauty industry more sensitive skin-friendly. But the trend for transparency being both demanded and delivered is cause for celebration, and something that can only help we sensitive types to avoid future reactions. "Albeit ambiguous, the consumer-led trend for clean beauty has had a positive effect on the cosmetics industry. It’s allowed people to healthily question cosmetic businesses and be better informed about ingredients,” the Soil Association wrote in their 2018 report. "Brands have been challenged by the trend. They have been made to re-think existing formulations and messaging on their products. Garnier, for example, changed the way ingredients were listed on their natural product range in 2017, to show their exact percentage in the total product. Arguably it is still ambiguous, however a step in the right direction.”

Owning it

It’s a small step, but the fact that these bigger brands are waking up to their consumers’ need for clearer information is promising. Pinning our hopes on natural brands could also have its downfalls, though, as Dr Catala explains: "I personally foresee a sort of uprising against natural and organic products as consumers expect ‘the green miracle’ which sometimes comes in the form of an allergic reaction. This is why we manufacturers of natural beauty must make a huge effort to ensure that we achieve high standards of safety. This is one of the reasons that I keep repeating 'Natural product formulation is a science and not an experiment’.”

One thing’s for the sure: consumers are wising up when it comes to what they’re putting on their skin, and the industry is taking note. But if sensitivity is an ongoing problem for you, the solution remains firmly in your hands. “We encourage customers to get to know their own personal triggers – ingredients that make them more prone to skin irritation  and flare-ups,” Pai’s Sarah explains. "Keeping a product diary is a great way to do this and over time patterns emerge – so you can identify the common offending ingredients across ingredient lists and know to avoid them. This is why we list our ingredients in Plain English on-pack - as well as the obligatory ‘ INCI ’ (Latin/chemical name). This enables customers to know exactly what they are putting on their skin.”

Caroline echoes this, and points out that using such a confusing term could even see us experiencing more reactions, not fewer. "Customers can potentially buy into an ‘irritant-free’ range and be left feeling disappointed if they still react. Long-term I think people with genuine sensitivities will have to work out what they have issues with through good old-fashioned trial and error .”

Sensitive skincare might be in the spotlight this year if the Future Laboratory’s predictions are correct, and that is a very welcome, long overdue development; but as for yet another popularised marketing term that does nothing to make shopping for skin products easier? No thank you - I’d rather read your ingredients list.