Judy Johnson talks to Pai Skincare's founder about the trials and tribulations of creating products that are tailored for reactive skin

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Those with sensitive skin will know how hard it is to find a product, let alone a whole brand, that doesn't make their skin react. Good skincare is the key to a great beauty regime and yet trusting any product out there with your face is really rather daunting if you've been let down in the past.

Sarah Brown, founder of  Pai Skincare , knows exactly how that feels. After years of suffering allergies at the hands of chemical-filled products which did her skin no good, Sarah quit her job in PR and created the plant-based skincare line which launched in 2007. Now sold in over 40 countries, the products have been music to the ears of women who need skincare they can rely on and are well loved by those in the beauty industry - including super-sensitive me. I talked to Sarah Brown to get an insight into life behind the brand…

Have you always been interested in beauty, even when you were suffering with allergies?

Yes, absolutely! But I did feel very hard done by as a lot of the time there were so few products I could tolerate. For me, perfume was one of the saddest things to forgo – although now I get around it by spraying onto my clothes.

Did you ever find out what it was you were allergic to?

Skin allergies are very complex beasts and many are auto-immune conditions so are closely linked to your wider health. This means there often isn’t a single allergen you can pinpoint that, once eliminated, will solve everything.

For me a combination of factors were to blame, exacerbated by irritants in my lifestyle. I did discover that specific preservatives in my beauty products triggered my hives - namely Benzyl Alcohol and Phenoxyethanol. My attempts to avoid these ingredients is how Pai came about.

What did you feel was missing in the existing sensitive skincare ranges on the market?

A lot! I knew I wanted to go natural – for me it just makes sense that these ingredients are better tolerated and metabolised by the body. However the natural products on the market didn’t cater for sensitive skin at all - largely down to an overuse of essential oils, alcohol and the key preservatives mentioned above.

A real bugbear was that all the products targeted at “sensitive skin” assumed it was dry – my classic combination skin proves this isn’t always the case, and meant that everything I tried was too rich and brought me out in spots.

As my skin was so reactive I was often recommended your typical aqueous creams, which are depressing on every level! Cheap, medical-looking and 100% synthetic. When I created Pai I wanted to develop products that customers could not only depend on but that were also a real pleasure to use and something they could display proudly in their bathroom.

What does it mean for a brand to truly be 'organic'?

An ‘organic’ product is one that is produced from ingredients grown and harvested to sustainable and certified standards. So in clean soil with no pesticides or fertilisers and then extracted without solvents.

There is currently no labelling regulation controlling the use of the terms ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in the beauty industry so products can make organic claims and still contain as little as 1% natural ingredients. Millions of customers are being duped every day. If food manufacturers were caught making the same fake organic claims it would be a national scandal!

The only way to tell if your beauty product is the real organic deal is by checking for a certification logo – but only one from an independent body like the Soil Association (many beauty brands create their own official looking kitemarks!).

The Soil Association conducts annual inspections of manufacturers where it checks (among many other things) the provenance and traceability of ingredients used.

Where did the name 'Pai' come from?

‘Pai’ means goodness in Maori – my Mum’s from New Zealand so it’s a little tribute to her. It really sums up our core principles of quality ingredients, pure products and dedicated customer service that are at the heart of the brand.

What's been the toughest part of setting up the Pai business?

The tough times we’ve had are typical of any start-up. Having limited access to finance can be challenging, but so is the sheer relentlessness of running your own business. It’s a hard slog and you have to be hugely passionate and obsessive about what you’re putting out there to make it work.

What Pai product couldn't you live without?

I first started Pai because I couldn’t find a moisturiser that was gentle enough for my sensitive skin but light enough to balance out my T-zone. So, I created my own solution and to this day our Geranium & Thistle Combination Cream is my absolute daily essential. The fast-absorbing formula leaves a matte finish, which makes it a great base for make-up – it’s become a firm fixture on Hollywood film sets.

What's your best seller?

We have two cult products which are neck and neck – our  Camellia & Rose Gentle Hydrating Cleanser  and Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil . Our cleanser is one of those rare beauty finds that works for all skin types – no matter how sensitive or troublesome. For me cleansing is the most important step in your skincare regime. Use the wrong cleanser and you’re going to find it very difficult to reverse the damage with your moisturiser.

Our formula is 100% detergent and alcohol-free – so lifts away dirt and impurities really effectively without stripping away your skin’s important natural oils or disrupting its pH.

Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil was an instant hit and really showcases the power of high grade organic ingredients – they just sing out in this product! It’s the most concentrated Rosehip oil on the market thanks to its blend of both fruit and seed oil. It evens out skin tone and deep-conditions the skin, leaving it beautifully clear and super soft – a great bathroom cabinet essential for when your skin’s in need of a pick-me-up.

Sometimes natural ingredients can be just as irritating to sensitive skin as others. How have you ensured that Pai is always gentle on the skin?

A lot of ‘due diligence’ goes into formulating our products and we can spend up to two years perfecting and testing them before they’re launched. We get plenty of sensitive skin sufferers using them and really listen to what they have to tell us. We don’t stop tweaking until everyone’s waxing lyrical!

We do have to remember that everyone’s skin is different though, and what causes a reaction in one person can be perfectly fine for someone else. For this reason we operate a 30 day money back guarantee so if a product isn’t quite right for your skin you can return it for a full refund (we even reimburse the return postage). I don’t think anyone should have to waste their hard earned cash on products they’re not 100% happy with.

Do you find you have to check ingredients when you use cosmetics, too?

Absolutely – years of sensitivity has taught me to check the ingredients of anything that touches my skin. There are some things I simply can’t tolerate – I only have to look at a liquid foundation and I’ll break out in a rash!

What makeup brands do you really rate?

I’m a big fan of  Inika . I’m pretty low maintenance when it comes to make-up so I love their mineral powder foundations – just a few sweeps with a Kubuki brush gives a lovely level of light coverage. I’m also very faithful to my  Max Factor 2000 Calorie Mascara , £7.99. I’ve tried every natural mascara out there but they just don’t cut it like this one does!

What's next for Pai?

We have three really innovative products launching this year but they’re all top secret I’m afraid! We’re also continuing to expand into overseas markets, which is exciting.

What's your top tip for anyone who thinks they have an allergy or very sensitive skin?

Take the time to work out what your personal triggers are and always read ingredient lists so you really understand what you’re putting on your skin. It may sound like hard work, but the complicated sounding Latin or chemical names don’t have to be as bamboozling as they seem! Just think of it as an extension of reading your food labels – and just as important when it comes to your skin health.

Also consider other lifestyle factors. Stress is a huge cause of skin aggravation, but there could also be certain foods that are making your skin worse or even things like the washing powder you’re using.

If you’re going to review one product in your beauty regime, make it your cleanser. Detergent or alcohol based cleansing products are usually the root of most people’s skin problems. Detergents strip your natural oils and disrupt pH levels – good healthy skin is all about balance, so restore these levels and everything else will fall into place. Sometimes difficult skin just needs a reset.