It might just be my ageing eyes, but the labels on beauty products seem to be smaller and more complicated than ever. I've learned the hard way not to take anything that states 'for sensitive skin', 'for all skin types' or 'gentle' at face value as this rarely means it's safe for skin that reacts to even the slightest hint of fragrance. Likewise, reassuring terms such as 'hypoallergenic' actually have no meaning as the law states manufacturers are not required to provide substantiation that their product is any less likely to cause irritation. Who knew?
"I think that navigating product labelling is a bit of a minefield for consumers," agrees cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting . "'Hypoallergenic’ or ‘dermatologist tested’ don’t guarantee that a product is trouble-free."
In fact, some of those impressive-sounding phrases on labels actually translate as something far more basic. Pedro Catala , pharmacist and founder of Twelve Skincare, explains: "'Dermatologically tested' only means that the product has been tested on human skin. The product is normally placed on the back of the volunteer and left there for 48 hours covered with a patch, hence the name 'patch test'. However, we are all individual."
Though our individual skin sensitivities make it impossible to rely on labels, there are a few hard and fast rules that are worth living by when looking to buy new products. " Fragrance-free is a good place to start – not only is it potentially irritant, but fragrance is the commonest allergen found in cosmetics, so avoid," Dr Bunting advises.
The dermatologist also says to look out for products with a shorter list of ingredients to lessen the risk - something I came across when researching the benefits of mineral makeup .
If you're yet to work out what it is that makes your skin flare-up, jot down these common culprits in your phone or diary and consult it when you're scouring the beauty halls:
Imelda Burke, Owner of Content Beauty & Wellbeing says this is a good one to start with. A common preservative, the ingredient has recently been named and shamed in the press by doctors who have 'highlighted it as the trigger of one of the worst skin allergy outbreaks ever seen,' explains Imelda. This year, 10 per cent of patients with skin conditions are testing positive for an allergy to MI, as it's known, according to St John's Institute of Dermatology in London - so it's worth avoiding at all costs.
This is one ingredient I've avoided since a very bad reaction to an aromatherapy treatment in a London spa - though I can get away with more diluted versions. "Generally the concentration is low enough not to cause a reaction," explains Imelda. "However the very sensitive may find avoiding essential oils can be helpful, especially the citrus family. RMS Beauty created a Beauty Oil without essential oils for this reason!"
Cosmetologist Pedro agrees that even natural or organic ingredients can lead to irritation. "Essential oils are full of allergens, and it is compulsory for manufacturers to list the main allergens found in their essential oils/fragrance. The most common ones are: Isoeugenol, Farnesol, Linalool, Citronellol, Benzoyl benzoate, Limonene, Hexyl cinnamal, and Hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde.”
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES)
A foaming agent that's in everything from shampoo to cleaning products, SLS has long been an issue for sensitive skin; it's even in aqueous cream, a product often recommended by doctors for eczema, which is now considered to only be beneficial when used in place of soap rather than as a moisturiser. "Foaming agents in general can be quite tough, as they can upset the protective layer of oils on the skin," explains Imelda.
Even mineral brands aren't 100% safe for sensitive types; Imelda herself reacts to this common substance. "This may cause redness, itching and stinging in some – including myself! People who find they can’t use mineral makeup have generally been reacting to this ingredient."
Petrochemicals and synthetic emollients
Derived from petroleum, chemicals such as liquid paraffin and mineral oil are known irritants as they create an oily layer on the skin to prevent moisture from escaping, which may allow the skin to plump out to temporarily hide wrinkles but also blocks pores and causes a build up of bacteria. These ingredients often take up a high percentage of the product, too. "It’s important to remember when reading labels anything at the top makes up the bulk of the product," explains Imelda. "If sensitive, look for plant oils, two examples being jojoba and almond oil, at the top of the list rather than mineral oil."
These are just a few of the many irritants to look out for - the list goes on, from silicones to acids to alcohol, witch hazel and more. Just to add insult injury, sometimes even the most innocent of ingredients can become your skin's worst enemy.
"People with sensitive skin are more likely to react to products as they tend to have impaired barrier function. That means that even ingredients not considered irritants can cause problems," Dr Bunting tells me. "The key is to find a regime that works for them and to stick to it. Focus on building skin barrier function to reduce sensitivity and incorporate anti-inflammatory ingredients (like aloe vera, feverfew and oatmeal) to soothe troubled waters."
The moral of the story? Always read the label - but start with the small print. Though painful to read both in terms of strained eyesight and complicated jargon, the ingredients list will tell you far more than any bold claims on the front of the pack.