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Sensitive Skin Claims Create Opportunities

BASF researchers offer a three-fold approach to formulating ideal products for compromised skin.

Consumer demand for sensitive skin care is growing and offers a blossoming opportunity for brands. According to Google Trends analysis, in the past five years, searches for the term “sensitive skin cream” more than doubled. In one published report, more than 50% of women in the US experienced incidences related to sensitive skin during the past 18 years (Mintel 2019). In the UK, a consumer base broadly considered to be similar to the US, younger women are most likely to describe their skin as sensitive, with 38% choosing “sensitive” compared to 34% choosing “normal.” This presents a potential dynamic shift in the skin care market, as the actual or perceived increase in skin sensitivity among younger generations points to a growing concern for a broadened consumer base. Brands have an opportunity to appeal to consumers concerned with irritation by offering products catering to this need. (Mintel 2018). 
More indication that sensitive skin claims matter to consumers is the fact that they are willing to pay more for such products. A 2020 BASF analysis revealed higher than average price points for a product offering when it offers sensitive skin claims: serums with sensitive skin claims top the list at around $100, followed by treatments, eye care and face moisturizers, all of which sell for more than $50 each. Claims that command the highest prices across all segments include “non-sensitizing,” “anti-inflammatory,” “rosacea,” “dermatological,” “safe for sensitive skin” and “anti-redness.”
According to BASF analytics, sensitive skin claims are used across several categories and product formats. The category with the greatest number of sensitive skin claims is facial cleansers, followed closely by facial moisturizers, baby care products, facial treatments and facial masks. More recently, there’s a growing number of sensitive skin claims associated with body and sun care products. The claims most often used for facial products center on gentleness, soothing and safety for sensitive skin. Non-irritating and calming claims have increased for body products as well.
There are additional interesting product-, brand-, and consumer-level trends occurring in the sensitive skin space. One trend relating to sensitive skin formulations is an association between the restoration of the microbiome and nourished skin—the notion that treating skin with pre-, pro-, and/or post-biotic ingredients will contribute to keeping distressed, sensitive skin healthy and in balance. A second recent trend is that newly emerging “clean” or “conscious,” beauty brands are launching products with “suitable for sensitive skin” or similar claims. Consumers already expect clean brands to be made with “safe” ingredients and there is a growing expectation that such ingredients should also be safe for those with sensitive skin. These are often products with shorter, more easily understood ingredient lists. The thought behind it: the fewer the ingredients, the lower the likelihood of skin reactivity. As COVID-19 continues to shape consumer behavior related to hygiene habits, brands are likely to come up with solutions for sensitive skin issues aggravated by long-term mask wearing and over-washing of hands.

The Challenge

Despite consumer interest, fewer than 10% of all products launched in the US in 2018 had specific redness or sensitive skin claims (Mintel 2019). In fact, out of 95,000 product launches in North America in past five years, fewer than 7,000 of those launches contained sensitive skin or redness claims. The question becomes, why aren’t brands capitalizing on this demand? Perhaps this is because sensitive skin claims are subjective, tough to measure, and often self-diagnosed rather than clinically diagnosed; or in some cases, they fall into a legitimate medical condition like psoriasis. Ill-defined, broad- spectrum symptoms, from redness to serious skin lesions, are nebulous targets to hit and they make it trickier to formulate products to meet these needs. Clinical studies to determine the appropriateness of a formula for sensitive skin are expensive, time-consuming and may not always yield perfect results.

Sensitive skin is more commonly found on the face.
Even for scientists and dermatologists, sensitive skin is difficult to define, and there is no universally agreed definition of sensitive skin. Often, it's a subjective sensation or perceived irritation that is self-reported, because consumers feel they know their bodies better than any clinical test, and some people are more prone to sensitivity if they suffer from a condition like rosacea or dermatitis. Since we rely so much on self-diagnosis rather than something objectively measurable, it’s difficult for skin care product formulators to meet consumer needs. Sensitive skin is now widely accepted as a major dermatological problem with physiological origins.
According to the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, sensitive skin is a clinical condition defined by the self-reported presence of different sensory perceptions, including tightness, stinging, burning, tingling and pain. Sensitive skin may occur in people with skin barrier disturbance, as well as in individuals with normal skin. Many individuals with sensitive skin report worsening symptoms caused by external environmental factors. Barrier disruptions and immune mechanisms may also be involved (Sensitive Skin report by Misery et al., 2016).
Sensitive skin is more commonly found on the face, but it also crops up on the hands, scalp and body in varying degrees. Sensitive skin often reacts more strongly to cosmetics and environmental factors like cold, sun, wind, and pollution compared to “regular or normal” skin. In fact, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the demand for products with sensitive skin claims will likely see an even larger jump. As frequent hand washing and sanitizing has become an integral part of consumers’ daily lives all over the world, the concern for dryness and irritation is driving developments for products that are gentle and formulated using natural and non-irritating ingredients (Mintel 2020). Consumers will likely be more inclined to seek these types of claims; especially for their hands.
Thanks to all these related factors, a sensitive skin claim for one person may not be applicable to another, which creates formulating challenges for this consumer subset. A significant portion of the population has sensitive skin. It manifests in so many ways for so many different reasons, but when it comes to finding the right skin care products, there’s a relative lack of sensitive skin products, which limits consumers’ options to address their condition. This is where formulators come in. Consumers want sensitive skin products and are willing to pay for formulas that work, so it is time to address the real challenge and to formulate products that soothe, repair and protect sensitive skin. 

Formulation Tips
Sensitive skin products are in high demand, offering a perfect opportunity for formulators to craft effective products and quickly get them onto retail shelves or into e-commerce shops for consumers in need. Formulating these types of products, however, requires several key things to create a product that will aid the consumer and won’t exacerbate conditions or symptoms. 
We suggest a three-fold approach to formulating ideal products for compromised skin:
1. Minimize the number of ingredients;
2. Choose ingredients that have been shown to be safe on sensitive skin; and
3. Utilize biological extracts with proven efficacy on soothing damaged or irritated skin.

Less is more, K.I.S.S. and clichés like these persist because there is an inherent truth to them. Anyone who has ever built or witnessed a Rube Goldberg machine will understand the need for simplicity. Fewer ingredients reduce the possibility of one of them being an irritant to the skin. The Cetaphil brand, for instance, has seen explosive growth of 22% between 2018 and 2019 (Mintel 2019), thanks to simple formulations that cater to sensitive skin. While a prestige treatment product may claim many benefits from an extensive ingredient list, a consumer looking for a sensitive skin moisturizer or cleanser will appreciate a more minimal approach. A simple, emulsion-based moisturizer can consist of as few as 10 ingredients: water, humectant, polymer, primary emulsifier, secondary emulsifier, primary emollient, secondary emollient, preservative and two actives.
While fragrance and UV filters may be on the personal watchlist of some sensitive skin consumers, options that are quite safe for sensitive skin do exist. When formulating a cleanser, a basic, effective one can contain as few as eight ingredients: water, primary surfactant, secondary surfactant, conditioning polymer, thickening polymer/salt, preservative, solubilizer and fragrance. Again, by minimizing ingredients in your formula, you reduce the chance for irritation. This offers an advantage for brands, as a minimal ingredient list potentially means a lower raw material cost and simple formulations that are easier to keep stable for better shelf life. Another added benefit is that it is much easier to formulate simple products, and many emerging clean brands have begun to understand this well.

Botanical extracts and vitamins help treat sensitive skin symptoms and help reduce redness, calm irritation and lessen discomfort.
To add sensitive skin claims to product label, the final formula must be clinically tested on a sensitive skin panel or with a dermatologist. Even softer claims, such as “soothing” or “calming,” require testing for substantiation. This testing is expensive, complex and time consuming, so positive results on the first attempt are ideal. Formulating a chassis with gentle ingredients helps ensure that a formula won’t return any adverse effects. Emollients, emulsifiers, rheology modifiers, surfactants and preservatives all play a critical role in the formulation, and ingredient suppliers should have a list of their ingredients with clinical data indicating their suitability for sensitive skin. In addition, suppliers should have on hand recommended maximum-use levels based on those studies and provide the data upon request. Top suppliers are expert in sourcing gentle, functionally effective, high-quality ingredients that also offer virtually no potential for irritation. 

Ingredient Suggestions

BASF offers a complete portfolio of chassis ingredients that are tested to meet the needs of sensitive skin consumers. Cetiol RLF is an emollient offering a fast spread, a light skin feel and has been dermatologically tested on a panel with sensitive skin with use levels up to 10%.

Emulsifiers can often be the culprit for causing irritation in a leave-on formula, but not BASF’s Dehymuls PGPH. This natural emulsifier is dermatologically tested, and clinically tested. It was found that up to 4% in formulation was suitable for sensitive skin and non-irritating.

Remember the category with the greatest number of sensitive skin claims mentioned earlier? Facial cleansers. This is because cleansers are the most likely to be identified by consumers as having potential to be irritating or “stripping.” This make the surfactant choice for a facial cleanser formula so important. Plantapon LGC Sorb is a surfactant that has been tested and is shown to be suitable for sensitive skin and non-irritating up to 28% in finished formulations.
Botanicals and Vitamins
The third approach to formulating for sensitive skin is to use targeted ingredients, such as botanical extracts and vitamins, to help to treat sensitive skin symptoms and help reduce redness, calm irritation and lessen discomfort. Ingredients like aloe, chamomile, and oatmeal have high levels of consumer recognition and are generally accepted as soothing to the skin. High-end cosmetic botanical extracts that have been tested to perform on specific endpoints are also plentiful and readily available to the formulator. Your supplier should have solid clinical data to support their effectiveness, and you should try to use the same percentage level in your formula as the level the supplier tested in theirs. A good strategy could be to combine a well-known sensitive skin-safe ingredient like aloe with a more targeted extract, to support the product’s efficacy and claims. 
BASF offers a complete portfolio of bioactives to meet sensitive skin needs. Two examples include: 
• Inolixir offers a trendy Chaga mushroom story and anti-redness benefits backed by clinical data; and
• Phytosoothe, with key plant phytosterols, helps to accelerate skin rejuvenation after impairment of the physical or microbiotic skin barrier, and speeds up the recovery of a healthy microflora after skin barrier damage.
It’s fun to have a little mystery in your life — except when you’re dealing with sensitive skin. Sensitive skin claims are subjective and tough to measure, nevertheless, it’s important to address the wide spectrum of issues from redness to irritation and beyond. The opportunity for sensitive skin care products is strong and presents a win-win for consumers and brands.

For more information, contact BASF Care Creations North America, [email protected] or

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