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Sensitive Skin

“Fifty-seven percent of American women describe their skin as sensitive,” but only two percent of said women actually have “what doctors describe as ‘sensitive skin syndrome,’ reports Natasha Singer in The New York Times (10/13/05). “Everybody thinks they have sensitive skin,” says Rose Motta, who works the Clarins counter at Saks. “The idea of having sensitive skin is a kind of status symbol that means they think their skin is unique or especially delicate.” Don’t cosmetics marketers know it: “The sensitive skin category has become a $900 million business in the United States, with sales up about 13 percent since 2000, according to Euromonitor International, a market research firm.”

The term “sensitive skin” may indeed be marketing magic, but in fact it was coined, back in 1990, not by a marketing genius but by Dr. Albert M. Klingman, “a professor emeritus of dermatology at the School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania. According to Dr. Klingman, “the symptoms are sensory rather than visible and include itching, burning, stinging, dryness and a feeling a tightness.” And the fact is, many of the cosmetics sold for “sensitive skin” are too harsh for people with truly chronic sensitive skin problems. In any case, there’s a lack of definition — an industry standard — around what the “sensitive” label means: “On some products it means the formula lacks fragrances, dyes, alcohol or emulsifiers to which some consumers are allergic. On others it signals the presence of an ingredient meant to calm the skin: aloe vera, cucumber, chamomile, green tea or vitamin E. Still other products employ the term to connote a milder or less abrasive formulation of an existing product.”

To be fair, it’s not for no reason that so many people think they have sensitive skin. Usually it’s because they broke out at one time or another; but that doesn’t meet Dr. Klingman’s definition of “sensitive skin syndrome.” And, in fact, brands such as Clarins make product for the two percent with truly sensitive skin, but they train their people to sell them only to customers who actually have the condition. Sometimes the condition is not congenital, but the result of “overuse of cosmetics or by having too many facial peels or other procedures that weaken the skin’s protective barrier” — and in such cases the condition is temporary. But for the most part, “sensitive skin” products apparently “do more to calm customer anxiety than to soothe skin.” Says Usha Murthy of St. Ives facial care: “We have to please those consumers who think they have sensitive skin.” Or, as Rose Motta puts it, “they may be sensitive souls but they don’t have sensitive skin.”