For those with sensitive skin, the brand, Pai Skincare will be a household name within their skincare routines – and if not, it should be. Sarah Brown started the brand 13 years ago, after failing to find any products that would treat her (then) recently diagnosed Chronic Urticaria. “It's essentially extreme hives,” she told our Junior Fashion Editor, Carmen Bellot over Zoom. “But like many skin conditions, no one knew anything about it.” This personal journey led to her founding a skincare company dedicated to bringing effective beauty products to those who can’t put harsh chemicals on their delicate skin.

Still based in the same city where it was born, London, Pai Skincare has revolutionised the beauty market for many. This year saw the brand proudly relaunch, now publicly sharing on every product packaging their organic, cruelty-free and vegan accreditations, and also launch their latest Pai saviour: the Instant Kalmer Serum. Carmen spoke to Sarah about how being an outsider can give you an edge, how beauty products can be the wellness tool we all need and how to help stressed skin.

Do you think that starting your business without a beauty background, other than your own personal experience, was beneficial to you and making your products?
I do, and I'll give you a really good example of that. At the time, I had obviously hyperactive skin that was red and flushed, and would get quite swollen, but also I was suffering with adult acne. And classic, old school, skin types that were traditionally put on beauty packaging, was that you were either normal, mature, combination or sensitive and that sensitive was this capsule in itself. But sensitive skin can take a billion different forms: it can be oily, it also can be mature. For me, I was trying to buy products that were tackling my extreme hyperactivity, but also not break me out. And I found that brands didn't really understand sensitive skin, and would just assume that sensitive skin was eczema and was dry. Eczema is very dry skin, but there’s a million skin conditions that are sensitive that are not, me being one of them. So I would find that lots of the creams had beeswax in them, which is quite heavy, oily and have a strong fragrance and they would just break me out. So I questioned, why do we have these ridiculous restrictive skin types? People are starting to move away from them, but they have been a core part of how brands categorise their products and sell them. We do a bit of that, but we just try to do it in a more fluid way. We know that someone will buy our mask for blemish skin, but also will want one that replenishes and boost as well. And they might use them at the same time and on different parts of the face – it's not binary like that.

That was just one example where I think fresh eyes were needed, but also greenwashing. It's so much worse now, sadly, but it would (and still does) really frustrate me that people would make organic claims. It's not the same as food. If you buy a pint of organic milk, it's organic: it has to be independently certified – the farming standards are really robust – and there's someone checking or auditing them. But it's not the same in beauty. That really bugs me and I just felt that there were so many loopholes in beauty labelling and in the industry that were being exploited.

Coming at it from a different viewpoint was probably quite good because I understood the customer, and I was really clear on who my customer was and that mission has never changed. And I think we've got a broader customer now because we have a whole customer camp. We've really proven our expertise on sensitive skin and that was always our founding mission. We also offer free consultations, and these [skin coaches] have been with us for many years and they're so knowledgeable because we passionately care about getting people's skin back on track. We have all those customers who we've taken on that journey and helped. But then we have the customer who cares now, particularly now post-COVID about provenance. Where are my products coming from? How are they made? And all the ethical dimensions of that; packaging; sustainability. And they’re values that we've upheld and been passionate about for 13 years. We still make our products in the UK. It's an absolute lunacy to do it in London, it's so expensive, we've had to build production facilities and equipment. No one does it because it's such a commitment to the cause, but it's the only way you have visibility in your supply chain. So, we have a customer base who loves us from an ethical point of view, who might not have sensitive skin but really buy into our values.

When you started you had a customer base that was focused on sensitive skin, and as you were saying, especially now, your customers are also caring about where their products come from. But do you think in the last 13 years you've had your business, there's been a change in customers whose skin, let’s say, have been affected by new environmental aggressors and that's why they're coming to you? Do you think there's more people with sensitive skin, that has been developed in new ways that we hadn’t really seen from when you started your business?
That's a brilliant question. I'd say yes, and a couple of things come to mind. The first thing would be that there's so many products being sold to us all the time: acids and multiple serum steps. And actually for lots of people, we're suppressing our skin's natural processes. You always want a skincare regime that supports and bolsters your skin's natural processes, but never so much there suppresses them. There's been such a rise of cosmeceutical products that for some skin types, and if you're at all on the sensitive side, they can just be too much. And I know this because we are the remedy. All these customers who have tried to use these products and have had horrendous reactions, come to us and we have to calm their skin down. You want the building block products that you invest in and that will keep your skin happy, healthy and balanced. If you have balanced skin and managed to achieve that balance, which many people don't, your skin will age well, you will have fewer breakouts, fewer flare ups, and we try to get people on that path. 

That's one example, and the second example: stress. We live in, I think, incomparably stressful lives to 10, 20, 30 years ago, and stress has a physiological effect on the skin. It's proven, if you are stressed, you release more of the hormone cortisol, which then leads to more oil production: it is a direct impact. And for me and my condition, stress is an absolute trigger, as it is for those with eczema and psoriasis. We see it a lot that stress is such a factor in skin, so your mental wellbeing is incredibly important in the treatment of it and that is an ever increasing problem and phenomenon. We saw it in lockdown. I saw it myself and the knock-on effect it had on my skin. Then we're navigating a new world of mask-wearing and sanitising hands.

We used to do a survey of the population, not just our customers, and we've asked ‘would you consider your skin as sensitive?’ And that number is just going up and up and up. I think it started at 45% then went to 50-54%, and then when we last did it was something crazy, like 74%. That doesn't mean 74% of people have sensitive skin, but they might think they have. And the other thing is, is that there is this divide because I think we have a core sense of condition and nature. Those diagnosable conditions that have been around a long time, like eczema and psoriasis are of course sensitive conditions. But then the majority of people, say 90% of people who think they have sensitive skin, have what we call sensitised skin. That's skin that is temporarily sensitive, that is really easy to fix. That can be just simply changing the cleanser, changing their washing powder, reducing their stress. They’re really easy to fix as they’re just the external triggers that are making them sensitive when their core skin type isn't.

It's so interesting, I’ve never really heard skincare issues as being described as situational, but I guess like other conditions, like depression, it can be situational or longstanding.
It's really interesting your point about mental health, I think we're in a mental health crisis and it's going to get much worse and we're descending into it at pace. And it's something that we as a business are very passionate about – sometimes beauty can be considered a bit of a vain industry but self-care is profoundly important to people. And during lockdown, our skincare routines were these moments of peace and calm that were really important to wider mental health, and wider wellbeing, but also helping our skin.

he links between mental health and skin are clearly there. As you said, with stress being such a big cause of skincare issues, we're in this moment where people are starting to recognise that seeing how their body reacts and how their skin is, is actually a really clear indicator of mental wellbeing.
Yeah, and actually when we deal with a chronic condition, i.e chronic acne or chronic eczema, often the solution is breaking the cycle of stress that can be caused by feeling so depressed about their skin. And I understand, I've been there; you get into this vicious cycle of if you have a terrible flare and then you're really down about it, and then that stress makes the skin worse. People can live in this cycle for years and you have to help them break the cycle, by giving them little baby steps of things to empower them, so they feel a bit more in control. That's what I had to do, but I didn't have anyone helping me to do it, but I had to just take these baby steps. It's that lack of feeling in control, which I think people on a much more macro level feel right now. None of us are in control of anything. You're completely powerless in this mad world in so many ways.

Tell me about the new Instant Kalmer Serum?
Serums, for people with sensitivity are very challenging, I never had used a serum previously because to get that light molecular structure you often need alcohol, which is the delivery agent to the skin, and it's very hard to get that structure without these ingredients, but we have done it. Because serums are designed to penetrate very quickly, with the wrong ingredients, you can quickly get that sensation of prickling, that is very uncomfortable. So our serums are for people who can't usually use serums, but this particular onem as the product name would suggestm is all about de-stressing the skin, and very fast. We put that into trial so we can actually substantiate the claim, and it has various anti-inflammatories that calm the skin down very quickly. But it's also got a ceramide complex  and it helps keep the skin barrier strong. So it has this instantly distressing element, but also a skin strengthening side to it through those ingredients.

What ingredients would you say are great to have in your skincare routine for this time of year? Whether it’s stress or the weather, what skincare ingredients would help combat these environmental aggressors?
Natural ceramides, for the reasons I said earlier about strengthening your skin barrier. Now it’s changing seasons, this is really important.
Hyaluronic Acid: it’s amazing for keeping the skin hydrated. As the temperature goes down, you have much lower humidity and so the air draws moisture out of your skin, which is why it’s much drier. You need to be replacing that with a really good moisturiser, but hyaluronic acid holds 1000x the weight in water as it does in your skin, so it’s particularly amazing.
And then calming agents like, schisandra. This time of year, when you go out and it's freezing and then go back into a really warm space – when we have those extremes in temperature change – then schisandra is brilliant for that. 

Shop The Instant Kalmer Serum, and other Pai Skincare products below:

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