Frederique Morizot, director of Chanel’s Biology & Women’s Beauty department, has been studying sensitive skin for 20 years. The study brought together almost 10,000 women worldwide, and according to her, 50 per cent of them claim that they have sensitive skin (some persistently, while others experience occasional outbursts). Fifty per cent translates to one out of two women having this problem.

The one blessing of having sensitive skin is you never have to second-guess how it is feeling, what it is comfortable with, what it is not, what it will accept, and what it will not. That’s because there are 70 million nerve endings just under the skin, says Morizot. This means it pretty much gives it to you like it is.

Mine prickles and feels hot (in that order) when I go from an air-conditioned environment to a non-air-con one. If it’s extra irate, little bumps will surface, coupled with mild itching. Ditto when I consume sparkling wine (that’s why it’s champagne for me, please). The sun alone isn’t a threat, but add heat and my own perspiration, and the invasion of red patches and rashes begins. As for sampling new skincare, the responses are generally one of these three: 1 – no reaction (this means green light to proceed); 2 – slight itch and redness, then a hive or two after five minutes (this means don’t let this product come near me again); and 3 – an explosion of in-your-face eczema (this means it’s steroid time).

Sensitive skin is reactionary, but it is definitely not bad skin, badly behaved skin or poor quality skin. According to Morizot, it is “skin with a damaged barrier that has either been agitated by physical irritation, like non-invasive aesthetic procedures, or oxidative stress from the environment it’s exposed to”.

When the skin barrier is injured, weakened or compromised, that stresses the cells – keratinocytes – there. A. Lot. Enough to make them overproduce NGF (Nerve Growth Factors) to overstimulate the nerve fibres. That’s when sensitive skin happens.

To manage long- or short-term irritability, stimuli are strongly discouraged. What it needs instead: to be soothed, calmed, protected and defended with skincare that has as little trigger factors as possible.

skincare for sensitive skin chanel
No one ever keeps a product’s packaging and its info leaflet – that’s why Dr Amy Wechsler (above) insisted that the 10 ingredients be listed on the back of every La Solution 10.

No one appreciates this fact more than American dermatologist/psychiatrist Dr Amy Wechsler. What gives her cred: She is one of only two physicians in the US who is board-certified in both dermatology and psychiatry. The second part is where she stands out from her peers in the US.

“Having a listening ear and being sympathetic have made me a better doctor,” says Dr Wechsler. “It is only from spending more time and finding out what’s going on in my patients’ lives that I know what’s really happening to their skin.”

When she met Christian Mahe, Chanel’s senior VP of Research & Technology, in 2011, it was her call to create a more premium moisturiser specifically for sensitive skin that’s neither medicinal nor pharmaceutical. The first has steroids, which she is not in favour of; the second can be too basic and not a pleasure to use.

The moisturiser should also be fragrance-free and have as few ingredients as possible, but they should be effective. The logic behind that: the simpler the formula, the more optimal it is for skin tolerance.

skincare for sensitive skin chanel la solution 10
Chanel’s La Solution 10 is retailing for $125 for 30ml.

Making a skincare with 10 ingredients is darn hard. According to Florence Montet, Skincare R&D lab manager at Chanel’s formulation laboratory, there are generally 25 to 45 ingredients in a product. And she’s right. My organically produced sunscreen has 25; night serum has 34; body lotion (for sensitive skin!) has 31; even Colgate toothpaste has 11. So whatever the French cosmetic house puts in had better count.

What was initially on top of the list was green tea, as its soothing and defensive properties against UV and oxidative stress are well-documented. But Chanel’s Active Ingredients Research director Nicola Fuzzati found something better: silver needle tea, also known as the beauty tea for emperors.

Grown in China near Taiwan’s border, its leaf buds are rare and premium: One tree yields 20 to 30 buds, which can only be handpicked within 10 days between the drier months of March and April, then left to dry naturally in the sun and wind.

skincare for sensitive skin chanel
It takes 15kg of silver needle buds for 1kg of extraction.

Compared to green and black teas, silver needle’s level of polyphenols – the plant-based antioxidants that regulate enzyme function and stimulate cell recovery – is reportedly a startling 75 per cent higher. It also has something that the other two don’t: theanine, an amino acid with relaxing properties that has the ability to calm skin cells down. Yeast and mushrooms have theanine too, but it’s easier to extract it from silver needle.

In vitro tests by Chanel’s researchers have shown that silver needle soothes skin by regulating the production of NGFs, blocks free radicals, and reinforces skin’s barrier function – the three key areas that irritable skin needs help with.

With the key ingredient sorted, Chanel then worked very closely with toxicologists to ensure that each of the remaining nine ingredients is safe to use and has a specific role, from preservation and texture to hydration.

The whole process took three years, 117 formulation trials, and tests on 185 women with independent dermatologists. The result is La Solution 10, a cream moisturiser that anyone with sensitive skin of any skin type, and any age and sex, can use (which is different from a product that sensitive skin can also use) – daily or as required, and even around the eyes. It doesn’t claim to do the impossible – cure skin diseases like eczema, psoriasis or rosacea, or stop skin allergies – though Dr Wechsler has used it on her patients with skin disease, as long as they have no lesions.

But for almost everything else – to rebalance skin, protect it from pollution, as an after-shave salve, a go-to moisturiser for the acne prone, an intense hydrator on the plane, a face saver that adapts to the environment, a makeup primer, a soother for post-non-invasive aesthetic procedures, for dehydrated complexions – that can trigger sensitivity or upset skin, I have to say it has been a good solution.

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An adapted version of this appeared in Female‘s April 2016 issue.

Like this? Check out our review of Chanel Le Lift’s new anti-ageing range.