Cosmetics are designed to make you feel and look your best.
Most of the time this is exactly what they do. But unfortunately, sometimes they can cause irritation and even allergic reactions. Various studies reveal that up to 10% of dermatologic patients are allergic to beauty products. About 23% of women and 14% of men will experience some sort of adverse reaction to a personal care product over the course of a year. Problems can range from simple skin irritation to potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis. The products most likely to cause skin reactions include hair dyes, nail polish, eye, and lip makeup, soaps and shampoos, antiperspirants, and moisturizers.
Whenever people have a reaction to a skincare product, they often assume that they are allergic to it. But in fact, there are two types of skin reactions to beauty products: irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. It can be tricky to tell them apart. So let's take a deeper dive into the topic.
Irritation vs. Allergic Reaction
The symptoms you experience will depend on the type of reaction you have and your sensitivity to an ingredient.
Irritant Contact Dermatitis.
As the name states, this reaction occurs when an ingredient irritates or damages your skin. This reaction does not involve the immune system. Typically, irritant contact dermatitis affects only the skin area the product was applied to. The symptoms may include:
- Itching, burning, or stinging sensation
- Patches of redness and raised bumps
- Small blisters
- Patches of rough, continuously dry skin
- Acneiform rash (acne-like small red bumps)
Allergic contact dermatitis.
This reaction involves your immune system and is considered a true allergy. Although allergic contact dermatitis is less common than irritant contact dermatitis, it tends to be more severe. You can get allergic reactions on any part of your body, but mostly it happens on the face, eyelids, lips, ears, and neck. You may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Itchy, flaky, or peeling skin
- Irritation of the mouth, nose, and eyes
- Facial swelling
- Wheezing and difficulties breathing (contact a healthcare provider immediately)
- Anaphylaxis (this is a life-threatening condition, call 911 immediately)
Ingredients to be wary of
The skincare industry uses thousands of ingredients. Some of them are more likely to cause issues than others. It is critical to read the individual ingredients on a product label, especially if you have reactive skin. Just looking for the products labeled “hypoallergenic” is not enough. Sad to say, but there are still no regulations regarding the terms “hypoallergenic” or “allergy tested”. Here are some ingredients you should look out for:
The fragrance is one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, headaches, coughing, wheezing, and other respiratory irritation. “Fragrance” often is listed as a single ingredient. But in reality, an artificial fragrance can contain up to 200 components, and there is no telling what they are. Fragrance ingredients are found in products labeled “unscented” because companies use special fragrance chemicals known as masking agents to create that non-scent. The products that are labeled “fragrance-free” generally are the healthier option.
Parabens are a range of chemicals commonly used as preservatives in beauty products. Parabens are more likely to cause an allergic reaction in those with existing skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Other preservatives to avoid are formaldehyde, formalin, imidazolidinyl urea, isothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, benzyl alcohol, and quaternium-15.
Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate are two common skincare, bath, and hair product ingredients. They may cause rashes and itching, specifically in people with sensitive and acne-prone skin.
Propylene Glycol is a synthetic liquid substance often used in moisturizers as a humectant. When used for prolonged periods, even at low concentrations, allergic reactions can occur.
Dyes and pigments
Colorants are most often found in hair products and pigmented cosmetics. Reds, yellows, and carmine dyes can cause contact dermatitis on sensitive skin. The dye ingredient which most often causes allergic reactions is paraphenylenediamine (PPD).
Food Allergens in Skincare
It is important to note that some natural skincare products can be irritating too. Cosmetics containing ingredients derived from wheat, barley, or rye may have gluten in them. So if you are gluten-sensitive, try to avoid using those products.
Shimmery cosmetics like lipstick and eye shadows sometimes contain guanine, better known as pearlescence, or simply fish scales.
Several other food allergens can also be present in the cosmetics you use:
- Milk and egg traces
- Peanut oil (Arachis oil)
- Macadamia nut oil
- Sesame seed oil
- Fruit extracts
Other Natural Ingredients
Essential oils are a common irritant when used in high concentrations. You’ll find them in shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, and face creams. Most essential oils contain between 100 to 500 chemical components and terpenes, like limonene, linalool, and linalyl acetate. Tea tree oil is frequently linked to dermatitis. Other oils to keep in mind are ylang-ylang, clove, cinnamon, peppermint, and cassia.
Acids are typically used in skincare products to promote skin cell turnover, boost collagen production, and treat acne. Most common acids include salicylic acid, BHA, AHA, topical retinoids, and glycolic acid. All of these can cause irritation, redness, and dryness.
Lanolin is a natural ingredient derived from sheep's wool and is used in moisturizing products. It is often linked to skin irritation and allergic reactions.
TIP: The FDA does not have the authority to approve cosmetic ingredients before they hit the market. However, the FDA created a detailed list of all the common allergens in cosmetics and other ingredients of concern.
How to Avoid and Manage Skin Reactions to Beauty Products
Do you have reactive skin and want to avoid potential skin problems? Next time you head out to pick up a new beauty product, just follow some simple tips:
- Read the label and opt for products with fewer ingredients.
- Do a patch test before using any product.
- If you’re using perfume and want to reduce the risk of reacting to the fragrance, apply it to your clothes, not to your skin.
If you start to notice unusual changes in your skin:
- If you’re having a mild reaction to the new product, discontinue the use.
- If you're having a mild reaction and you haven't started any new products, try to remove one product from your regimen at a time to see if your skin improves.
- Make a list of all the beauty products you have used in the past few days. New and old. It is possible to develop a reaction to a product you’ve been using for years.
- Show this list to your dermatologist.
- See a dermatologist or immunologist straight away if you experience a severe or persistent reaction.
Written by Elena Popkova