Are You Allergic to Your Skincare Products?

Understanding Contact Dermatitis and Its Causes

Soap and lotion
Aleksandra Jankovic/Stocksy United

In This Article

An itchy red rash after using a cosmetic is an obvious sign of an irritant or allergic reaction. But sometimes sensitivity to skincare products can be more insidious and sneaky, causing extreme dryness and flakiness, pimple-like bumps, and uneven skin tone. These seemingly unrelated skin problems may also be a sign that you are sensitive to the products you're putting on your skin.

Types of Reactions

Dermatitis is the term used to describe any red, itchy, irritation of the skin. When it's caused by something that touches the skin, it's called contact dermatitis. Skincare products, makeup, and personal care products like deodorant and shampoo are common causes of contact dermatitis.

Around 80% of all contact dermatitis cases are irritant contact dermatitis. Your skin is irritated or sensitive to something that you've touched. Irritant contact dermatitis can develop quickly after exposure to an offending substance, within a few hours or even minutes. But it can also take days or sometimes weeks for irritation to develop.

Whenever we have a reaction to a product, we often say that we're "allergic" to it, but this isn't always the case.

Irritant contact dermatitis is not a true allergy because the immune system is not involved. The reaction is restricted to the skin only.

By contrast, allergic contact dermatitis is a true allergy to a substance. In allergic contact dermatitis, the reaction is often more severe with intensely red, itchy, swollen skin. The reaction typically takes about 12 hours to develop and peaks about 48 hours after exposure.

Symptoms

Textbook contact dermatitis symptoms include reddened, raised bumps and itchy skin. Sometimes, small fluid-filled blisters also develop.

But, contact dermatitis is not always this acute or severe. You may have mild irritant contact dermatitis without obvious itchy rash. Sometimes the only symptom is dry skin. Maybe it's a flaky patch that never seems to go away completely.

Or, maybe your skin just looks slightly reddened and dehydrated no matter how often you moisturize. Your skin may have a rough, uneven or sandpapery look. Skin may feel hot to the touch or look flushed.

Mild contact dermatitis may cause small red pimples that can easily be mistaken for acne. Rash like this is referred to as an acneiform rash.

Your face is the most common place to develop his mild, chronic type of contact dermatitis. It's especially likely to crop up on the eyelids, cheeks, around the corners of the nose and mouth, and the chin.

Timing

Mild chronic contact dermatitis is most often caused by skincare products: soap, facial cleansers or body washes, lotions or creams, toners, or makeup. While allergic contact dermatitis will typically occur soon after application, irritant contact dermatitis reaction can develop over time and sometimes take years before symptoms develop.

It's precisely because we use our skincare products every day, week after week, month after month, that irritation can develop. It's not that the products are "bad" or "unhealthy" per se. It's simply that long-term exposure to any topical substance can potentially chip away at the architecture of skin without us even knowing.

Though irritant dermatitis may initially be subclinical (without noticeable symptoms), it may eventually become clinical as you continue to expose the skin to low-level irritants.

One such example is a facial cleanser that makes your skin squeaky clean. In fact, you may be stripping important natural moisturizing factor (NMF) needed to protect the skin. Over time, the cleanser will no longer "clean" the skin but instead compromise the exterior barrier of cells known as the stratum corneum.

Causes

There are literally thousands of ingredients used in skincare and cosmetic preparations. Although everyone's skin is different, we do know that certain ingredients are more likely to cause irritation than others.

Fragrances are a common culprit. Even though it is listed as a single ingredient, a fragrance can be comprised of hundreds of different chemical components, many of which are damaging to the skin.

Preservatives are another common culprits. Although these ingredients are necessary to extend shelf life and prevent rancidity, preservatives are also known to cause contact dermatitis in some people.

The preservatives most likely to cause contact dermatitis are parabens, formaldehyde, formalin, imadazolidinyl urea, isothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, and quaternium-15.

Colorants also pose a risk. These include agents classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food, drug, and cosmetic (FD&C) colorants. People allergic to these colorants in food will likely be allergic to them in their cosmetics as well.

Any colorant can cause contact dermatitis on sensitive skin, but reds, yellows, and carmine tend to be the more common culprits.

Natural Products

Despite what some people may tell you, all-natural ingredients can cause contact dermatitis as well. Chief among these are essential oils that can provide skincare products with an appealing fragrance but are almost invariably irritating if used in too high concentrations.

Tea tree oil is the essential oil most commonly linked to dermatitis, requiring but a few drops per 30 milliliters to trigger an adverse reaction in some people.

Other essential oils that are more likely to irritate sensitive skin are peppermint essential oil, ylang-ylang essential oil, clove essential oil, cinnamon essential oil, and cassia essential oil.

Another natural ingredient that is commonly linked to contact dermatitis is lanolin. Lanolin is derived from sheep wool and is used in moisturizing products like body lotions and facial creams.

So if you're having a reaction to a cosmetic, don't overlook your natural or organic products. Natural doesn't always mean safe.

Diagnosis

The first step in avoiding contact dermatitis is identifying which products and ingredients are affecting you. Sometimes it's easy to narrow down the problematic product by when and where the irritation occurred

If you're having a mild reaction and you haven't started any new products, try removing one product from your regimen at a time to see if your skin improves. It may take two to four weeks before you notice a difference.

Pinpointing the exact ingredient may be tougher. And, to be honest, unless the reaction is severe, it's probably not worth the time tracking down if it's a specific fragrance, colorant, or preservative that triggering a reaction.

If push comes to shove, simply opt for products without fragrances and colorants. Excluding preservatives may be problematic, but, over time, you may be able to identify which types of preservatives you are sensitive to and avoid them.

However, if a reaction is severe or persistent, it is worth your while to see a dermatologist or an allergist who can perform a patch test.

Patch tests involve exposure to 20 to 30 common skin irritants, applied to the skin as patches. After 48 hours, the patches are removed to check for reactions and monitored for up to seven days to see if any irritation develops.

Treatment

The good news is most cases of contact dermatitis will go away on its own, provided you stop using the offending product of course. Minor irritation can be treated at home. For more serious cases of contact dermatitis, you should pay a visit to your physician for help treating it.

Either way, treat the affected area gently. No scrubbing, no perfumed soaps or lotions. These can aggravate already irritated skin. If the area is dry and cracked, you can put on a thin layer of petroleum jelly or soothing ointment like Aquaphor.

Although it's tough if your skin is itchy, try not to scratch the area. Allow the skin to heal. Your physician can prescribe topical medications to control the itch and help the skin heal if needed.

You may have to put on your detective hat to figure out exactly which product or ingredient is causing your contact dermatitis. But with patience and time, you can help get your skin back to a healthier, happier state.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • Cheng J, Zug KA. "Fragrance Allergic Contact Dermatitis." Dermatitis. 2014 Sep-Oct; 25(5)232-45.
  • Tan CH, Rasool S, Johnston GA. "Contact Dermatitis: Allergic and Irritant." 2014 Jan-Feb; 32(1):116-24.
  • Verhulst L, Goossens A. "Cosmetic Components Causing Contact Urticaria: a Review and Update." Contact Dermatitis. 2016 Dec; 75(6):333-344.