Are You Allergic to Your Skincare Products?

You may be, but not all reactions are allergic ones

An itchy red rash after using skincare products is a clear sign of an allergic reaction. But sometimes skincare products can cause more subtle symptoms, like dryness and flakiness, pimple-like bumps, and uneven skin tone. This may be due to irritation caused by a certain ingredient.

This article includes a list of skincare products that most commonly cause irritation or allergic reactions, along with specific ingredients that might be responsible. It also covers the symptoms you should look out for and what to do if a product is irritating your skin.

Woman washes face

Michael H / Getty Images

Allergy vs. Irritation

Whenever people have a reaction to a skincare product, they often say that they are allergic to it. That may be true in some cases, but not all.

Red, itchy, skin irritation is called dermatitis. When you have a negative reaction to a skincare product, you may have one of the following:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis: The reaction occurs because an ingredient irritates the skin. Symptoms are limited to the area the product was applied, and the reaction does not involve the immune system.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis: This is a true allergy—in other words, your immune system reacts to a product ingredient as if it is actually harmful to your body and releases proteins to help fight it. The reaction is often more severe than with irritant contact dermatitis.

Skincare Products That Often Cause Allergic Reactions

A number of common beauty products are known to cause contact dermatitis, especially:

  • Body soaps and gels
  • Moisturizing creams
  • Hair dyes
  • Artificial nails
  • Cologne and perfume
  • Nail polish
  • Lipstick
  • Sunscreen
  • Shampoo
  • Henna (used for temporary tattoos)
  • Deodorant
  • Cleansing wipes

Symptoms

Contact dermatitis symptoms typically include:

  • Reddened, raised bumps
  • Itchy skin
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters (some cases)

It's also possible to have mild irritant contact dermatitis without an 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 dry and red no matter how often you moisturize. Your skin may have a rough, uneven, or sandpapery look. It may look flushed or feel hot to the touch.

Mild contact dermatitis may cause small red pimples that can easily be mistaken for acne. This is called an acneiform rash.

Your face is the most common place to develop this 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.

Allergic reactions tend to result in intensely red, itchy, swollen skin. The reaction typically takes about 12 hours to develop and peaks about 48 hours after exposure.

Timing

While allergic contact dermatitis will typically occur soon after applying a product for the first time, it can sometimes take years for irritant contact dermatitis to develop.

It's precisely because people use their skincare products every day, week after week, month after month, that irritation can happen. It's not that the products are "bad" or "unhealthy," per se. It's simply that long-term exposure to any topical product can slowly damage your skin.

For example, maybe you use a facial cleanser that gets your face squeaky clean. While that may leave you feeling fresh, the product may be stripping away the skin's natural moisturizers. Over time, the cleanser will end up compromising the skin's outermost protective layer, known as the stratum corneum. This can leave skin prone to dryness, redness, and irritation.

Once someone develops irritant contact dermatitis, though, symptoms can develop within a few minutes or hours of touching a substance you're sensitive to. It's also possible for them to appear days or even weeks later.

Recap

Irritant contact dermatitis may not cause obvious symptoms right away. Symptoms can become obvious over time as you continue to use a product that contains low levels of an irritating substance.

Causes

There are thousands of ingredients used in skincare and cosmetic products. Although everyone's skin is different, certain ingredients are more likely to cause irritation than others.

Fragrances are a common culprit. Even though "fragrance" is listed as a single ingredient, the ingredient can contain hundreds of different chemical components, many of which can irritate the skin.

Preservatives are often problematic as well. While they may be necessary to prevent a product from going bad, preservatives are 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.

Color dyes and pigments, known as colorants, also pose a risk. People who are allergic to colorants in their 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 a bright red dye called carmine tend to be the more common problems.

Natural Products

All-natural ingredients can cause contact dermatitis as well. Chief among these are essential oils that can provide skincare products with an appealing scent but are often irritating when used in high concentrations.

Tea tree oil is the essential oil most commonly linked to dermatitis. Just a few drops can trigger an adverse reaction in some people. Others that are more likely to irritate sensitive skin are peppermint, ylang-ylang, clove, cinnamon, and cassia essential oils.

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

Recap

A single beauty product can contain hundreds of ingredients, many of which can irritate your skin. Some ingredients are more likely to irritate than others, such as preservatives, fragrances, essential oils, colorants, and lanolin.

Diagnosis

If you experience a severe or persistent reaction, it's best to see a skin specialist (dermatologist) or allergy specialist (allergist) who can perform a patch test to see if you are allergic to anything.

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

A case of irritant contact dermatitis may be obvious enough that you don't need a doctor to confirm it. You may be able to figure out that your skin is sensitive to a product simply by tracking what you use, where you use it, and whether or not you have a reaction in that area.

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. Eliminating a product that contains fragrance or colorants is a great place to start. It may take two to four weeks before you notice a difference.

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.

Pinpointing the exact ingredient that's causing you problems may be more difficult. However, unless the reaction is severe, it might not be worth the time it may take to solve the mystery if you've switched to and are happy with new products that aren't causing a reaction.

Of course, see your healthcare provider if you can't determine the cause of your dermatitis—even if your case is not severe.

Treatment

The good news is that most cases of contact dermatitis will go away on their own, provided you stop using the product that is bothering your skin.

Treat the affected area gently. Avoid scrubbing, perfumed soaps, and scented lotions to prevent irritating skin further. 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. Give it an opportunity to heal. Your doctor can prescribe a cream or ointment to control the itch and help the skin heal if needed.

For more serious cases of contact dermatitis, also follow these skin care tips and pay a visit to your doctor.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long can an allergic reaction to skincare products last?

    Without complications, a reaction can last around two to four weeks. This depends on how severe it is and how you treat your skin after it occurs.

  • Can you have a delayed allergic reaction to skincare products?

    Yes. Allergic reactions to face wash, creams, and other skincare products can be delayed or immediate.

  • Is there a home remedy I can use for an allergic reaction to a skincare product?

    Applying a cool, wet washcloth to the area for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day can help. You might also try taking a cool bath. Sprinkle baking soda or colloidal oatmeal into the water to give it extra soothing qualities.

  • How else can I reduce redness from an allergic reaction to face wash?

    Consider at least temporarily changing to a milder shampoo and conditioner. Redness may be persisting because your hair care is irritating your sensitive skin. Pause on using products with possibly irritating ingredients (e.g., acne creams or anti-aging serums).

Summary

You can be allergic to skincare products, but you don't have to be in order for them to cause itchy, red, and dry skin.

Skincare and other beauty products often contain hundreds of ingredients, many of which can slowly strip away your skin's protective and moisturizing barriers. This causes irritant contact dermatitis. Symptoms may occur right away or take years of product use to develop.

If your reaction is immediate and extreme, however, you may be dealing with an allergy instead. See your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, it's not always clear exactly what a product contains, which is why many people have turned to creating their own beauty products at home with simple ingredients—bee's wax, aloe vera, and so on—they know won't affect their skin.

If you do this, keep them in air-tight containers to best preserve them, and throw them out if you notice any signs of separation, differences in texture, or changes in smell.

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11 Sources
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