Are You Allergic to Your Skincare Products?

You may be, but not all reactions are allergic in nature

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, how to respond to severe reactions, and more.

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 Reactions

A number of common beauty products are known to cause allergic reactions and irritant 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

A single beauty product can contain hundreds of ingredients, and it only takes one to cause a problem.

If you start to notice unusual changes in your skin, make a list of all the beauty products you have used the past few days. It's possible to suddenly develop a reaction to a product you have been using for years, so don't just write down products that are new to you.

This information will be helpful for you and your doctor as you try to find the cause of the reaction.

Symptoms

The symptoms you experience will depend on the type of reaction you have and how sensitive you are to an ingredient.

In addition to the following symptoms experienced with exposure, long-term use of any product that contains low levels of an irritant or allergen can gradually strip away your skin's outermost protective layer, the stratum corneum.

Over time, this can leave your skin prone to dryness, redness, and irritation.

Contact Dermatitis Symptoms

Irritant contact dermatitis typically only affects the direct area of skin that touched the allergen. It can result in:

  • Itchy skin
  • A patch of reddened, raise bumps
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters

It's also possible to have mild irritant contact dermatitis without an itchy rash. For example, you may have skin that is slightly dry no matter how often you moisturize. Or, you may have a patch of rough, sandpaper-like skin that may or may not feel hot to the touch.

Mild irritant 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 Reaction Symptoms

Allergic contact dermatitis is not as common as irritant contact dermatitis, but it tends to be more severe. If you are allergic to a product, you may have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Hives
  • Itchy skin
  • Rash
  • Flaking or peeling skin
  • Facial swelling
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Wheezing
  • Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can begin within seconds to minutes after you come in contact with the allergen.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

Anaphylaxis can become life-threatening rapidly. If you develop any signs of anaphylaxis, call 911 or have someone take you to the nearest emergency room right away.

Timing of Symptoms

Neither of these reactions tend to appear the first time you use a product. You will likely start to have reactions after you have used a product one or more times.

Those reactions may not begin for 24 to 48 hours after you have been exposed, though they can begin much sooner in cases of anaphylaxis.

Once you develop an allergy to a substance, you will have that allergy for life. You will also have an allergic reaction every time you use a product you are allergic to.

Likewise, once you develop irritant contact dermatitis, you will have symptoms every time the problematic product touches your skin.

Recap

Symptoms of an allergy are typically more severe than those of contact dermatitis. In either case, you may not develop a reaction the first time you use a product. Symptoms can become obvious over time as you continue to use a product.

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 reactions 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.

Food Allergens in Skincare

Some products may contain ingredients derived from wheat, barley, or rye. This means there is a chance that the product could have gluten in it.

If you are gluten-sensitive, be extra careful to avoid using products that could contain gluten on your lips or around your mouth. In fact, anything that could be ingested is especially risky (think shampoo and other shower products that you could accidentally get in your mouth as you're washing up).

A number of other food allergens can also be present in the cosmetics you use. For example, some lipsticks, nail polishes, eye shadows and other shimmery products may contain guanine, better known as fish scales. Remember this if you have a fish allergy.

Other food allergens that are found in beauty products include:

  • Arachis oil (peanut oil): Present in some creams and eye pencils
  • Almond oil: Found in some shampoos, shower gels, bath oils, and skin moisturizers
  • Milk or egg traces: Included in some shampoo formulations
  • Avocado: Present in some moisturizers
  • Sesame seed oil: Found in some hand/face moisturizers and soaps
  • Fruit traces: Present in some face products and lip balms
  • Lupin traces: Included in some makeup and skincare products
  • Macadamia nut oil: Present in some hair straightening balms and serums

Other Natural Ingredients

All-natural ingredients can irritate your skin and cause allergic reactions. Essential oils are a common culprit. While they can provide skincare products with an appealing scent, they 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.

Furthermore, if you have allergic rhinitis or know you are allergic to pollen, you may want to avoid using essential oils or products that contain them. Essential oils are potent plant extracts. Even though they are usually marketed as pure, that's not always the case.

In fact, according to one 2016 study, researchers found that most essential oils contain between 100 to 500 chemical components. In particular, they contain many terpenes, like limonene, linalool, and linayl acetate. These terpenes give plants their floral scent, but they are also linked to allergic contact dermatitis.

Lanolin is another natural ingredient that is commonly linked to skin irritation and allergic reactions. 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 cause a reaction. Some are more likely to irritate than others, such as preservatives, fragrances, essential oils, colorants, and lanolin. Products can even contain food allergens.

Diagnosis

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.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Of course, see your healthcare provider if you can't manage your symptoms—even if your case is not severe.

You should also see a skin specialist (dermatologist) or allergy specialist (allergist) straightaway if you experience a severe or persistent reaction. They can perform a patch test to see if you are allergic to anything.

Patch tests involve exposure to 20 to 30 common allergens. 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.

Treatment

Most cases of irritant contact dermatitis will go away on their own, provided you stop using the product that is bothering your skin. You may or may not need a topical medication to ease symptoms in the meantime.

Most allergic reactions will also abate on their own, though it will take longer and medication is typically necessary. Severe reactions require intervention to prevent worsening.

Treating Contact Dermatitis

While you wait for the reaction to pass, treat the affected area gently. Avoid scrubbing and using perfumed products to prevent irritating skin further.

If the area is dry and cracked, you can apply 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 corticosteroid cream or ointment to control the itch and help the skin heal, if needed.

Treating Allergic Reactions

If you are having a mild allergic reaction, such as hives and itchy skin, you can apply an over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone cream to the affected area to stop the itching. Your doctor may also prescribe a topical corticosteroid.

Taking an OTC antihistamine, like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Claritin (loratadine) can help calm itching too.

When the allergic reaction affects an extensive area of skin, your doctor may prescribe a short course of an oral corticosteroid, like prednisone. You may need to take the medication for seven to 14 days, and in some cases longer.

Although your skin symptoms may clear up after just a few days, it's important to finish the full course prescribed to ensure the reaction has resolved.

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening medical emergency. If you develop trouble swallowing, difficulty breathing, facial swelling, or other signs of this reaction, call 911 or have someone take you to the hospital. Do not wait for symptoms to get worse. Anaphylaxis begins suddenly and worsens rapidly, so you need to act fast.

If you have an epinephrine injector (EpiPen or Auvi-Q), use it immediately. This is true regardless of whether you are sure you are having an allergic reaction or not.

You will still need to get medical attention right away after the epinephrine injection. The effects of epinephrine wear off within 20 minutes. And since anaphylaxis can return, you will need further treatment and observation.

In addition to epinephrine, you may be given other treatments at the hospital, such as IV antihistamines. Should anaphylaxis affect your breathing, you may need oxygen, or a bronchodilator like albuterol to open your airways.

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/or extreme, however, you may be dealing with an allergy instead. Call 911 at the first sign of anaphylaxis.

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—that 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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