That moisturizer your friends swear by? Left your face red and scaly. The cleaner you've been using for years to make your bathroom sparkle? Made your hands itch and burn. For some people, the chemicals in shampoos, cosmetics, and detergents can trigger allergic skin reactions.
Alternaria. Aspergillus. Cladosporium. Penicillium. Unless you have a special fondness for fungi, you’re probably not too familiar with these or any of the thousands of other common molds.
But if you’re among the estimated 5% of Americans who have mold allergies, you may be all too well acquainted with the itchy eyes, nasal congestion, coughing, wheezing, skin irritation, and other symptoms mold allergies can cause. Severe mold allergies can even trigger potentially dangerous asthma attacks.
Allergic skin reactions – what your doctor calls allergic contact dermatitis -- happen when your immune system overreacts to chemicals that are normally harmless. These chemicals can be in products that you are exposed to over and over, like cleaners, colognes, hair dyes, and personal care items.
Even if you've used these products before, you can still have a reaction.
Cosmetics and personal care products have a lot of potential allergens, things you could be allergic to:
Fragrances in soaps, colognes, deodorants, body creams, cosmetics, detergents, and tissues
Preservatives and antibacterials, added to many liquids to keep them from becoming rancid or contaminated
Substances added to thicken, color, or lubricate a product
Chemicals in permanent hair dyes and other hair products
Formaldehyde resin, an ingredient in many nail care products
Sunscreens, often found in cosmetic moisturizers, lip balms, and foundations
Symptoms of Chemical Allergies
Your skin is one of the first places where allergy symptoms can show up. They often appear 24 to 48 hours later, but can start as late as a week after exposure. Each person may have different chemical allergy symptoms. Some of the most common are:
Blisters that ooze
Burning or itching, which may be intense
Swelling of the eyes, face, and genital area
Darkened, "leathery," and cracked skin
The worst of the reaction tends to be where you touched the thing you're allergic to. If you get the allergen on your finger and then touch another part of your body, like your face or neck, you can set off an allergic reaction there.
Because the symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis can be similar to other conditions, you should see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
Diagnosing Chemical Allergies
Often your doctor may be able to diagnose your allergy by doing a physical exam and asking you about your symptoms.
Sometimes your doctor may suggest you see an allergist for a skin test. The allergist places small samples of chemicals on your back and checks to see if you develop a rash.
Keeping track of your symptoms helps your doctor make a diagnosis. You should include details such as:
What you were doing in the 24 to 48 hours before your outbreak
Any products you were using before the outbreak
How much of the product you were using and how often
Where the product touched your skin (even places with no symptoms)