"I would say that at least 50 percent of women think they have sensitive skin," says dermatologist Dr. David Bank. "They have a hard time finding products that won't cause a reaction." That reaction, called contact dermatitis, falls into two categories: allergic and irritant. Allergic indicates that the immune system is displeased, while irritant reactions stop at the surface. It's something Lynne Greene, Clinique's global president, became all too familiar with on a recent trip to Asia. "I went to Singapore, which is one climate; Japan, which is another; and finally Shanghai, which has a lot of pollution," she says. "By the time I boarded the plane home, my skin was tremendously red and reactive." But while the detrimental effects of environmental aggressors may be beyond our control, what we put on our skin can be monitored, says Greene. And a number of reactions, both allergic and irritant, can be traced back to one of these culprit ingredients:
A plasticizing ingredient commonly listed as DBP or di-n-butyl phthalate, it is used most often in the beauty world to give nail polishes increased pliability. Considered to be a potential carcinogen and possible cause of birth defects, allergic rashes and eczema, they are already banned in Europe. When shopping for lacquers, look for phthalate-free formulas. Neither Zoya nor Spa Ritual has ever used the ingredient in its lines, while Essie, OPI, and Sally Hansen altered their formulations in recent years to get rid of it.
It may seem completely harmless, but anyone with a nut allergy could find themselves with a heightened sensitivity to it. "I have seen reactions among those with nut allergies to both shea and cocoa butter," says Dr. Ellen Marmur, author of the new book Simple Skin Beauty. "Even organic or natural ingredients can cause allergic reactions."
Flu season and the ongoing swine flu epidemic have made hand-washing a frequent ritual, and in some cases, it's the soap that causes the itchy rashes creeping up on palms and fingertips. If your hands are inflamed, steer clear of any soaps or sanitizers with this antibacterial agent.
Balsam of Peru
Fragrance is the number-one cause of allergic contact dermatitis, and Balsam of Peru, a resin that is actually a conglomeration of scents, is often responsible. Because of its phototoxic ingredients, when the skin is exposed to sunlight, brown or reddish streaks called berloque dermatitis may occur wherever the scented product or perfume was applied—dermatologists report many incidents of berloque behind the ears. The key is to look for products that are totally fragrance-free — which is not the same as unscented. "Unscented means that a product can contain a masking fragrance to camouflage its pungent, unpleasant odor," says Bank. "Fragrance-free means truly no fragrances."