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Skin Reactions to Beauty Products

Most people can safely use most beauty products. Some people, though, may have skin reactions to some of them.  

Problems can range from simple skin irritations or rashes to full-blown allergic reactions. Symptoms can arise after several uses or sometimes happen spontaneously after years of using a product with no problem.

How to Avoid Skin Reactions to Beauty Products

  • Look for products with the fewest ingredients. This will make a bad reaction less likely. It will also reduce the chance for cross-reactions caused by multiple exposures.
  • Do a patch test before using any product. Place a small amount on the inside of your elbow and wait 48 to 72 hours. If redness, swelling, itching, or burning occurs, don't use that product.
  • Always apply fragrance to clothing, not skin. This can help reduce the risk of reaction to the fragrance. It can also reduce the risk of the fragrance interacting with ingredients in other products and causing a skin reaction.
  • Note that labels bearing the words "hypoallergenic," "dermatologist tested," "sensitivity tested," or "non-irritating" don't guarantee that your skin won't react. Though some companies do the testing, others don't. And there are no rules that say how these terms can be used on a product label.

If your skin reacts badly to a beauty product, stop using it immediately. You can sometimes use an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to help ease inflammation. You may, though, need a prescription-strength cream.

Types of Skin Reactions

There are two types of skin reactions to beauty products:

1. Irritant Contact Dermatitis. This is the most common skin reaction to a beauty product. It can result in burning, stinging, itching, and redness in the area where the product is applied.

If your skin is dry or injured, it loses some of its natural protection against irritants. This means reactions can be harsher or happen more easily.

2. Allergic Contact Dermatitis Sensitivity or a true allergy to a specific ingredient in the product causes redness, swelling, itching, or blisters on the skin. Fragrances and preservatives are some of the most frequent causes.

Even products that say they are "unscented" could contain a masking agent -- essentially, fragrance used to cover up chemical scents. Though you may not smell it, it still could be there and cause an allergic reaction.

To make sure no perfume is included, look for products marked fragrance-free or without perfume.

Preservatives are in almost  any product that contains water.  All of the most common preservatives have been linked to skin allergies. But that doesn't mean they cause allergic reactions in everyone.

Beauty Products Most Likely to Cause a Skin Reaction

The beauty products most likely to cause skin reactions include bath soaps, detergents, antiperspirants, eye makeup, moisturizers, permanent wave lotion (particularly those containing the chemical glyceryl monothioglycolat), shampoos, long-wearing lip stains, nail polish (particularly those containing formaldehyde), and fingernail glue containing methcrylate.

Hair dyes can also be the source of skin reactions, particularly those containing p-phenylenediamine as well as ammonium persulfate used to lighten hair.

Also, beauty products containing alpha-hydroxy acids appear to cause problems for some people. The FDA has received reports on redness, swelling, blisters, burning, bleeding, rash, and itching after use of products containing AHAs, particularly those with a concentration over 10% or with a pH (acid level) of 3.5 or less.

In some people, Retin-A wrinkle creams and serums can cause irritant contact dermatitis.

Many people are sensitive to sunscreen. If that's true for you, talk to a dermatologist about how to best protect your skin from the sun.


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