Many of us have been there: you have a favorite product, perhaps one with a wonderful fragrance that brings a smile to your face every time you open the bottle. You’ve used it for years. And then one day, you apply it as usual, but wake up with red, itchy skin. You think it’s just a fluke, but then it keeps worsening, even after you take a break from that product. Soon, you may start to notice your skin reacting to other products too. What’s going on?
What you are experiencing is most likely an allergic reaction to an ingredient contained in your skincare product. Allergies are highly individual and can develop at any point in your life. Unfortunately, as we age, our skin becomes increasingly sensitive as well. Years of exposure to fragrances, dyes, preservatives and a myriad of other chemicals in our daily environment may result in new reactions to certain ingredients in skincare products - even if it is something you’ve used for a long time.
When your skin becomes irritated in this way, there are two broad types of reactions—irritant allergic reactions and allergic contact dermatitis. An irritant allergic reaction is when the skin reacts immediately to an ingredient or chemical. Once the offending product is stopped, the reaction generally calms down. Allergic contact dermatitis is a type of delayed allergy, where the immune system recognizes a chemical or protein as a problem and develops a permanent memory of it as “bad”. On the first few exposures, very little to nothing happens (sometimes even for years), but with repeated use, reactions worsen and develop more quickly. Interestingly, a significant percentage of US adults eventually develop contact dermatitis to Neosporin, the widely used antibiotic. In skincare products, fragrances and preservatives can cause allergic contact dermatitis. Unfortunately, once the sensitivity develops, it usually doesn’t go away and you may become permanently allergic. This process is called sensitization.
So what can we do about this? Unfortunately, not that much. While eliminating the allergen will usually stop the reaction, it is often frustratingly difficult to pin down the problem ingredient since skincare products contain so many different chemicals. For these reasons, dermatologists always recommend using simple products that do not contain potentially sensitizing ingredients to begin with. This will reduce the risk of becoming sensitized.
While it's possible to become allergic to anything, some ingredients are known to be particularly sensitizing and are therefore often on dermatologists' no-no lists for sensitive skin. Here is what to watch for when choosing skincare products.
These are “volatile aromatic substances” or extracts, made by steaming or crushing plant leaves, and suspended in various carrier liquids like oils. Often used as natural fragrance ingredients, many of them do smell wonderful! While it would seem that a plant-based extract is more natural and less likely to cause issues, it’s actually quite common to be sensitive to essential oils, just like many folks are allergic to grass, pollen, or other plants. In this case, “natural” doesn’t always mean better! Dermatologists often use the analogy that poison oak is all natural - you definitely wouldn’t apply that on your skin! Certain oils like bergamot and tea tree oil can be particularly irritating. Bergamot can interact with sunlight to cause a photo-allergic response, leading to redness and itching, and tea tree oil can be overly drying. If you have sensitive skin or are wary of developing an allergy, dermatologists recommend avoiding products with essential oils.
Exfoliation is an essential part of your skincare routine, but overdoing it or using the wrong type of exfoliant can cause irritation and redness. Harsh physical exfoliators like microbeads or rough loofahs are definite no-nos when dealing with sensitive skin. Chemical exfoliators like AHAs and BHAs are really wonderful but can also cause irritation if overused. Reducing frequency of use will help ameliorate this risk - try using your favorite exfoliating treatment 1-2 times a week instead of daily. For very sensitive skin, choosing a gentle exfoliant using a larger molecule like PHAs and using every 2-3 days will provide a renewing effect without overly drying the skin.
Emollients are ingredients that work to rebuild the lipid layer of the skin, which seals the skin in and provides a barrier to the outside world. They are essential in skincare as moisturizers. However, some ingredients such as lanolin can sometimes cause an allergic reaction. Choosing products that boost moisture levels using ingredients such as ceramides may help maintain healthy, dewy skin without risk of irritation.
Dyes and Colors
More commonly used in hair products like colorants and also in textiles, dyes do exactly what their name suggests: impart color to the material they are applied to. In skincare, dyes and artificial colors may cause irritation with repeated exposure. We recommend checking with your dermatologist if you notice that you’re struggling with an itchy rash around the neck, hairline, or even armpits if you regularly use hair dye or wear button-down shirts. You may need evaluation for a potential dye allergy.
Sulfates are used in skincare as cleansers, and the most common ones, sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, are found in shampoos, soaps, detergents and other products that need lather, or foam, to break down oil and dirt and wash them away. When used in small concentrations on wash-off products, sulfates are generally considered safe for most people, but those with extremely sensitive skin may find products with SLS overly drying, which can lead to irritation. For leave-on products, sulfates typically aren’t needed for the product to work - so we recommend avoiding them.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to help with texture or durability of products, often as a plasticizer, or as solvents. There is increasing evidence that they can enter the bloodstream and interfere with hormone function, but these are still found in a wide variety of personal care products like hair spray and nail polish. Since we don’t believe that skincare should contain potential hormone disrupters, we advise looking for products that specifically avoid use of these chemicals.
Your skincare routine should first and foremost help your skin stay healthy. Carefully reading ingredient lists and choosing brands that prioritize skin health will help avoid irritation and sensitization of your all-important skin barrier!
Remember that going fragrance-free doesn’t have to result in bland, boring products. Carefully formulated products can still offer a beautifully luxurious skincare experience without causing irritation! Emdash products are free of fragrances, dyes, essential oils, parabens, formaldehyde-releasers, and phthalates.
Disclaimer: As with all of the information on this site, this post is meant to be for informational and educational purposes only, and is not medical advice. When in doubt, please ask your physician.