Q: What is an individual reaction to skincare products and how to deal with it?

Skincare and makeup products – from shampoo to lipstick and even perfumes – can cause skin redness, itching, rashes, swelling, or irritation. A dermatological study published in 2010 showed that more than a third of 945 participants had at least one allergic reaction to cosmetic ingredients. Why does this happen, and does it mean that the manufacturer poorly tested their product and is now selling unsafe skincare? Let’s break it down.

Individual reactions often refer to two things: irritant or allergic contact dermatitis. They differ from each other but can easily be confused. Less commonly, individual reactions are mistaken for acne caused by using certain products.

What’s the Difference Between These Types of Dermatitis?

The difference lies in the reaction and the substance causing it. An allergy is the immune system’s response to a substance. Irritation is the skin’s reaction to an irritant.

  • Allergens: A small amount is enough to cause an allergic reaction.
  • Irritants: The appearance of irritant dermatitis depends on the quantity of the irritating substance. The more you come into contact with it, the higher the likelihood of a reaction, even if there was none before. For instance, dermatitis can occur if you overuse retinoids, although allergic reactions to retinoids are rare.

The symptoms of allergic and irritant dermatitis are similar and not always distinguishable: redness, itching, tightness, burning, and swelling can occur at the site of contact with the irritant or allergen. If the skin’s protective barrier is compromised due to treatment or illness, the risk of allergy or irritation from cosmetics is higher.

Why Do I React Even to Drugstore Skincare, While My Friend Never Reacts Even to Fragranced Products?

We encounter many substances daily, and our immune system tags each one as harmless or potentially dangerous. But the body is not perfect, and sometimes a harmless substance is mistakenly perceived as a threat. Some people’s bodies react more sharply to certain components, while others react less. That’s why it’s essential to do a patch test before buying and generously applying a new cosmetic product and wait 48-72 hours. With irritants, the issue could be a compromised protective barrier or excessive use of the product.

Should All Allergens and Irritants Be Avoided in Cosmetics?

Unfortunately, the only way to find out which potential allergens will cause a reaction in you is through trial and error. Even if you avoid all known allergens in skincare, you might still have an individual reaction where, for instance, a seemingly harmless CeraVe cream causes redness or burning.

Be more cautious with irritants due to their quantity and frequency of use. If you have a compromised protective barrier, for example, due to treatment or active eczema, I recommend minimizing your skincare routine, avoiding actives, and removing products with strong fragrances, essential oils, or dyes.


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