Are You Allergic to Your Personal Care?
Knowing when to quit is important. In skincare, knowing when a product is no longer working for, but against you can also prevent skin-damaging consequences.
We’ve all done it: a new skincare product hits the market touting miracle effects, and suddenly our credit card is out and we’re stalking the tracking number.
We tear into the package as soon as it arrives and immediately lather the product all over our face, hoping to see the baby’s butt results of our dreams (we’ve done it too - trust us). The product works wonders for the first few days, lulling us into a sense of comfort - but then.. it happens. We wake up one morning to unexpected, disheartening results: redness, irritation, and itchiness - the works.
This familiar scene is a classic case of allergic contact dermatitis, a skin reaction caused by ingredients found in our everyday products that trigger a discolored, inflamed rash on your skin. If this is the case for you, you’re probably itching *sorry, couldn’t resist a pun* for some answers - here’s what to know and how to deal.
Atopic Dermatitis vs Contact Dermatitis
Although it differs from allergic contact dermatitis in some ways, atopic dermatitis is very similar: in atopic dermatitis, a consistent rash develops due to a variety of factors (read more about this and other eczema symptoms here). Allergic contact dermatitis is triggered by an external source, like an irritating ingredient in a skincare product, which comes into contact with the skin barrier and irritates your immune system over time.
Another difference: at first, symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis are nonexistent. This is because your skin needs time to process the new foreign substance within your immune system before a reaction is triggered. Once the new allergen, or hapten, has been evaluated, it takes several more interactions for your immune system to signal a response that creates the tell-tale redness, inflammation and itchiness (1). This rash usually stays at the point of initial contact, however it can spread beyond to other areas of your body. Unexplained red, hot, itchy and weepy skin? These are all clear signs of an allergic contact dermatitis reaction!
Allergic reactions are frustrating and sometimes debilitating. If this is the case for you, you’re probably looking to get rid of it, and fast - thankfully, the most effective way to treat allergic contact dermatitis is easy enough: cease use of the offending source. Here are some common triggers to help you figure out what’s causing your reaction.
Metallics contain nickel, which is a huge trigger for many people with contact dermatitis. Costume jewelry, bracelets, necklaces and even belt buckles often contain nickel, so if you’ve recently begun wearing a new piece of bling and develop a rash, this may be the culprit.
Contact dermatitis usually appears 48-96 hours after initial contact, but your skin can sometimes take longer to develop an adverse reaction. Commonly referred to as “wedding-ring dermatitis”, a nickel-containing jewelry will trigger a rash even if you’ve been wearing that same piece for years (2). The irritation appears near the source - like a red mark around your arm where your bracelet usually rests - making it fairly easy to pinpoint. NOTE: even tweezers and eyelash curlers contain nickel, so be wary if you’re prone to reactions!
Here at Mirra, we highly suggest fragrance-free products for a reason; the presence of fragrance can trigger some nasty side effects on your skin, especially if you already deal with atopic dermatitis or another form of eczema. Fragrance is an extremely irritating chemical which can damage your delicate skin barrier, especially when it’s already weakened by a preexisting skin condition, like psoriasis. Double check all of your skincare, personal care and household products for fragrance if you develop allergic contact dermatitis-like rashes; even interacting with your laundry detergent (or that of a significant other) can be a trigger, so consider all sources.
Ah, the worst f-word of them all - at least when it comes to skincare. Though many personal care products don’t explicitly state that they include formaldehyde, they often list it under one of it’s many other names. Used to curb spoilage in products, formaldehyde is also a big trigger for allergic rashes, so cross-check this list of pseudonyms with your favorite products (don’t forget your “wrinkle-free” or “permanent press” clothing!) to ensure you aren’t unknowingly interacting with this irritant.
Isothiazolinones and Cocamidopropyl betaine
We’re not expecting you to nail the pronunciation of any of these, don’t worry, but you do need to be able to recognize these ingredients on your shampoos, body washes, wet wipes and lotions. Commonly used to thicken products, prevent bacterial growth, and lessen the likelihood of degradation, isothiazolinones and cocamidopropyl betaine can be extremely harsh on your skin barrier. Wiping away the day with makeup-removing cloths? These could also be the culprit for your irritation, especially if they include these chemicals. Try switching to a sensitive formula cleanser, like CeraVe, instead to see if your allergies subside.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis Treatments
Finally, the step we’ve all been waiting for: sweet, sweet rash relief!
After removing irritating ingredients from your arsenal, there are several treatment options that vary in effectiveness depending on your situation.
Applying a cool compress to your skin can relieve itching and reduce inflammation quickly, making it a great short-term solution for discomfort. A lukewarm bath with 1 cup of plain oatmeal is another soothing solution that targets itchiness while also aiding in healing your skin. Drugstore brands like Aveeno make calming, fragrance-free lotions that, when applied to inflamed skin, can help you deal with the persistent itchiness while also addressing the problem beneath the surface (3).
If simpler solutions don’t resolve your symptoms, oral OTC antihistamines, like Benadryl, are better suited for persistent cases; just be wary of the excess drowsiness that often accompanies these medications. Although they’re hit or miss, natural topical remedies like coconut oil, Vitamin E, and honey can also be applied to aid in tissue repair while soothing skin.
When a rash includes blistering or painful, cracked skin, eliminating the cause of the irritation and taking at-home precautions won’t always do the trick (plus, these aggressive reactions are clear signs that the allergy needs some serious attention). Consulting your dermatologist or primary care physician is always best to properly address severe skin damage for safe, accurate solutions.
A physician will often start your treatment off with a patch test, which involves applying small amounts of various chemicals to non-irritated patches of skin. The skin’s reaction is then monitored over time to see which chemicals trigger a response, thus pinpointing potential irritants. This effective tool helps prescribe the correct treatment plan based on your results, which can be as simple as avoiding the identified irritants or as involved as prescribing ointments and medications at varying strengths depending on the severity of the rash. Luckily, allergic contact dermatitis often clears within a few weeks of treatment.
Avoiding irritation in the future
Allergic contact dermatitis is largely avoidable, if you know what steps to take to protect your skin. First, get into the habit of checking labels to ensure your everyday products are sensitive formula and fragrance/chemical free. Avoid using anything that may create a hotbed for irritation to develop. Even still, there’s a chance you could accidentally ingest or come into contact with known irritants; in this case, make sure to pinpoint the source ASAP to avoid further damage to your delicate skin barrier, and consult a dermatologist or healthcare physician right away for more severe cases.
Written by Adrianne Neal
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