Cosmetic Allergy: Everything You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Vincent Marin, MD, FACS Vincent Marin Vincent MarinMD, FACS facebook_icontwitter_iconlinkedin_iconyoutube_iconinsta_icon
Written by , MA (English Literature) Ramona Sinha MA (English Literature) Experience: 11 years
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Allergic to milk or soy? Understandable. Allergic to seafood? Sad, but acceptable. Cosmetic and makeup allergy? Wait, what?!

Finding out that you are allergic to your favorite cosmetic product is no less than a heartbreak. But it is true that certain products that are meant to make you look pretty can give you rashes (and sleepless nights)! Cosmetic allergy is a bit tricky to understand because makeup and cosmetic products contain tons of ingredients, making it tough to pinpoint which one is irritating your skin. However, it’s not impossible. This article will help you understand which commonly used cosmetics ingredients cause allergic reactions. Keep scrolling!

What Is Cosmetic Allergy?

Cosmetic allergy refers to any unwanted reaction caused by a cosmetic product. It can vary from very mild skin reactions to severe symptoms. Sometimes, your skin reacts immediately to a product, while at other times, it might take several years before showing signs of an allergy. From hair care products and makeup to perfumes and skin creams – you can be allergic to anything.

Cosmetic products can directly affect your skin or trigger an allergic response. Some cosmetics may irritate your skin initially, but to understand if you are actually allergic to them, you might need repeated exposure.

People who have sensitive skin can be intolerant to multiple cosmetic products. Even those who have certain skin conditions (such as rosacea) may experience an allergic reaction to specific cosmetic products. So, how can you determine if you are allergic to a cosmetic product? There some are signs and symptoms you may notice, which are listed out in the next section.

Allergic Reaction To Makeup And Cosmetics: Signs And Symptoms

Allergic Reaction To Makeup And Cosmetics Signs And Symptoms
Image: Shutterstock

Certain cosmetics often cause contact dermatitis, a condition in which your skin reacts to a product and turns itchy, red, and shows other symptoms. There are two main types of dermatitis triggered by cosmetic products:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis
  • Allergic contact dermatitis

Irritant Contact Dermatitis is characterized by skin irritation and sensitivity when it comes in contact with certain substances (in this case, cosmetic products). This type of reaction develops quickly, within just a few minutes or a few hours of exposure. However, sometimes, your skin may take several days or weeks to react.

Often, we confuse this with an allergic reaction, though technically, it is not. This is because it is only your skin reacting to the ingredient, not your immune system. Irritant contact dermatitis is a widespread condition.

Allergic Contact Dermatitis is the true allergic reaction to any ingredient. This type of allergic reaction is intense and severe. It usually takes 12 hours to show the initial signs, and it peaks around 48 hours of exposure.

Compared to other parts of your body, your face is exposed the most to cosmetics, which is why, in most cases, the symptoms appear on the face. Some of the common symptoms of allergic reactions include:

  • Hives and rashes
  • Itchiness
  • Flakiness, roughness, or sandpaper-like skin
  • Red pimple-like dots and spots on skin
  • Stinging and burning sensation
  • Red, swollen, and itchy eyes
  • Swollen lips and tongue
  • Watery eyes

Contact dermatitis is not as severe as dermatitis. You can even develop mild and chronic dermatitis from skin care products that you have been using for a long time, such as cleansers, soaps, body lotions, or face washes.

You may think that you have been using the product for ages and only recently developed the symptoms. This happens because your skin develops sensitivity to that particular product (or any specific ingredient in that product) over time. There are a few common culprits that can cause such issues. Let’s take a look at them.

Ingredients That Can Trigger A Makeup Allergy

Ingredients That Can Trigger A Makeup Allergy
Image: Shutterstock

1. Fragrances

No, we are not talking about just perfumes and colognes! Even skin care creams, serums, shampoos, and other cosmetic products contain fragrance. Check the ingredients list, and you will find it nestled somewhere between all the other ingredients. Fragrances are chemicals that are added to products as masking agents. People who are allergic to fragrance may experience rashes, sneezing, wheezing, or headaches. It can even cause breathing issues. Even the products that are labeled “unscented” often contain some fragrance to create that “no-scent” effect.

If you are allergic to fragrances, switch to products that are fragrance-free.

2. Metals

Metals such as zinc, cobalt, iron, lead, mercury, and aluminum are widely used in cosmetics and personal care products like nail polish, eyeliner, lipstick, and even toothpaste! Cobalt is excessively used in light brown hair dyes and antiperspirants.

The best way out is switching to mineral makeup and natural deodorants. Avoid using cosmetics that contain metallic pigments. Also, before trying any new product, do a patch test to see how your skin reacts it.

3. Sulfates

Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate – I am sure you are aware of these two ingredients. They are detergents that are used in almost every cleansing product, like body washes, shampoos, and baby soaps. SLS can cause skin irritation, dryness, blemishes, and rashes. If you experience any of the symptoms after switching to a new product that contains SLS, it would be better if you switched back.

Try using organic soaps, shampoos, and body washes instead.

4. Emollients

Emollients are not bad – they are actually great for your skin. The problem is that not all emollients are suitable for all skin types. The most common emollients used in skin care and cosmetic products include cocoa butter, lanolin, isopropyl palmitate, isosterate, coconut butter, and myristyl lactate. These emollients can cause breakouts, especially if you have acne-prone skin.

If you have oily and acne-prone skin, use a water-based and non-comedogenic cream. It will moisturize your skin without causing breakouts.

5. Essential Oils

If you think going natural is the best way, think again. You can even be allergic to natural ingredients. Nowadays, essential oils can be found in creams, serums, face and body washes, scrubs, and almost all skin care products. Essential oils are good for people who can tolerate them. But if you are allergic to them, they can cause rashes, dry patches, breakouts, redness, and other allergic reactions.

Check the ingredients list of any product that is irritating your skin to see if it contains any essential oils.

6. Face Acids

Face acids may cause an initial reaction that is usually not an allergic reaction. Acids can cause skin purging, breakouts, and dryness. Face acids, such as salicylic acid and retinol, promote collagen synthesis, which may break your skin out initially.

It is recommended that you consult a dermatologist before using any face acid. They can help you understand your skin and the way it reacts to products.

This may seem like a long list of ingredients that you need to be wary of. Fortunately, there are ways that you can avoid cosmetic allergy. All you need to do is be cautious about what you are using. Check out the next section to find out what you can do to avoid such reactions.

How To Avoid Cosmetic Allergy

How To Avoid Cosmetic Allergy
Image: Shutterstock
  • Get yourself tested for allergies to find out which ingredients you are allergic to, so you can avoid products containing them.
  • Buy products that have the least number of ingredients to avoid any unwanted skin reactions.
  • Always do a patch test. Apply a little bit of the product on your forearm and leave it on for 48-72 hours. If you don’t notice any skin reaction, continue using the product.
  • Avoid applying perfumes or fragrances directly to your skin. Instead, spritz them on your clothes. This help reduces the risk of allergic reactions. It also prevents the chemicals in the fragrance from interacting with the ingredients of any other skin products you might have used.

Don’t fall prey to the claims of “dermatologically-tested” or “hypoallergenic” products. Always test all products beforehand to avoid any allergic reactions. But let’s say you used a product and your skin reacted to it – what can you do next? Find out in the next section.

How To Treat Allergic Reaction To Makeup

How To Treat Allergic Reaction To Makeup
Image: Shutterstock

Stop using the product.

This is the first and most basic thing that you need to do if you suspect that you are allergic to a product. Once you stop using the product, the irritation will go down. Mild reactions usually go down within a few hours and sometimes don’t even need any treatment.

However, if the allergic reaction is severe, consult a dermatologist immediately. They may prescribe topical steroids or ointments that can help resolve the issue. The doctor may even do a patch test to find out the exact cause of the allergic reaction. They might even ask you to stop using all products and then re-introduce your skin to one product at a time to find out which ingredient is the culprit.

It happens. I saw my friend check out a new foundation shade and hours after testing the shade on her jawline, her face broke out in red bumps. These are the worst surprises anyone can ever get!

When there is no guarantee that even a hypoallergenic product will not cause an allergic reaction, why take the risk? It is better to be cautious, read the list of ingredients, and know what you are putting on your skin. What do you think? Do you have any more questions? Share them in the comments section below.

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Vincent Marin
Vincent MarinMD, FACS
Dr. Vincent Marin is a board-certified plastic surgeon with over 17 years of experience. He is also the founder of Marin Aesthetics at La Jolla, San Diego. He is a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

Read full bio of Vincent Marin
Ramona Sinha
Ramona is an editor at StyleCraze with 11 years of experience in writing and editing. She has authored over 200 articles on skin and hair care. She graduated from the University of Calcutta, West Bengal, and did her post-graduation from the University of Kalyani, West Bengal.

Read full bio of Ramona Sinha
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