Troublesome Beauty Ingredients and How to Test for Skin Allergies

Published in: Beauty Tips, Skin Care

Are You Allergic to Beauty Products?

“Ahh-CHEW!”
[sniffle, sniffle]

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How do you feel about jasmine? I love it. :) It’s one of my very favorite scents, but the International Fragrance Association is limiting the amount of it allowed in perfumes and other aromatic beauty products (some do tend to have a lot) to reduce the number of products causing rashes and other bad reactions.

It’s not that jasmine’s particularly hard to tolerate — no more than most plant-based ingredients — but according to the FDA, almost all cosmetics and beauty products are apt to cause reactions in at least a small percentage of the population. We’re all different, as the story goes, and one girl’s soothing scent may be another girl’s poison ivy!

In one FDA survey, 25% of people reported a skin reaction to one or more beauty products.

It’s perhaps ironic, then, that the FDA has very limited authority over cosmetics. Unfortunately, the beauty biz is still very buyer beware.

Types of skin reactions

Most reactions are mild — what’s commonly referred to as irritant contact dermatitis. Typically it’s a burning, stinging or itching sensation accompanied by redness right where the product’s been applied. Dry or injured skin can react worse, too, having lost some of its natural barrier against irritants.

As bad as irritant dermatitis sounds, some of us have a worse variety termed allergic contact dermatitis — true allergies to specific ingredients. Symptoms can include severe redness, swelling, itching or even blisters on the skin, yikes! The worst culprits? Usually fragrances and preservatives. source

TIP: Some products will say “unscented” on the label when they really aren’t. It’s not uncommon for products to contain fragrance cocktails to mask unappealing or artificial scents. Straight up, if you’re on the market for something that’s really unscented, look for the words, “fragrance-free” or “without perfume.”

While almost any ingredient can cause an allergic reaction in at least some people, many of the worst offenders are preservatives.

They slow the growth of bacteria and crop up in most beauty products that contain water, but parabens, imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanol, methylchloroisothiazolinone and formaldehyde have also been linked to skin allergies.

So what’s a girl to do?

How to avoid a bad beauty skin reaction

  • Look for products with a short list of ingredients. It’ll reduce your odds of a negative reaction and the chances of cross-reactions with other ingredients.
  • Conduct a patch test before using something new. Survivalists and military special forces personnel know this trick well. They’ll use it to help them identify edible plants and berries in the wild. Just place a small amount on the inside of your elbow and wait 48-72 hours. If redness, swelling, itching or burning occurs, don’t use that product.
  • Always apply new fragrances to clothing first, and not your skin. It can help reduce your risk of a reaction. Give it a try, and if you don’t experience a reaction, proceed with the patch test above.
  • Be aware that labels like “organic,” “all-natural,” “hypoallergenic,” “dermatologist tested,” “sensitivity tested,” and “non-irritating” aren’t guarantees that products will be kind to your skin. Even the most well tolerated products can cause allergic reactions in a small percentage of users.

NOTE: If your skin barks at you a little for using something it doesn’t like, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can help reduce minor inflammation. Reactions like shortness of breath or pain, though, could be signs of a far more serious allergic reaction. If you experience either of those, get thee some urgent medical care!

Repeat offenders

  • Bath soaps, detergents, antiperspirants, eye makeup, moisturizers, permanent wave lotion (particularly ones containing glyceryl monothioglycolat), shampoos, long-wearing lip stains, nail polishes containing formaldehyde, and fingernail glue containing methcrylate.
  • Hair dyes can also cause skin reactions, particularly those containing p-phenylenediamine or ammonium persulfate (used to lighten hair).
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) appear to be problematic for some folks, especially when they contain concentrations more than 10%.
  • Retin-A wrinkle creams and serums can also cause irritant contact dermatitis.

Have you ever had a really terrible allergic reaction to a beauty product before? What are some of the worst offenders for you?

Your friendly neighborhood beauty addict,

Karen

39 Comments

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  1. Marina says:

    IFRA can go gently caress themselves >:[ It really annoys me that they prohibit “potentially allergic” ingredients. That’s dumb! A lot of people can’t tolerate lactose, so what? let’s prohibit dairy products? Or chocolate. Or honey. Ah, what the hell, let’s prohibit everything!
    If i’m allergic to something, i just don’t use it. It’s simple.
    Let’s all thank IFRA for turning good perfumes into stinky surrogates.

  2. shontay says:

    Hi Karen,

    Cool post. Mac face products always break me out. I cannot wear the foundation or any skincare products. It’s funny that I can use their blush, though. I have tiny spots on the right side of my face from the studio fix powder I tried earlier this year. It’s not bad to other people, but a tragedy to me b/c I had NO discoloration to my face. I won’t go outside without concealer anymore. Also, bare Escentuals nearly burned my skin off when an MA forced it on me several years ago. So, I stay away from ALL BE and anything from Mac that’s for the face.

    • Christine says:

      I had the same reaction to Bare Escentuals! I recently bought it for my pale skin tone, tried it on a day I didn’t really want to bother with makeup, ended up sleeping in it – the next day when I awoke my skin was on fire & so extremely incredibly sore – I don’t ever remember even having a sunburn that hurt so badly. It was really painful!! o_O

  3. tali says:

    My allergic cosmetic reactions.
    THey game me breakouts, rashes, hives and dried up my skin!

    ALL MAC foundations
    MAC Concealer
    Clinique Yellow Moisturizer
    YSL faux cils irritates my eyes
    The lancome skincare line for 20-somethings that failed majorly
    Bourjois Powder blush
    .-= tali’s last blog post… Rouge Bunny Rouge =-.

  4. amy says:

    I started studying labels and ingredients lists because I am interested in what a ingredient those for both beneficial reasons and for negative allergic reactions. But what works wonderfully or badly for me could be the complete opposite for the next person. I have been a very lucky girl because I haven’t had any truly bad reaction to anything, mostly tingly feelings when I first use the product. The only product that I have a major bad reaction was Clinque Super Dense moisturizer and their repair wear intensive eye cream. These two creams didn’t broke me out, but left me dry, red, blotchy and peeling and these are supposed to be very moisturizing too but it didn’t work for me.
    .-= amy’s last blog post… Schwartzkopf Citre Shine Shine Miracle Anti-Frizz Serum =-.

  5. L says:

    Very good post. I have definitely had my share of adverse beauty product reactions. :(

    Both my mother and I have perfume problems; hers is much worse than mine, though (it makes her throat close up). A lot of perfumes make my face break out like crazy. Traveling often ends up being hell for my complexion — I always buy fragrance-free laundry detergent at home, and if I’m staying in a hotel that uses heavily fragranced detergent, I’m screwed. I once went to a place where the scent was so strong, I actually tried to wash my face with TISSUES. I gave up, used the washcloth and just dried it with them, as if using something unfragranced for the last step would somehow cancel out the ridiculously intense scent. I guess a girl can dream! Plus, the linens on the bed were just as bad. Sure enough, I wound up with horrible skin — incredibly irksome because I get pretty bad post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (stays for 6-15 months). I end up with ugly little mementos of my trip. Gee, thanks! You know, I think I’d prefer one of those extremely touristy magnets…

    Also, benzoyl peroxide makes me itchy, puffy and RED (we’re talking strawberry territory). If I want to dry out a big pimple, I have to use the mildest stuff I can find (2.5% is the lowest I have found, sadly, and it still happens) and apply the tiniest dot. I accidentally used too much last week on a lot of my face, and it took FOREVER to get ready to go out. First, I had to put green concealer all over the splotches (which were HUGE), then applied the heaviest foundation I own, and then specialty heavy concealer meant for people with huge facial scars. It was pretty awful!

    As for another (unrelated) beauty gripe, I also still have a little mark from that damn mosquito bite from three freaking weeks ago. On the bright side, a friend asked me if I were wearing false eyelashes last night when I was wearing Lancome’s Hypnose Drama. I already have rather long lashes (I tend to forgo mascara during the day, or only use a lash tint to make them a little darker), but that stuff takes them to epic proportions. Woohoo!

  6. auroragyps says:

    I have a contact allergy to rose oil & rose fragrance and boy do I find on ingrediant lists all the time. As soon as I hear a cool new product has either, I’m pretty bummed.

  7. Ashley says:

    That is so weird, Karen… I was just searching up parabens & mineral oil last night to see why I should/shouldn’t get products with/without them in it!
    I think more men and women should read into blogs and health related articles before trusting the people at beauty counters. For instance, my mom has trusted Clinique for over 40 years and now I find her Clarifying Lotion use to contain acetone in it! Of course, Clinique changed the formula and got rid of the acetone. However, they threw in witch hazel which is generally approved in skincare but didn’t bother to make it the alcohol-free version!
    What’s worse? I JUST bought $60 worth of Clinique products, one being the Clarifying Lotion. I feel like such a fool but I can’t return any of the products!

  8. giselle says:

    I have the most sensitive skin of anyone I’ve ever known. Most products I put on my face will buurrn and leave redness for hours, or even…a week :( That’s how I found out I’m allergic to benzoyl peroxide. Even Cetaphil broke me out! I actually talked to someone from Dermalogica and she couldn’t help me either! lol my skin is awful. For some reason perfumes are no problem. But surprisingly, my dermatologist says I have no skin conditions.

  9. Kate & Zena says:

    Ha ha ha ha ha, where do you want to start with the allergic reactions? The Retin-A Micro incident where my doctor made an instant appointment to the state and board-certified dermatologist that works with her patients and he told my doctor afterward he had never seen such that kind of reaction to retinol in his entire career? The Maybelline Great Lash episode? The allergic reactions to about 90 different lotions? The reaction to just about anything with fragrance or perfume? Ironically, I’m immune to the Aussie products I use and they have fragrance. Maybe because I’ve used them for a long time?

    Basically, I have more than sensitive skin. It’s hyper-sensitive. You should see what a mosquito bite looks on me compared to what it looks like on my brother. His are tiny and don’t bother him much. Mine are so itchy and red and bothersome.

    • Christine says:

      @ Kate & Zena — I rarely get infected by mosquitoes because I feel it instantly while they are biting me & squish them right away. For me when they bite, it feels like a BEE STING!

  10. Sonja says:

    So glad about this post as allergies are such a big deal in my family! I’m still more or less ok (Loreal&Max Factor mascaras, most concealers& eye creams and face peelings with vitamin C. Oh and mosquito bites are a death to me) but my mom & grandma have had terrible allergies in the past. One time they ended up in the hospital because of the face cream- their face swelled up completely! And mom has had major problems with lipsticks and lip glosses.

    I used to have problems with YSL lip products, but seems they changed the formula or something, because they are ok now. I’m having an allergy on my lips right now and it just won’t pass, I have no idea what is causing it. Maybe even tooth paste!

    The only thing that has never broken me out/or had any allergic reaction to is anything by Chanel. Life is so ironic, ha?

    And as for perfume, I know everybody preaches that you should wear it on bare skin, but I spray it only on my clothes.

  11. Nina says:

    So far (and I only started wearing makeup last May) ive only had an allergic reaction to a brand called Jane. I got their tinted moisturizer from a well-meaning friend who gave it to me because I said I didnt like foundation. When I applied that tinted moisturizer, it was fine at first but before I knew it, my eyes looked like I had conjunctivitis and felt like it would pop out of my socket. I immediately washed my face with Cetaphil and warm water, finished it with cold and popped a Zyrtec. Alls well that ends well.

    I very recently invested in some MAC foundation — ive read many people break out from it but I havent. Yet. I hope I dont because I love the coverage of this foundation!

  12. Kelly says:

    Great post! I think I am having a mild allergic reaction right now to some RoC Deep Wrinkle Serum I recently got. It seems to be causing a small pimple break out on my forehead. I get this a lot with these anti-wrinkle lotions, etc.

    I don’t know if this was a reaction or what but about a year ago I bought some J.R. Watkins Lavender Shea Butter Hand Lotion from Target and the lavender in it was so powerful that it made me nauseous. Like REALLY nauseous. I had to wash my hands 3 or 4 times to try and get the smell off, it was so strong!
    .-= Kelly’s last blog post… CND Colour Effects Featuring Blackjack =-.

    • Christine says:

      I have premature fine lines under my eyes that in the past year I’ve been driven to try to remove from my face, well, I ended up finding out that I’ll have an allergic reaction to every. single. anti-aging cream. available. I really wish I knew WHAT in the anti-wrinkle creams are such an irrational for me! The worse part is the irritation will cause my fine lines to (apparently permanently) deepen & multiply. So now my eyes are worse off than when I first started on the quest to remove the fine lines and would give anything just to have my eyes back to the way they were before I started my vain mission to remove the fine lines! >_<

  13. Citrine says:

    My skin is normal most of the time, but it seems that I am allergic to 90% of the foundation, tinted moisturizer and concealer I have tried…

    I also react horribly with all the Olay (in US, the Asian formula is alright) skin care items, even the for sensitive cleansing wipe sings on my face…

  14. Solé says:

    I don’t think I’ve every had an allergic reaction to any beauty product, but my sister-in-law is severely allergic to everything under the sun. The girl can use no fragrances – period. From her laundry detergent to her soap and shampoo. Add to that any dyes, preservatives, and a laundry list of chemicals that are found in virtually all store-bought products. She basically lives a beauty-free life, which makes me really sad.

    Now that a lot of natural products are being made available, she just doesn’t want to experiment. The list of things she’s allergic to grows every time she gets tested so I can see why she’d be hesitant to experiment, but I don’t know that I could live a life without any beauty products. My sister makes a line of natural fragrances and beauty products that she sells on Etsy but my sister-in-law won’t try anything new. :( Oh, and the list of foods she can’t eat is longer than the list of foods she can eat. She can die for eating peanuts, and even end up in the hospital for being around peanuts.

  15. Sherry says:

    Hi Karen!
    What a great post!
    Through trial and error, I found out I was allergic to cyclopentasiloxane (a mouthful).
    It is the waterproofing ingredient in some cosmetics.
    My reaction only happens on my eyes, but I get pink eye- yuck!
    I had to throw out my UDPP, UD 24/7 eyeliners, and MUFE eyeliners, and I had to go to the doctor everytime I got pink eye.
    I just wish more cosmetic companies listed their ingredients on their website.
    I like to shop from home sometimes.
    Also, I find MAs tend not to be very knowledgable about such things.
    MAC is very secretive with their big black book of ingredients. A MA also told me I shouldn’t use something beecause the chemicals sounded similar. Not true! I told her she could sell it to me or I would order it online. I won.
    Sorry to ramble but it is an important issue.

  16. Jae says:

    Maybelline mascara and I do NOT get along. There’s some weird smell in it, which makes no sense because why should there be any smell in something that close to your eyes?

  17. Alexzandra says:

    I’m super sensitive to anything minty; peppermint oils, balm mint, etc. They make my skin burn, and cause me to be susceptible to break outs. The oils are the worst because once they get absorbed by my skin I have a very hard time alleviating the burning, and I almost have to just wait it out. Unfortunately I’ve had the worst luck with natural products, so now I avoid them: a lot of them seem to include mints; I think it’s because they’re a natural fragrance and are supposed to create a “cooling” sensation.

    Companies can include whatever they like in their products, but I wish they were more forthcoming about their ingredients. I hate having to call a company 3 or 4 times just to figure out if a cleanser has peppermint oil in it. And, I don’t like having to decipher ingredients lists either — It took me a while to even figure out that Melissa Officinalis is balm mint.
    .-= Alexzandra’s last blog post… Becca Fall 2009: The Modernist Collection =-.

  18. Meghan says:

    Sephora lip gloss and most notably Hope in a Jar. It gave me really horrible cd around my eyes it was GROSS.
    .-= Meghan’s last blog post… An Ode to Liquid Liner Pens =-.

    • Christine says:

      Haven’t tried Hope in a Jar, I’ve tried a sample size of Philosophy’s “Miracle” & I had a bad reaction to that. No miracles for me, it made my eye area look worse.

  19. jessiec says:

    This post brought me memories, The Cetaphil cleanser for normal/oily skin damaged my skin really bad. Severe dryness patchy circles on my chin. It was terrible. will never go near it.

  20. i cant use BB creams at all!
    .-= Blovet Beauty’s last blog post… My Beauty Diary at CozyCot HGP & DHC Suncut Q10 SPF50+ =-.

  21. Ani says:

    Benzoyl peroxide is the bane of my existent. I have combo acne-prone skin, so I got Zapzyt with benzoyl perozide 10% as a spot treatment. I took precaution and tried the product inside my wrist, upper thigh, between my elbow and nothing happened, but when I put it on my face… Oh boy! I woke up with red, itchy, irritated skin, and my eyes were swelling up. It took 2 weeks for the swelling to subsides, and my skin has been a mess since then. Channel Number 5 closes up my throat and my skin irritated also. Besides those two, I am pretty OK with the rest.

  22. le says:

    This site:
    http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/index.php?nothanks=1 is a database of beauty and personal care products that were tested and rated for toxicity. It provides the full ingredients list for tens of thousands of products. It’s a little hard to navigate but pretty useful for people with allergies or those who are just worried about the long-term effects of their beauty products.
    .-= le’s last blog post… Twins: light and dark =-.

  23. Jen says:

    Thank you so much for this, the tips are really helpful! My personal nemesis is Aloe. If I use anything with aloe in it on my skin or in my hair for an extended period of time it burns me. My skin turns red and on my face it’ll even start peeling. Razors with aloe in the strips have left welts. And since so many products have aloe in them I have to constantly be reading ingredients lists. It’s nuts!

  24. It is so true that many labels are quite inaccurate as to the actual ingredients. Manufacturers are very good at making false claims! This particularly annoys me when it comes to mineral makeup…!

  25. Elaine says:

    Thanks for this awesome post – i am fine with about 90% of makeup but the only mascaras I can use are maybelline greatlash mascara and avon mascaras – any other ones I try make my eyes itchy and watery. and believe me, i’ve tried TONS of different mascaras. Also I’m allergic to shea butter which is in nearly EVERY darn skin lotion out there. and stupid companies like to put shea butter as Vitellaria paradoxa, Butyrospermum parkii, and B. paradoxa instead of the words “shea butter” – which i discovered online after a fun reaction… i get a very specific reaction to shea, which is like tiny little pimples all over my body, almost look like a heat rash, so i KNEW it had to be the shea butter!

  26. Sandy says:

    I have had skin reactions to AHA products and Sun Screen. I have to be very careful not to buy any moisturizers or face products with sunscreen. More and more face products, moisturizers and foundations contain sunscreen as an added benefit but it’s not good for everyone!

  27. K~ says:

    Unfortunately, YES I am allergic to citrus….aaaauuuggghh! Just about every product on earth has citrus in it and going to restaurants have not been fun either. Due to my allergic reactions it has made me pay attention and do more investigative work on all products from top to bottom. I tell friends and family they don’t know how lucky they are and should appreciate everything they are able to consume and utilize; as there are some in the world (hint: me, being one of them) who have to be more creative and selective in what they utilize throughout life!

    • Christine says:

      My very worse allergic reaction so far has been to Avalon Organic Vitamin C Renewal Toner. My throat turned purple it was dark red and yellow blisters/boils instantaneously popped up everywhere within SECONDS and the pain got increasingly bad with each passing second. Luckily I was directly next to the sink and was able to wash it off immediately, most of the ingredients were forms of citrus… hmmm…

  28. Paola says:

    Wow!!! Difficult to admit that I have been causing my own severe eczema on my hands because I chose to ignore the results that came out in an allergy test 7 years ago. I have gone through ALOT of grief and embarrassment during the years because of it. I was told at the time that I was allergic to my lancome creams. I had been using their products for over 10 years so thought – sure it could cause a little irritation but it can’t be the main culprit!!!! I swore by my creams!! Instead, I blamed it on stress. Though it’s only been less than two weeks since I stopped using my creams….. after finally getting totally fed up and convincing myself I should test whether or not the allergy test was right…..my eczema has cured and not yet returned!! Coincidence…. I fear not… This has never happened before. Now the question is, what similar products can I try on the market! I miss my oily, scented creams that kept me “lifted” and with good complexion…. Any suggestions? Thanks….

  29. K~ says:

    Hi Paola…I will be honest with you I typically use Cetaphil gentle facial soap and moisturizer…but did discover I can utilize some of dermae products which you may enjoy more since you don’t have the issue I do with citrus. Good luck and let me know what you discover too! :)

  30. Emily says:

    It scares me how formaldehyde, a *well* known CARCINOGEN is in makeup and nail polishes! As well as talc (also a carcinogen) which irritates my skin. Silicones also cause some people to break out cause it clogs pores.
    Emily recently posted … New Video!

  31. Tracy says:

    I just figured out my daughter is allergic to Cyclopentasiloxane. It was a long proceess to figure out what was causing her terrible scalp/neck rash. It is in most drug store bought conditioners. She is too young to wear mascara but I am glad the other person who is allergic to it mentioned it is in those products so when she gets to the make up age, we will have to read labels. So, if you have scalp rash and dandruff, try using a conditioner that does not contain it and see if it clears up……

  32. Charlotte says:

    I have never had an allergic reaction to any type of lotion until I used Lancome “Nutrix Royal Body” Intense Lipid Repair Cream.. OMG !!! I put some of this lotion on my hands and within two minutes Both of my hands were fire engine red and burning like they were on fire. A few minutes later, once it entered the blood stream I suppose, I had blotches covering my entire body and my tongue started swelling. My husband made me get into the car and he took me to the emergency room. Just before leaving the house I grabbed a couple of Benadryl and took them and by the time we got to the hospital the stinging and burning started to subside as the Benadryl started to kick in. My husband got me into the emergency room and I told them what had happened and the Registered nurse told me that I may as well go back home and just take some more Benadryl since I had already taken it. Got back home took two more Benadryl and it kicked my butt and I slept until noon the next day. Here it is two days later and my hands and fingers are still swollen and I am headed to the Doctor today to see what they can give me to help get rid of the swelling and make sure there are no underlying problems. I will NEVER use a Lancome product again.

    • Christine says:

      I had an allergic reaction to Lancome too, not nearly as bad as you but it causes my fine lines to apparently permanently deepen because of the irritation. …sigh…

  33. Sif says:

    Ohh god i have had a mean rash…. i’m trying to find a self-tanning lotion, and i have tried some different tags, but my skin keeps getting that red itchy rash. So now i’m looking for an organic self-tanning lotion – any suggestions?
    Best regards Sif

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