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Ever try a new product only to have your face explode like Mount Vesuvius? Your skin erupts, red and furious, with bumps and dry patches as far as the eye can see. You’re left quaking in the aftermath, with only one despairing thought in mind:
Maybe it’s karmic retribution for cutting off that guy in traffic yesterday. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s allergies.
When we say “allergies,” you probably think about hay fever, food allergies, animal fur, or even bee stings. (Yeah, that scene in “My Girl” still makes us cry.)
But there’s also a type of allergic reaction that occurs on your skin — for example, the rash you experience if you touch poison ivy. This is called contact dermatitis, and it may be the root of your awful skincare reactions.
First, let’s get back to the basics. What does it mean to have an allergic reaction?
An allergy is when a person has an oversensitivity to any substance, like peanuts, pollen, or latex. This substance is known as the allergen, and your body absolutely does not like it.
If you ingest or come into contact with an allergen, your body mistakenly thinks that the allergen is going to do damage, and reacts violently to fight it off. This search-and-destroy response from your immune system is an allergic reaction, and it can manifest in all sorts of different ways.
Enter contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis refers specifically to allergic reactions triggered by touching an allergen (rather than eating or inhaling one). Again, that poison ivy rash is a prime example.
Not every case of contact dermatitis indicates an allergy, though. There are actually two different types of contact dermatitis: allergic and irritant.
Irritant dermatitis involves exposure to a harsh substance like bleach or acid, which would cause bad reactions in anybody...with or without allergies! Dermatitis from this type of exposure isn’t considered an allergy because it’s not just your immune system overreacting. No, that acid is 100% burning you, whether your body tries to fight it or not.
Allergic contact dermatitis is the reaction you’re more likely to encounter through skincare. After all, most companies aren’t going to spike their products with universally irritating ingredients. That’d be counterproductive! Instead, ingredients safe for most people make your overprotective body go haywire, and the resulting allergic reaction wreaks havoc on your skin and your sanity.
Contact dermatitis can occur anywhere on your body, but the face is a common site. The skin on our faces is particularly sensitive already, so when we start adding potentially upsetting cosmetics to the mix, things can go downhill quickly.
If your face kicks off an allergic reaction, it’ll be pretty hard to miss. Symptoms of an allergic reaction on the face can include:
If you’re already accustomed to severe acne flare-ups, it’s sometimes challenging to pinpoint an allergic reaction. While some can appear within seconds, others develop gradually over hours, days, or even years of exposure.
One thing to look for in an allergic reaction is the characteristic red rash, which will be extremely itchy. Swelling or puffiness is another telltale sign.
Also, think back over any products you may have used on the affected patch of skin. Have you tried any new lotions or creams? Did your rash first pop up in the same spot where you just dabbed that new perfume? Or maybe your rash has been getting worse over time, appearing just along the swoop of cheekbone that you like to dust with bronzer.
Look for any products that seem to coincide with the location or timing of your rash, and you may quickly realize whether it’s acne or an allergic reaction.
So you have sensitive skin, and you want to start checking ingredient lists for potential allergens. Sensible! But also a difficult task, as everyone’s body reacts differently.
Some frequent offenders in skincare include dyes or preservatives like formaldehyde, as well as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA), especially when present in higher percentages. Synthetic fragrances are also a huge culprit, even in products that claim to be unscented. If you think you may have a fragrance sensitivity, make sure to choose products explicitly listed as “fragrance-free” or “without perfume.”
Really, almost any kind of cosmetic could set off an allergic reaction, depending on your immune system. Reactions are commonly reported from sunscreen, moisturizers, soaps, deodorants, lip stains, eye makeup, hair dye, nail polish, and more.
This probably goes without saying, but if you’re allergic to a product, stop using it ASAP.
If you’re experiencing a mild allergic reaction already, cleanse your skin with a gentle face wash using cool or lukewarm water.
If the rash is crusty or painful, you may wish to apply wet dressings or petroleum jelly to protect your vulnerable skin. This can be a risk for acne sufferers, though, as heavy ointments may clog your pores and contribute to new breakouts.
If you are having a severe allergic reaction, consult a medical professional immediately! Serious reactions can result in anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition that can block your airways.
Without knowing your exact allergies, you may struggle to guess which products will trigger a reaction. But there are a few tips that can help you avoid a full-blown allergic flare-up!
Skin allergies are no joke, but a little mindfulness will go a long way to help you escape the cycle of rashes and breakouts. Now you’ve got the knowledge — time to go put it to use!