If you’ve ever had to get a bit creative and repurpose one of your go-to beauty or skincare products (say, because you ran out, or because your suitcase got lost, or because you refuse to use your boyfriend’s questionable-looking bar soap), you’ll relate to me using Living Proof No Frizz Conditioner as a hair product, body wash, and shaving cream all-in-one this past summer.
I wish I could say this skincare ingenuity was because I simply love Living Proof so much that I wanted to literally bathe in it. Unfortunately, it was more of an act of despair after an allergy patch test revealed that I have allergies and sensitivities to nearly two dozen ingredients commonly found in most beauty and skincare products on the market. I had no choice but to ditch just about every product in my arsenal — leaving me with little more than my favorite conditioner, which quickly became my holy grail product for a few bleak weeks.
Over the past few years, I’d begun noticing some mysterious all-over body itching, particularly after having my hair and nails done. I didn’t immediately connect the dots that it was an allergy because online searches told me that I’d have localized blistering and peeling skin at the site if that were the case, and my scalp and nails were mostly fine. But over time, the itching became worse and worse, hitting a fever pitch after my first post-quarantine balayage appointment in June. My entire body felt itchy, leaving me no choice but to take an antihistamine before bed most nights just to feel some relief.
After finally snagging an appointment with an allergist, I was hit with the news that would make beauty lovers weep: I’d developed contact allergies to a slew of common substances. This includes formaldehyde, coconut derivatives, lavender oil, tea tree oil, and a host of other things with super long science-y names that I’d never even heard of, but that you’ll find in an ingredients list on the back of many products at the drugstore.
My official diagnosis? Allergic contact dermatitis, a type of eczema in which you develop an allergy to something that makes contact with your skin. I’ve always counted myself among the 60–70% of women who have sensitive skin, but that term means different things for different people — some are sensitive to fragrances, others have skin that is frequently dry or irritated. For me, it showed up in a myriad of ways: Cheap earrings from Claire’s as a trendy tween would have my ears oozing, bleeding, and peeling (which I now attribute to an allergy to nickel and gold), exposing my skin to the sun even with sunscreen on would lead to blistering, or itching after using a “free and gentle” fabric softener…you get the gist.
Here’s what else I learned:
There are two types of contact dermatitis and they’re both very common.
Classified as either irritant or allergic, contact dermatitis is a skin reaction “triggered by something that has been in contact with your skin such as a chemical, cosmetic, or metal,” explained Dr. Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and infectious disease doctor with Allergy & Asthma Network. “People will develop red, itchy, flaky rashes that can even blister in the most severe cases. The skin can swell up locally, ooze, or crack,” says Kathleen Dass, MD, an immunologist at the Michigan Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center.
Dr. Parikh noted that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s causing the issue, and here’s why: “With allergic contact dermatitis, the reaction is delayed and localized to where the product is, but it may not necessarily be something that you applied directly to that area,” said Dr. Dass. “For instance, with eyelid contact dermatitis, it may not be a moisturizer or product you are applying directly to your eyelid. A very common cause is nail polish applied to your hands that you then use to touch your face.”
Even trickier is that it can take repeated exposure to develop the allergy.
Unlike irritant contact dermatitis, which shows up almost immediately, allergic contact dermatitis can take days or even years to reveal itself. “You can develop a reaction to products or ingredients at any time,” said Dr. Dass. “The more you are exposed to the product, the more likely you are to develop a reaction. Your job may also put you at increased risk due to repeated exposures, such as healthcare workers, hairdressers, beauticians, and machinists,” who are more often exposed to common allergy-prone irritants and chemicals. Basically, “your immune system needs to be exposed to something repeatedly and then it decides whether to tolerate it or become allergic to it,” says Dr. Parikh.
If you think you have a contact allergy, call your doctor.
“The most important first step is to identify the ingredient causing the allergic reaction,” explains Dr. Dass. “An allergist or dermatologist will apply patch tests to your back — these patches have small chambers that contain common allergens. An allergist can also apply a specific product you are suspicious of. After 48 hours, the patches will be removed. Your physician may even ask for you to return in 72 or 96 hours for a second and/or third reading.”
Because these reactions are delayed, your doc will need to examine the patches after several days, possibly requiring more than one return office visit. “Once you identify the ingredient, you should immediately discontinue and avoid products containing this product,” said Dr. Dass. “Your allergist may recommend specific topical and/or oral corticosteroids, barrier creams, or moisturizing lotions to help your skin feel better. If your skin has become infected, you may even require an antibiotic.” My derm created a profile for me on SkinSafe, an app that helps you identify and examine labels to find safe-for-you products.
This content is imported from Instagram. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
While a visit to your derm is a great first step, an allergy specialist can “pinpoint the exact ingredient that is causing the contact dermatitis,” said Dr. Dass, adding, “I would also strongly recommend seeing a specialist or expert if your rash hasn’t resolved with discontinuing of products or if your skin is blistering or peeling.”
When it comes to finding products for sensitive skin, you can’t always trust labels.
Having the patch test done was the easy part. I felt relieved to know what was causing the problem, but that was just the start of my contact allergy journey. Eliminating just about everything in my routine meant that I’d need to find new products (sans irritants) that are safe for me.
Peruse the aisles of any beauty supply store or drugstore and you’ll find dozens (if not more!) products making all kinds of claims: “organic, “clean,” “allergy-friendly/hypoallergenic,” “natural,” “gentle,” or “for sensitive skin,” are all big beauty buzzwords these days. But there are zero federal regulations on any of these terms, which makes checking the ingredients crucial if you are, in fact, dealing with a skin condition like eczema or contact allergies.
“Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are no federal standards that regulate products identified as hypoallergenic,” said Dr. Dass. “This means that companies can label their product as ‘natural,’ ‘hypoallergenic,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘safe for sensitive skin’ arbitrarily. Each company has its own definition.”
Both docs recommend avoiding products with dyes and fragrances as a good starting point, as these can cause irritation even in those without a confirmed allergy. And it’s not just cosmetics that can cause a flare-up: home and cleaning products, jewelry, and even candles can aggravate skin allergies.
It’s taken weeks to whittle down my routine.
I replaced my beloved products with those that won’t trigger a response. Not only was I able to give once-loved products to family members, donating the rest to my local women’s shelter, but this gave me the opportunity to find new favorites. I’ve aimed to support small businesses — including BIPOC and/or LGBTQ-owned operations — whose products rely less on chemicals and preservatives than more mainstream brands out there.
I still have to comb every ingredient list with a magnifying glass, but some options that are safe for me include SheaMoisture Raw Shea Butter Moisture Retention Shampoo, Bela Pure Natural Goats Milk Soap, CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser, Living Proof Perfect hair Day (PhD) Dry Shampoo, and yes, my beloved Living Proof No Frizz Conditioner. I also love cleaning and detergent products by Charlie’s Soap, and hand soaps by Bath Geek, both companies that specialize in allergy-safe home and cleaning products. Thankfully, self-quarantine has made it so that I don’t have to worry much about makeup, perfume, or beauty treatments these days.
If you’re noticing any sensitivity or skin irritation and aren’t sure what it might be, I can’t recommend visiting an allergy specialist enough. It might mean a long road to figuring out a new routine, but it will be so worth it when you’re no longer shaving your legs with conditioner or relying on antihistamines for a good snooze.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io