Beauty products are supposed to make you look and feel good. But on the other side of the coin, they can also be a cause of skin irritation. If you’ve ever had flare-ups after using certain beauty products, it may be a allergic reaction that you should have taken note of.

While most allergic symptoms appear quickly, according to Max Chan Wei, pharmacist at leading health and beauty retailer Watsons, it is possible for symptoms of an allergy to be delayed and not appear until years later after you’ve used an offending product!

“The immune system is affected over time by factors that are not entirely predictable, including the effects of ageing, diet, stress and hormonal changes,” he explains.

This makes it even harder to pinpoint the cause of the allergy.

allergy from beauty products

Read on as we learn from Max more about how beauty products cause allergic reactions and what we can do about them.

How do we know if we are allergic to a beauty product?

An allergic reaction is a response by the body’s immune system. Any itchy red bumps or rashes due to an allergic reaction can occur from hours to days after the first application of the product. The flare-ups tend to worsen quickly with subsequent use of the same product, and may cause symptoms like hives which are bigger and raised red patches with a burning or stinging sensation. The symptoms may even appear on areas where the beauty product is not applied on.

To rule out a possible allergy when trying out new products, it is important to slowly introduce them one at a time to your regimen. Practically, it is helpful to carry out your own patch test with a free sample or tester before using the product. Place a small amount of the product inside of the elbow, wrist or the side of the neck and wait for up to 2 to 3 days. If there is any redness or stinging sensation on that area, it is a good chance that the product may cause an allergic reaction.

What’s the difference between having “sensitive skin” and having an “allergy”?

Symptoms of an allergy may manifest in different parts of the body, whereas skin sensitivity is usually limited to specific areas which are in direct contact with the product. The symptoms of “sensitive skin” are more subjective and sometimes difficult to distinguish from a true allergy due to overlapping symptoms. They range from discomfort, tightness, tingling, dryness and slight red patches as opposed to the rash of an allergy which is usually itchy and red and at times swollen with blisters.

When the damaged top skin layer does not adequately protect nerve endings, the “sensitive skin” experiences these uncomfortable sensations due to chemical irritation. Hence, the use of harsh chemicals (e.g. exfoliating microbeads, chemical peels) and overuse of cleansers that dry out the skin should be avoided.

What are the first things to do when an allergy comes up?

First, identify the offending product that may have caused the allergy and stop using it immediately. If you have been using multiple new products, all of them should be discontinued. If the product has been recently applied onto the skin, wash it off as soon as possible. Any itchy rash is most effectively treated with steroid creams obtained through your pharmacist. Other products like calamine lotion or antihistamines can also be bought off the shelf to relieve the itch. Avoid scratching the itchy areas as it may cause infection and worsen the condition.

What are the most common ingredients that can trigger an allergy? Which beauty products are they usually found in?

skincare products generic

The most common cosmetic ingredients that can trigger an allergy are fragrances and preservatives. Fragrances are usually found in perfumes, cosmetics and personal hygiene products. Some products labelled “scent-free” may still contain fragrances to mask other chemical odours. The keywords to look out for are “fragrance-free” or “no added fragrance”.

Preservatives are usually synthetic compounds that prevent products from turning bad. They are usually found in water-based products like lotions and gels. Common preservatives include parabens, imidazolidinyl urea and formaldehyde.

Other notable ingredients that can trigger an allergy include metal compounds with aluminium, cobalt and chromium found in deodorants and hair dyes. Paraphenylenediamine, known as PPD in hair dyes, also commonly causes skin allergies but has been popularly phased out by some manufacturers and marketed as “PPD-free”.

How do we find out which ingredients are we specifically allergic to?

It is almost impossible to find out on our own which ingredient we are allergic to because beauty products usually contain tens to hundreds of ingredients. Allergies may also be due to a group of closely-related ingredients especially fragrances and preservatives that it is hard to pinpoint a particular one. Such a conclusion can only be made if the product contains one ingredient only, which is rarely the case. Examples may include pure aloe vera gels, olive oils or tea tree oils.

More often than not, it takes trial and error to find products that suit our skin. Professional help from dermatologists may be sought for skin prick or patch tests to diagnose allergies towards certain substances. Besides common allergens like pollen, animal hair or dust mites, tests for commonly used fragrances (Fragrance Mix) may also be available.

Some people avoid a specific brand altogether once they find themselves allergic to one product from it. Does this make sense?

To be on the safe side, it does not hurt to avoid a specific brand if you have a confirmed allergy to one product from it. There are too many combinations of ingredients for consumers to clearly discern or identify the substance causing the allergy. Products, especially from the same launch series, may not only share a common marketed ingredient (e.g. hyaluronic acid, ceramides) but also share similar preservatives, stabilizers and other compounds. If there is a compelling reason or need to use a particular brand, perform a skin patch test to rule out a possible allergy before using.