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Ask the Doctor: Am I Allergic or Irritated? What’s the Difference Anyway?

It seems like I’m allergic to nearly everything, even products specifically geared toward users with sensitive skin. I set out to understand common skin allergens, and how I can tell if I’m allergic to my makeup and skincare products. It turns out that allergies and irritation are two different animals. One rule of thumb I try to stick to is only introducing new products on a weekly basis. Although you probably can’t imagine trying 52 different products a year, this rule is just as important when starting a new brand of skincare since ingredients vary from product to product within a line.

Types of Skin Reactions

Dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City explains that skincare products can cause reactions in the skin in two different ways.  First, an ingredient may be directly irritating to the skin.  Second, it can cause an allergy.

Allergy Causes

Fragrances and preservatives are common causes of allergies.  After you apply a cream you may develop a red, itchy rash in that area. Cellnique skincare’s  list of  the big 8 allergens includes egg, fish, milk, tree nut, peanut, shellfish, soy and wheat – which can cause a reaction when applied topically or ingested.

Allergy Treatment

If you experience a skin allergy from your beauty products, Zeichner recommends a three-step treatment. Stop using the item, wash the affected skin with soap and water, and then apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment. If you don’t notice results using this treatment, you may need to see your dermatologist for a stronger prescription medication. “A dermatologist can also perform patch testing to determine exactly what you are allergic to so you can avoid it in the future,” he says.

Spotting Sensitivity

The team at Cellnique says sensitivity shows up visibly and can be felt physically, too. The texture of your skin’s surface can appear thin and fine and it may feel dry, tight and tingly. Other sensations include burning, itching and stinging. As you can imagine, a ruddy, flushed face can be ever-persistent.

Calm and Clean

If you’re primping products have a negative outcome, some good old fashioned detox may be in order. Zeichner suggests Cetaphil cleanser, which is formulated to be super gentle for the most extreme cases of sensitivity in users like babies and burn victims. It will cleanse the skin without stripping away moisture, allowing you to skip a moisturizer while your complexion chills out for a little while.

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Lauren Stewart
By: Lauren Stewart

Lauren Stewart is a freelancer writer from Michigan. She enjoys writing about beauty, health and fitness! She is passionate about learning new ways to take control of her health and wellness and is a makeup and skincare junkie! You can contact her by emailing