Allergy-Prone or Sensitive Skin Care

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Whether or not you have sensitive or allergy-prone skin, chances are that you've had a reaction to a skin-care product or cosmetic somewhere on your face or body. For some, identifying which product caused the problem and discontinuing its use is enough to improve the appearance of skin within a day or two. For others, even after you've stopped using the item(s), your skin can remain irritated for days or even months. Here's what you can do to calm and help correct your skin's irritated response.
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Recommended Products without Fragrance or Irritants

Is it a Skin Disorder?

Be certain you are dealing with an allergic or sensitizing reaction to a product, and not a skin disorder. Many skin conditions such as psoriasis, rosacea, eczema, folliculitis (an inflammation of the hair follicle), and reactions to food cause irritated, swollen, red, itchy, flaky or rashy skin. There are dermatology image databases online that you can visit to determine if the reaction you're seeing is indicative of a skin disorder or not. Although most of them are geared toward dermatologists (the medical terminology won't be familiar to most outside dermatology), site such as can be a helpful starting point.

Avoid Problem Ingredients

Find what product(s) or ingredient(s) are causing the problem and stop using them. Sometimes this is a simple determination. If you started using a new concealer and within a few hours that area became red, itchy, and swollen, it is clear that the concealer is the problem. Unfortunately, it isn't always that easy. What makes this process potentially difficult is that many skin reactions don't happen quickly. It may be several weeks or even months or years after you've been using a product before your skin has a negative reaction to it. Further, given the number of cosmetic products women use daily, it is no wonder that pinning down exactly which item caused the problem can be a challenge.

To make matters even more complicated, it may not be a single product but the combination of products that caused the problem (maybe the concealer isn't the problem, but the concealer, foundation, and moisturizer together that caused the reaction). The key here is patience and diligence. Experiment with the item or items you suspect and then see how your skin responds when you discontinue use.

Avoid The Following...

  • Overly abrasive scrubs (such as those that contain aluminum oxide crystals, walnut shells, or pumice)
  • Astringents containing irritating ingredients (alcohol and menthol being the prime offenders)
  • Toners containing irritating ingredients (alcohol and menthol being the prime offenders)
  • Scrub mitts (think Buf-Puf)
  • Cold or hot water
  • Steaming or icing the skin
  • Facial masks containing irritating ingredients (watch out for fragrant essential oils and polyvinyl alcohol)
  • Loofahs
  • Bar soaps and bar cleansers

Also, please consult our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary for a list of irritating ingredients to watch out for when shopping for skin-care products.

Consider a Cortisone Cream

Whether or not you've been able to identify the problem product, an over-the-counter cortisone cream can be your skin's best friend. Lanacort or Cortaid are excellent over-the-counter cortisone creams that are readily available. When cortisone cream is applied to irritated, inflamed skin it "turns off" the reaction that is causing the problem. Once the skin irritation shows up, apply the cortisone cream over the affected area for several days, even after everything seems back to normal. Remember that the skin can hold on to a sensitizing or allergic reaction for a long period of time. And don't be afraid about the short-term use of an over-the-counter cortisone cream. It is the long-term (more than two or three months of consistent use) of cortisone creams that can damage collagen and elastin in the skin.

Avoid Other Irritants & Triggers

While you are combating the allergic or sensitizing reaction do not use any other skin irritants of any kind over the affected area. Fragrances, scrubs, washcloths, AHAs, Retin-A, Renova, benzoyl peroxide, skin lighteners, or other skin-care products with active ingredients can trigger irritation and only add to the problem. Avoid saunas, steam, hot or cold water, sweating (think cooking over a hot stove), or rubbing the affected area, all of which can help re-trigger the reaction.

Here are some surprising facts on why irritation is so bad for your skin, whether it is sensitive or not:

  • Chronic, daily irritation steadily breaks down substances (such as collagen) your ski needs to stay smooth, firm, and healthy.
  • Irritation impairs skin's ability to heal and hold on to vital substances it needs to look and act younger.
  • For those with oily skin, using irritating ingredients stimulates nerve endings at the base of the pore that, you guessed it, trigger more oil production!
  • Whether you see the effects of irritation or not, it can be silently and invisibly happening beneath your skin. You'll see its effects years later in the form of uneven skin tone, enlarged pores, and general "problem" skin.
  • Using irritating ingredients can cause otherwise normal, healthy skin to become sensitive and unusually reactive.

When to See a Physician

If matters aren't improving after four to six weeks, you should seek professional help. See your dermatologist for an evaluation. If you suspect that you are having a serious allergic reaction (in the form of hives, extremely swollen skin and eyes, or red patches over the skin that feel warm or tingle), consult with your physician to discuss the option of taking an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl to stop the condition.

Generally speaking, you are much less likely to suffer an allergic reaction to skin-care products that are fragrance-free. Fragrance is the most common culprit in such reactions, and both natural (think essential oils) and synthetic fragrance are troublesome. That is a major reason why every Paula's Choice product is fragrance-free and formulated to avoid needless irritants.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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