Stopping Unwanted Reactions to Skincare Products


In This Article:

Does this sound familiar: You’re excited to try a new skincare product you’ve heard wonderful things about. It goes on beautifully and feels great—but then the next morning, or a few days later, or even weeks later, the problems start showing up.

People can have varying negative reactions that range from red patches to swollen eyes, or a tight, dry feeling. You may even see bumps in the mirror that look like puberty has started all over again. The inevitable question is, what happened?

Regrettably, the answer isn’t easy because reactions to skincare products have a broad range of causes. Thankfully, there are solutions, too; it just takes some detective work to figure it out!

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What Causes Skin to React to Products?

Sometimes, using a new product or a new mix of products can cause skin to have a negative reaction—even if the products are well formulated. You may even wonder if you did something wrong, or if the product itself is faulty.

There are six primary reasons why skin reacts negatively to a new product, a new skincare routine, or even to products you've used for months or years:

  • The product(s) was poorly formulated with harsh or skin-aggravating ingredients that caused the negative reaction. Ingredients we warn about such as alcohol (SD or denatured), fragrance (synthetic or natural), or numerous fragrant plant extracts show up in countless products. The reaction can happen immediately or it can develop over time. Sometimes, when several fragranced products are used, the skin reaches a critical tipping point and reacts strongly. That’s one reason why using several products with “just a little” fragrance can overwhelm skin.
  • An allergy to a specific ingredient or combination of ingredients in the formula is often to blame. This has nothing to do with the quality of a cosmetic; rather, it’s a personal reaction to an ingredient or a mix of ingredients. It's like being allergic to cats, a problem many people have, but it’s certainly not the fault of the cat and it doesn’t make cats bad.
  • Using the wrong product for your skin type. For example, using oil-absorbing products when you have dry, flaky skin can make your skin even drier and cause red, scaly patches. If you have oily skin, using thick, emollient products can cause skin to develop more bumps and clogged pores.
  • Applying too many products with potent ingredients at the same time. When it comes to anti-aging products, some people think that if a little is good, then more must be better. So, they start using three types of exfoliants at the same time, followed by a serum with a high percentage vitamin C, and then a high-concentration retinol moisturizer followed by a skin brightening product. Even for the most durable skin types, applying these products all at once is overkill. It’s not that they don’t all have a place in a skincare routine, but instead of slathering them on all at once, they can be alternated between your morning and evening skincare routines or applied on alternate days. And no one needs to apply three exfoliants at the same time!
  • Using abrasive scrubs or stiff-bristled cleansing brushes. These can cause extremely negative reactions such as mirco-cracks in skin’s surface that can make it more vulnerable to anything else you put on it.
  • The final reason is the most difficult to assess: Some people just happen to have reactive and overly sensitive skin to just about anything they put on their face and neck. For them, the more products they use, the greater the risk of a reaction, and especially so if the product contains even a small amount of problematic or bioactive ingredients.

Be a Skincare Detective

Like any good detective, solving the mystery of why your skin reacted to a product (or products) requires examining multiple possibilities to identify the most likely culprit. Taking the time to do this means you'll be less likely to go through a "my-skin's-gone-haywire" episode again.

First and foremost, the products you use must not contain problematic ingredients that are known to cause skin sensitivity. Click here for more information about which ingredients to avoid. Using only well-formulated products is essential.

Next, be certain the products are a good match for your skin type. Oil-absorbing or matte-finish ingredients will be a disaster on dry skin, while emollient, thick moisturizers will be a problem for someone with oily skin or combination skin with oily areas.

If you tend to have highly reactive skin, be cautious about products with high concentrations of ingredients like niacinamide, retinol, vitamin C, BHA (salicylic acid), or AHA (glycolic or lactic acid). While these ingredients are brilliant for skin, when you have sensitive skin, you want to start by using products with lower concentrations and alternate the days you use them. If all goes well for a period of weeks, then you can test a higher strength of each ingredient, but only introduce one new product at a time.

Sunscreens can be suspect if they contain synthetic sunscreen ingredients. That doesn’t make synthetic sunscreen ingredients bad, but they can be more sensitizing. The best option in this case would be to use a sunscreen that only lists titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide at the active ingredients.

Even basic, well-formulated skincare products like cleansers, toners, serums, or moisturizers can trigger negative reactions for some people. This usually starts when you introduce a new product into your existing skincare routine or when you begin using a new group of products. If the reaction is mild, stop using one of the products and see what happens. If that doesn't help, stop using another one of the new products and see what happens after a day or two. If that doesn't resolve the problem, then go back to the previous routine that didn't cause your skin to react.

Sadly, when you reach this point, the hunt for products that won't cause a reaction starts anew—unless you want to keep using your former products, assuming they're well formulated.

What Isn't Causing the Reaction

Some people think silicone ingredients (examples would be cyclopentasiloxane or dimethicone) in skincare products can cause negative reactions, but isn’t true. In fact, just the opposite is true: Silicones are a group of uniquely soothing, gentle ingredients that form a permeable shield, soothe skin, and provide exceptional moisturizing properties.

Lots of people also think synthetic or manufactured cosmetic ingredients are bad for skin but that isn’t the case. There are good and bad natural and synthetic ingredients. An ingredient being natural doesn’t automatically make it better, safer, or gentler for skin.

The Recipe for Solving the Problem

Having a negative reaction to a new skincare product doesn't mean the product is badly formulated. Of course, there are badly formulated skincare products that can cause all sorts of reactions, but frequently the bumps, redness, and other symptoms are due to a personal reaction to an ingredient or a combination of ingredients.

Remember to think like a detective so you can—as quickly as possible—determine what’s causing the reaction. This is tricky because it's not always as easy as pointing the finger at the new product you just started using. It might be the product, or it might be how that new product interacts with other products you're using—especially if they contain common sensitizers like fragrance.

Think of how adding one ingredient to a recipe can completely change its taste, and it's easy to understand how adding a new product to an existing skincare routine may cause trouble (or be very helpful) for your skin.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula's Choice.

References for this information:

  • International Journal of Cosmetic Science, April 2016, issue 2, pages120-127
  • Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, November 2010, issue 5, pages 789-798
  • Clinical Dermatology, May-June 2011, issue 3, pages 311-315
  • British Journal of Dermatology, August 2008, issue 2, pages267-273
  • Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, July 2008, issue 4, pages 191-120

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 busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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