Why Products Cause Negative Reactions on Skin

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At one point or another, all of us have tried a new skin-care product, makeup, or hair-care product and the outcome wasn't what we expected. At first, the results can be great, but then, overnight, or a few days or weeks later, you see little white bumps, red patches, swollen eyes, or itchy areas that look dry and scaly. Even worse, you may see pimples that look like puberty has started all over again. What is going on? As it turns out, these reactions have a broad range of causes, but there are solutions, too!
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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. Such reactions are usually perplexing because it's hard to determine exactly what's happening and why. Even more frustrating, it isn't always clear what to do about it, especially when you hoped the product would work as promised. You may wonder if you did something wrong, or if the product itself is faulty.

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

  • The product(s) was poorly formulated with ingredients that can irritate your skin, such as alcohol, fragrance, or fragrant plant extracts. 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.
  • Often an allergy to a specific ingredient or combination of ingredients in the formula is to blame. This has nothing to do with the quality of a cosmetic, but rather is a personal reaction to an ingredient or a mix of ingredients. It's like being allergic to cats, a fact of life for some, but not the fault of the cat, nor does it mean cats are bad.
  • Using the wrong products for your skin type; for example, using oil-absorbing products when dry, flaky skin is the problem or using overly emollient products when oily skin and breakouts are the problem.
  • Using too many "active" products at one time. With anti-aging or anti-acne products, some people think that if a little is good, then more must be better. So, they use three types of exfoliants at the same time, followed by a vitamin C serum, a prescription retinoid, and then a skin-lightening product. For some, this combination may work at first, but it can quickly backfire, causing skin to become overly sensitive or reactive when it was normal before. This reaction can be even worse if you're also getting professional peels or aggressive facials.
  • Some people have skin that's just more reactive and sensitive to cosmetics, no matter what the ingredients. For them, the more products they use, the greater the risk of a reaction, especially if the products contain fragrance or fragrant plants.

What Kind of Reaction Are You Having?

Unfortunately, it isn't easy to tell what kind of reaction is taking place because there are many reasons skin can react negatively to cosmetics, and often the different types of reactions can have similar symptoms. For example, an irritant reaction, allergic reaction, and a reaction from using the wrong product or having ultra-sensitive skin can all look and feel the same. Now tell us this isn't a case for Sherlock Holmes!

Regardless of what is causing the negative reaction, it's critical to figure out what is causing the problem, stop doing it, and then start doing something else that benefits skin as it gets back to normal.

Although it might not seem so at the moment, the reaction itself isn't as important as figuring out what caused it in the first place and what to do instead. When skin reacts negatively to skin-care or makeup products, the first step is to become a skin-care detective. With the information below, you can learn how to determine "whodunit" on your own!

Note: If you have a severe reaction that results in welts, hives, intense redness, pain, or a burning sensation that lingers, consult your physician immediately.

Be a Skin-Care 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" upheaval again.

First, be certain the products you used don't have problematic ingredients that are known to cause irritation. Click here for more information about what ingredients to avoid. Using only well-formulated products is essential, so always check our reviews to be sure the products you use are the best of the best. Using well-formulated, highly rated products doesn't mean a reaction won't occur, but it definitely reduces the risk!

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.

In situations where highly reactive skin is a primary concern, be cautious about products with active ingredients; don't use too many of them or use all of them at the same time.

After investigating the ingredients and the types of products being used, consider the combination and frequency of the products you're applying. Although sunscreen, skin lighteners with hydroquinone, AHA or BHA exfoliants, anti-acne treatments, and anti-aging products with ingredients like retinol can all have remarkable benefits, they can also cause reactions for some, especially when used together in one skin-care routine.

In such a scenario, a starting point would be to change the sunscreen to one that contains only the mineral active ingredients titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which have minimal risk of causing a reaction. These mineral actives also are super-gentle, making them good for use around the eyes.

Another test would be to reduce the frequency of use. So, rather than using every product in your routine twice per day, alternate them, apply one in the morning and the other in the evening.

It can also be helpful to alternate days. For example, instead of using a retinol-based product or a prescription anti-acne treatment every day, try applying it every other day and see how your skin reacts. If reducing the frequency doesn't improve matters, then stop using the most suspect product (or products) and see how your skin reacts.

Keep a notebook handy so you can record how your skin progresses. Briefly jot down the pros and cons, and what you did differently. Yes, it does take a bit of time, but you can look back on it later to help you better handle a future reaction.

While active ingredients or problematic ingredients are typical causes of skin reactions, even basic skin-care products like cleansers, toners, or moisturizers can trigger negative skin reactions. In such cases, it usually starts when you introduce a new product into an existing skin-care routine or when you begin using a new group of products. If the reaction is mild, it might be helpful to 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 Problem

Some people think silicone ingredients (examples would be cyclopentasiloxane or dimethicone) in skin-care products can cause allergic reactions or breakouts, but that's a misperception. Silicones are a group of uniquely soothing, gentle ingredients that reduce inflammation and have exceptional moisturizing properties.

Silicones are actually used in burn units around the world because of their unique benefits and their non-sensitizing properties. It's true that people can be sensitive to silicone ingredients just like many other benign cosmetic ingredients, but a true silicone allergy is rare and they are not pore-clogging ingredients.

Many people think their skin is going through an adjustment or "purging" period when a negative skin reaction occurs after using a new product—especially when the reaction is breakouts. Although skin can break out for a short period of time after using a new product, this response isn't typical. What is more typical is that the breakouts would have occurred anyway—especially if a new product was started at the same time as a woman's menstrual cycle began.

If the breakouts persist for more than a week or two, stop using the new product or products and see if the situation improves. If so, and if a new round of breakouts doesn't happen shortly thereafter, chances are you broke out from the products, not as a matter of coincidence or timing.

Wrapping it Up

Having a negative reaction to a new skin-care product doesn't mean the product is badly formulated. Of course, there are badly formulated skin-care 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.

What you need to remember is to think like a detective so you can—as quickly as possible—determine what is 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 may be the product, or it may be how that new product interacts with other products you're using. 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 skin-care routine may cause trouble (or be very helpful) for your skin.

Above all, even though these reactions can be distressing, don't panic or stop using everything. Armed with the information above, you have everything you need to take control of these reactions and quickly get your skin back on track!

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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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