Weird but true: That same old eye makeup you’ve been using since practically forever can suddenly turn on you, creating itchiness, puffiness, and plenty of other not-so-fun symptoms. You’d think that if a certain makeup ingredient didn’t agree with the delicate skin around your eyes, you’d know it immediately. But reactions to cosmetics can develop over time with repeated exposure, Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network and NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. Uh…great.
Read on to learn more about why these delayed reactions can happen, plus what to do if your cosmetics make your eyes act out.
If you have a negative reaction to eye makeup, you can probably blame a condition called contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis is an itchy, inflamed skin reaction that happens after you encounter something that aggravates your skin or immune system in some way, according to the Mayo Clinic. It isn’t contagious or life-threatening, but it is annoying—especially when it’s right there on your face.
Contact dermatitis is generally divided into two categories, according to the Mayo Clinic. Irritant contact dermatitis, which is the more common form, happens when a substance is harsh enough to damage your outer layer of skin. Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis, on the other hand, kick in when your immune system overreacts to something.
Certain substances are common culprits behind irritant contact dermatitis, like rubbing alcohol, bleach, and detergents. Others are well-known allergens, such as nickel, medications like antihistamines, and airborne matter like pollen.
But some things can cause either irritant or allergic contact dermatitis, like certain plants, soaps and body washes, and…cosmetics. Whether you have irritant or allergic contact dermatitis, you might exhibit symptoms immediately, or it might take multiple exposures over time—even years—for your body to finally be like, I’m actually not a fan of this at all, and you’re about to find out in a big way.
Your eye makeup can cause either kind of contact dermatitis, but your symptoms may differ slightly depending on which one you have.
One of the biggest signs of irritant contact dermatitis is skin peeling, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). But it can also cause symptoms that might mimic other conditions, like dry eye—think: stinging, burning, redness, and excessive tearing. It can be especially confusing if you’re using makeup that’s never given you a problem before and you have other dry eye risk factors, such as using contact lenses or working at a computer all day.
In contrast, allergic contact dermatitis from repeated makeup use will usually cause itchiness and a rash that may look like eczema, the AAAAI says. Meaning, the skin around your eyes may become dry, scaly, or even form tiny cracks if you scratch it.
These reactions can bubble up in response to any eye makeup ingredient. With that said, some of the most common offenders are fragrance (especially balsam of Peru), parabens (used to preserve some cosmetics), quaternium-15 (another preservative), propylene glycol (used to maintain moisture in cosmetics), and lanolin (a moisturizing fat sourced from sheep’s wool), Princess Ogbogu, M.D., director of allergy and immunology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
If you develop a weird reaction on your face and you suspect that it’s due to your makeup, stop using that product immediately, Dr. Ogbogu says.
Beyond that, doctors usually recommend addressing contact dermatitis with a non-prescription anti-itch treatment, like 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, but this isn’t considered safe around your sensitive eyes, Dr. Parikh says.
Instead, the Mayo Clinic recommends wetting a soft washcloth with cool water and holding it against your irritated skin for 15 to 30 minutes for a soothing effect. You can repeat this throughout the day as necessary, but you shouldn’t put the washcloth on your actual eyeballs, only your eyelids and the surrounding skin. If your eyes themselves are really burning, you might want to flush them out with clean water. You can do this by holding your eyelids open in the shower as water streams down over your forehead, or you can pour water over your eyeball using a clean cup. (Either way, be sure to wash your hands before getting that close to your eyes.)
If your eyes are super itchy or swollen, you can also consider taking an oral antihistamine (which targets histamine, the chemical that causes allergic reaction symptoms) or an oral corticosteroid (to tame inflammation). And, though it can be hard, avoid scratching or rubbing the area. That will only make the thin skin around your eyes more prone to irritation.
If you try those tactics and they don't help, see your doctor. You may need oral or injected corticosteroids to help calm things down, Dr. Parikh says. And if you stopped using the product you thought was the issue and you’re still having a reaction, that’s another sign to get to your doctor ASAP. They may recommend you undergo patch testing, Dr. Ogbogu says, which involves wearing patches that contain allergens for a few days to see how your skin reacts. That can help your doctor narrow down what might be causing your reaction.
Going forward, there are a few things you can do to lower the odds you’ll have another reaction to your eye makeup.
Obviously, whatever product caused the reaction is verboten unless you love it when your eyes freak out. Try to replace your makeup picks with products that are gentle, don’t contain fragrance or other substances known for their potential to irritate, and don’t have an ingredients list as long as your arm. You’d be surprised, but there are actually makeup brands out there with great eye products for sensitive skin! But even if you do your due diligence here, remember that your body can still start to react strangely to your products over time—always keep an eye out for the first sign of irritation.