Your skin can’t talk, but it can still express displeasure. If you’ve ever gotten a red, itchy rash on your face after applying makeup, then you know as much from experience. This unnerving reaction is called contact dermatitis. It can seriously sour your relationship with cosmetics, especially if you’re not sure which product in particular is behind the rash on your face.
Here are a few things you should know about makeup-related contact dermatitis, including why it happens, the most common symptoms, how to treat it, and tips for avoiding it in the first place.
There are two types of contact dermatitis.
Not to be confused with atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema), contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash that can emerge when a substance aggravates your skin in some way, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Contact dermatitis can be either irritant or allergic. Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when you touch something that harms the top layer of your skin. As the Mayo Clinic notes, this is the more common type of contact dermatitis. When makeup contains an ingredient like the chemical exfoliant salicylic acid, as many acne concealers and foundations do, it can potentially cause irritant contact dermatitis if that ingredient is irritating to you, Tania Elliott, M.D., a clinical instructor of allergy and immunology at NYU School of Medicine, tells SELF.
However, makeup tends to lead to more allergic contact dermatitis than its irritant counterpart. Allergic contact dermatitis is brought on by an allergic reaction to a specific ingredient, the Mayo Clinic explains. Symptoms arise when your immune system completely overreacts to a harmless substance. Fragrance and plant-based ingredients can be big triggers for makeup-related allergic contact dermatitis, the experts explain. This doesn’t have to do with a product being gentle or harsh—it’s all about whether or not an ingredient in the product triggers your immune system to react in some way.
Contact dermatitis symptoms will let you know something’s wrong.
Whether your makeup has caused irritant or allergic contact dermatitis, you might experience the following symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic:
- A red facial rash
- Blisters that may leak fluid and crust over
These symptoms can fluctuate in severity depending on how intense your case of contact dermatitis is, Dr. Elliott says. You might just experience a little redness and tenderness, or in more severe instances, you may deal with a weepy rash that oozes pus, feels warm to the touch, or feels like you scrubbed your face with a cheese grater.
Contact dermatitis can happen immediately or on a delay.
Your skin will often react within minutes to hours after you’ve been exposed to the offending substance, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, Dr. Elliott notes that sometimes it can take up to a week for contact dermatitis to present, which can make it hard to pinpoint what is causing the reaction.
Another complicating factor is that your skin might suddenly freak out in response to a product you’ve used for a long time. “Some people develop [contact dermatitis] after one use. However, it is possible to use a product for years with no problem, only to [develop contact dermatitis] at a later date,” Kathryn Schwarzenberger, M.D., a professor of dermatology at Oregon Health and Science University, tells SELF.
There’s not yet a scientific explanation for why it can take multiple exposures for contact dermatitis to surface, Dr. Schwarzenberger explains. Chalk it up to one of those weird body things.
If you think you’re dealing with contact dermatitis, you may want to see a doctor.
Let’s say you’re pretty sure you know which product or ingredient is responsible for your contact dermatitis. You can try cutting it out and seeing how that goes. But if you have a severe case of makeup-related contact dermatitis or you’re not sure what triggered the reaction, a dermatologist or allergist should be able to help. You might even realize you’re not dealing with contact dermatitis at all. “I’ve seen patients come in who thought they had contact dermatitis who really had rosacea or lupus or something else,” says Dr. Schwarzenberger.
To get to the bottom of your skin woes, your doctor may recommend a patch test. This involves a doctor taping samples of common allergens onto your skin, typically your back or arm, to discover which ones cause a reaction, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your doctor will review the area after a few days, as the symptoms of contact dermatitis can be delayed.
If your doctor suspects irritant contact dermatitis is your issue, they may ask you to bring in a bag or list of your recently used cosmetics, Ellen Gendler, M.D., a clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center and owner of Gendler Dermatology in New York City, tells SELF. Looking at the ingredients compared with your symptoms may help your doctor better deduce what made you break out.
Treatment for contact dermatitis is pretty straightforward.
First things first, your doctor may ask you to take a “makeup holiday” for a few weeks, says Dr. Elliott. Avoiding cosmetics gives your skin time to rebound without further irritation or allergic reaction.
In the meantime, your doctor may have you take medicine to speed healing, like topical corticosteroids that can subdue inflammation, according to the Mayo Clinic. Or, if your case of contact dermatitis is mild, they might recommend you just make your skin as comfortable as possible and wait for the rash to fade.
After a case of contact dermatitis, you can baby your skin with soothing, moisturizing products and DIY treatments, Dr. Elliott says. Try applying cool compresses, calamine lotion, or over-the-counter anti-itch creams with 1 percent hydrocortisone, the Mayo Clinic recommends. If you have a holy grail product that never fails to calm your skin, like coconut oil, you can try that. Just ask your derm what they think before applying anything new to your face when it’s already throwing a tantrum.
You can try a few things to prevent makeup-related contact dermatitis.
Here’s what doctors recommend:
- Steer clear of ingredients known to cause allergic reactions and irritation. Common allergens include ingredients such as fragrance, benzophenone-UV filters (used in many makeup products that contain sunscreen), and preservatives like lanolin, Dr. Elliott says.
Common cosmetic irritants include ingredients such as alcohol, retinoids (a form of vitamin A that helps to speed cell turnover), and other exfoliating agents like salicylic acid, Dr. Elliott says. These kinds of ingredients won’t be irritating to everyone—some people’s skin can handle them just fine. But if you have sensitive skin in general, or if you have skin that is prone to irritation due to conditions like eczema, it can be more likely for these sorts of ingredients to bother your face.
- Patch test new makeup and cosmetics yourself. You might be antsy to start using a new product already, but taking the time to patch test on yourself can help prevent contact dermatitis. This can be an especially great idea if you have a repeated history of this skin issue, Sharon Jacob, M.D., founder and CEO of the Dermatitis Academy, and president of the American Contact Dermatitis Society, tells SELF.
Twice a day for seven days, apply cosmetics of potential concern to a spot like the sensitive skin where your forearm creases, says Dr. Elliott. This can help you gauge how your skin reacts before you slather something all over your face.
- Investigate product ingredients thoroughly before buying something new. Don’t just believe labels that use buzzwords like “unscented,” which can actually indicate the use of additional chemicals to mask the scent of raw ingredients, Dr. Elliott says. If you purchase a product that’s “unscented,” you may still be susceptible to contact dermatitis. Instead, you should be looking for ingredients that are “fragrance-free,” which means there are no natural or masking scents included, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Also, be mindful of terms like “natural” and “hypoallergenic.” Something can be labeled “natural” while using botanicals that commonly cause contact dermatitis, Dr. Elliott explains. As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains, there is no regulation for when cosmetics companies can and can’t use the term “natural.” And while “hypoallergenic” products tend to lack some of the more common allergens, that doesn’t mean one won’t prompt a reaction for you, Dr. Jacob says. The FDA doesn’t regulate this term either, so it can mean whatever cosmetics companies want it to mean. “Hypoallergenic…is a suggestion that the product is relatively less likely to cause fewer allergic reactions than other ones,” Dr. Elliott says. “[It] does not necessarily mean that the product is allergen-free.”
Your best bet is to familiarize yourself with the ingredients in your products, including which ones do and don’t play nicely with your skin. If you need help sussing it all out, that aligns quite nicely with your dermatologist’s job description.