Symptoms: Burning and stinging in reaction to a product.
How common: Burning and stinging is common worldwide, and one British study found that 57 percent of women and 31.4 percent of men reported that they had experienced an adverse reaction to a personal skin care product at some point, with 23 percent of women and 13.8 percent of men having had a problem in the last 12 months.
Ingredients to avoid: Lactic acid, azaelic acid, benzoic acid, glycolic acid, vitamin C and AHAs have all been known to cause stinging and burning. "Anti-aging cosmetic products often contain chemicals which are designed to reduce the thickness of the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the epidermis, composed mainly of dead cells) by stripping away the very top of the skin," Dr. Alford says. "They often cause burning or stinging for people with sensitive skin."
Treatments: According to the AAD, there are no specific treatments that can help the uncomfortable sensations, because the mechanism of why they occur has not yet been determined through research. However, dermatologists can assess whether or not a person really has this type of sensitive skin by performing certain tests and taking a medical history.
Cause: Allergens and irritants cause contact dermatitis. If a person is allergic to an ingredient, his or her immune system makes antibodies against it, which triggers an allergic reaction. This reaction can present as a rash, red bumps, blisters or the like. According to the AAD, about 3,000 environmental allergens have been reported to cause contact dermatitis. Irritants are ingredients which may cause irritation, but do not necessarily provoke allergic reactions. Irritated skin becomes dry and chapped and eventually red, scaly and inflamed. People who already suffer from other skin conditions, like eczema, may be more prone to dermatitis.
Many people who experience contact dermatitis suffer a metal allergy, most commonly to nickel. Many types of metal contain at least some nickel; costume jewelry and cell phones are two common sources of nickel allergies, according to dermatologist Joseph F. Fowler, Jr., MD, FAAD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. Frequent hand washing with hot water can also lead to dermatitis by breaking down the skin's natural protective barrier, causing irritation and dry, cracked skin, according to Dr. Fowler.
Ingredients to avoid: People who experience frequent rashes are commonly allergic to fragrance, preservatives, colors or formaldehyde in skin care products. They may also be allergic to neomycin, an ingredient found in many over-the-counter topical antibiotic ointments. The AAD also advises skin allergy sufferers to stay away from organic products, which often contain essential oils and fragrances. Dr. Leslie Baumann points out on her website, skintypesolutions.com, that fragrance is one of the most common allergens in cosmetics. Make sure to buy "fragrance-free" as opposed to "unscented" products — the latter often includes fragrance-masking chemicals to hide the smell of the formula's ingredients.
"Fragrance is a very common cause of irritation that is often overlooked," Dr. Alford asserts. "Often times, products that are 'hypoallergenic' and 'dermatologist-tested' still contain fragrance. Patients with sensitivity to fragrance really have to be vigilant about reading labels to be sure that products are indeed fragrance-free."
Treatments: The only surefire way to be certain of a skin allergy is by patch testing, where a specific ingredient is applied to a small area of skin, and the dermatologist monitors the area to see whether or not a rash develops within 24 to 48 hours. Moisturizing the affected skin can help prevent further dryness and irritation.
Michelle is a freelance writer and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism student.
Published: May 17, 2011