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Ever get itchy lobes from a pair of earrings or a rash from new jeans? How about a burning feeling from your usual (and favorite) eye shadow? Yes, you can be allergic to beauty products, clothes and accessories. I’m a beauty editor, not a dermatologist, so I teamed up with Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Don’t panic. These 10 tips can help prevent and treat skin scares.
1. Where is it? “Location, location, location. It’s the starting point for figuring out the cause of any itchiness, redness or rash,” Zeichner says. Immediate DIY treatments include “applying nonprescription 1 percent hydrocortisone ointment to the affected area twice a day (but not on eyes), taking an over-the-counter antihistamine if you’re itchy and applying a bland moisturizer that includes petroleum jelly to the ashy, inflamed area,” he adds. Of course, if symptoms continue or worsen, see your dermatologist ASAP.
2. It may not be your laundry detergent or fabric softener. That’s our first thought, right? Zeichner says that “fragrances in products, dyes, metals like nickel — found in jeans buttons, costume jewelry, and bra hardware and underwires — are the usual suspects.” Have a biker-short rash from control garments? “It may be spandex or other rubbery fibers causing your discomfort,” he says. Again, pop an antihistamine and take the item off! And those earrings? Upgrade to sterling silver or 14 karat gold. And know that eyeglass frames may also contain nickel, should your irritation be where the metal part of the frame touches your skin.
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3. Reactions to eye makeup can develop over time. We all know there is a three-month limit for keeping mascara, but that’s not where it ends. The itchy, inflamed skin of allergic contact dermatitis can evolve from eye shadows, pencils, eye creams, under-eye concealer or even eyelash extensions. It’s your body’s signal to back off, even if you’ve used the same brand and shadow palette for years. Cleanse and rinse your eyes thoroughly with cool water and apply cool, wet compresses for 15 to 30 minutes. If there's any redness, tearing, swelling, discharge or sensitivity to light, it’s time to head to the doctor.
4. Never trust in-store makeup or skin care testers that have been cleaned. Shocking, but the reality is that the store staff doesn't sanitize all the testers after every use. Lipsticks, glosses, creams, concealers and foundation are all germ traps and harbor bacteria, thanks to their soft, emollient environment. Always ask store personnel to sanitize and wipe down with rubbing alcohol any product you want to try. Even dry items such as eye shadows and powder bronzer or blush should be thoroughly tissued down. Eye pencils should be freshly sharpened or clipped to a new point if retractable. Assume that all testers are not clean, even after all that, and try products on your hands, palms and finger pads — not your face. In-store makeup applications? Be wary: Is that makeup brush sanitized and clean? How about the makeup?
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5. Safety first applies to nail polish. It may be tricky to diagnose right away, but if you are wearing nail polish with dibutyl phthalate (DBP) formaldehyde resin (a nail hardener that can cause contact dermatitis) and camphor (cause of skin reactions), you might not suspect this as a source. Touching your eyes or face with polished nails can cause a stinging, burning, swelling reaction, even blisters. There's a scale of nontoxic polishes that range from 3-free to 10-free, meaning that the brand is free of X number of the worst chemicals found in nail polish. The common salon brand Essie and new brands such as Smith & Cult or Butter London, Zoya and TenOverTen are safe bets. Do your skin a favor and skip the long-wear gels and acrylics, too.
6. Keep your eye on the labels of your usual beauty products. “A cosmetic company may change the ingredients of products you have been using for years without your knowledge,” Zeichner says. They can sneak in a potential irritant. If a product has an SPF added and you are sensitive to chemical sunscreens, this is not a bonus! Stop using the item, and no second chances. Facial rashes that start as an uncomfortable itchiness can progress to redness, an angry rash or hives. If you’re wearing makeup, you might not notice the irritations until you remove your foundation. And don’t ignore scalp sensitivity. “The same ingredients you react to negatively in skin care may also cause be found in shampoos and conditioners, causing scalp itchiness or irritation,” he adds.
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7. Watch out for over-dyed jeans and dangerous clothes. “Those inky dark washes may contain problematic dyes — one called disperse dye blue 106 has been a problem,” Zeichner says. This pigment is used in inky, dark blue jeans, and also black. If you’re sensitive to hair dye, this closely related ingredient might be an issue for you as well. Opt for lighter to medium blue washes, beige or white instead. Also, be aware that any rivets or zippers or buttons that come into contact with your skin may contain nickel. Wearing a long tank top or bodysuit as a layering piece can solve this. Leggings make your thighs itch? It’s likely dead dry skin cells on the surface — use a rich body moisturizer with shea butter or hyaluronic acid, and launder more frequently.
8. Green organic is not any safer than regular. “It’s a myth that natural products are any safer than traditional chemical beauty products,” Zeichner says. “After all, poison ivy is natural! Stick to fragrance-free products if you suspect sensitivity. All products contain preservatives to extend shelf life and protect them from contamination by microorganisms. If you have a known allergy to parabens (a preservative), simply choose a product labeled nonparaben … but know it will contain other preservatives.” And that goes for vegan, nontoxic, cruelty-free labels on products that grab your heart and wallet. Even “natural” deodorants can cause irritation.
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9. Trust your body. While your immediate instinct is to replace your usual beauty products, from hair to makeup, with those labeled for “sensitive skin,” it’s not a 100 percent guarantee. And just because a product is labeled “dermatologist tested” or “hypoallergenic,” it doesn’t necessarily mean a home run either. Expensive niche oils and serums are not any better than or safer than inexpensive ones. “Botanical oils are often a good solution for mature skins with sensitivity issues,” Zeichner notes. Try before you buy when possible with a prepackaged sample.
10. Know your triggers. Most women — more than 50 percent — consider their skin “sensitive.” “Those with preexisting skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema or psoriasis need to be particularly careful,” Zeichner says. Age 50-plus women do have another layer of concerns. We experience thinner, more reactive skin, thanks to menopause and a breakdown in the skin’s outer barrier, not to mention that many of us have a desire to keep trying new products in search of better solutions.
Last word: Summer is coming, so be aware of rashes where sweaty skin rubs against sweaty skin, like your inner thighs, under the fold of your breasts or your armpits. Stay cool by reducing friction in those areas, with loose clothing in breathable natural fabrics.
For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Woman's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50 by Lois Joy Johnson.