Skin Allergies: Causes, Reactions, and How to Avoid Allergens
Skin allergies—like all allergies—are on the rise. Allergic reactions on the skin can range from mildly annoying to potentially deadly, so it's essential to know how to recognize, treat, and avoid them as much as possible.
This guide will describe skin allergies, the common categories they fall into, and what may cause them. We'll also dive into ways to treat and prevent skin allergies, recommend a few of our favorite products, and provide resources.
As always, your physician is the best resource for your healthcare. None of the below information is intended to diagnose or treat ailments or provide official medical advice.
What Are Skin Allergies?
Skin allergies occur when the skin encounters something that makes a person's immune system overreact. People can be allergic to anything—even items necessary for life, like water. While "skin allergies" is the easiest term to use, it's an umbrella covering various specific allergic issues, including (but not limited to) dermatitis and hives.
While experts generally agree that allergic reactions occur when a person's immune system perceives a threat and kicks into high gear to fight it, scientists are still working to understand how the body "decides" what to react to and how to react.
For instance, according to the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, "Poison ivy is a commonly known trigger for allergic contact dermatitis, an itchy skin rash. But many ingredients found in nonprescription topical products can trigger a similar type of rash."
Why could poison ivy cause the same reaction as, say, a face wash? And why are some people not allergic to poison ivy at all? Every time scientists find an answer about allergies, they discover a wealth of new questions as well.
Symptoms of Allergic Skin Reactions
Allergic skin reactions can range from minor annoyances to major health emergencies based on the severity of the allergy, how long a person was in contact with the allergen, comorbid health conditions, and many other factors.
In general, skin allergic reactions are itchy or painful rashes. You may also experience swelling, scaly or flaky skin, and raised bumps. With a skin allergy, you might only experience one symptom or a combination of them.
It's worth noting your skin can react to allergens even when they didn't touch the skin. For instance, if you eat something and break out in hives, you're likely allergic to that food. Though we're focusing on skin care and cosmetic products that come into contact with your skin, it's important to keep in mind that skin reactions don't only happen with skin allergens!
Anaphylaxis is possible but rare with skin allergies. With anaphylaxis, your immune system overreacts more than usual, and you may end up with difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, vomiting, and more. When it comes to skin, this is most common if you have a latex or insect sting allergy, and many cosmetics contain latex. Anaphylactic reactions require immediate medical attention.
Allergies should always be taken seriously. What is "just itching" today could be infected cracks or even anaphylaxis tomorrow. On the flipside, allergies can also get better over time or even go away entirely. Unfortunately, new ones may also develop.
All in all, skin allergies are still a bit of a mystery to the medical community. The key is always to take an allergy or potential allergy seriously and seek medical attention when you suspect an allergic reaction. If it's not an emergency, take photos of your skin reaction with an item for scale, such as a coin, so your doctor can get an idea of what happened if it has healed by the time you get an appointment.
Allergens vs. Irritants
Unfortunately, the differences between allergens and irritants can be confusing.
Like allergic reactions, irritation often involves a rash, itching, cracked skin, and other related symptoms. In fact, due to how similar the symptoms are, contact dermatitis can describe both skin allergic reactions and irritation.
However, the causes are different.
While irritation isn't the same as a true allergy, it's essential to identify the cause and take steps to prevent it. You can usually tell the difference between irritated skin and allergic skin reactions via the severity of the reaction and if it becomes worse over time.
While irritation can be painful and itchy, it shouldn't be debilitating. If the reaction appears suddenly after many uses of the same product, it may be an allergy. This is because the skin often needs to be exposed to an allergen several times before reacting.
Note: Everyone's body behaves differently. What may appear to be irritation could be an allergic reaction and vice versa. Irritations can later become allergies, too. Always seek medical attention if you have questions.
Are Skin Allergies Common?
According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, "The rising prevalence of allergies can substantially impact the skin, which is one of the largest targets for allergic and immunologic responses." Further, allergies as a whole are the sixth leading cause of chronic illnesses in the United States.
The Journal surveyed adults ages 18 to 74 living across the U.S. and discovered 41.7% of them report having allergies. Of those, 41.4% report skin allergies, and 47.7% say their allergies involve skin reactions. An estimated 100 million adults in the U.S. have allergies—this means over 41,000,000 have skin allergies and nearly 48,000,000 experience skin reactions.
But adults aren't the most impacted. Skin allergic reactions are most common among children ages zero to four, and as of 2018, 9.2 million children under 18 in the U.S. had skin allergies.
As mentioned earlier, scientists aren't precisely sure how people's bodies determine when and how to react to allergens. For instance, while latex allergies are common, some people can touch latex without risk but react if they breathe in its fibers or vice versa. So why would your lungs react, but not your skin? Science is still working on an answer.
If a parent has allergies, their children are more likely to have allergies; however, they aren't likely to be allergic to the same things. Additionally, parents having allergies doesn't guarantee a child will, and parents not having allergies doesn't guarantee a child won't.
What is certain is it's rare for a person to be allergic to only one thing. So, if you start to notice skin (or any other) allergies appearing, visiting an allergist to determine all allergens may be wise.
Types of Common Skin Allergic Reactions
Skin allergic reactions look different for everyone, which means there's no all-inclusive list of allergic reactions. However, nearly all skin allergic reactions involve a rash or swelling.
While skin allergies can often improve using antihistamines and anti-itch creams, it's essential to always speak to your doctor for a diagnosis before undergoing treatment or assuming something is a minor allergic reaction. For instance, psoriasis can look like an allergic reaction, but it's actually an autoimmune disorder requiring specific treatment.
That said, here are four of the more common types of skin allergic reactions.
Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis)
While doctors used to believe that eczema was universally an allergic reaction, as research has progressed, they've discovered that most types of eczema are not allergies. Instead, eczema is generally an independent medical condition affecting the outer layer of your skin.
However, allergens can trigger eczema. In fact, the vast majority of kids with eczema later end up with asthma or hay fever. Signs of eczema are different for everyone, but the most common type (atopic dermatitis) includes:
If eczema goes untreated for too long, your skin can become dark, thick, and scarred from scratching, or you could develop dangerous infections.
There are several types of urticaria, more commonly called "hives." While allergens aren't the only causes, they're often the culprits.
The key to determining if a rash is hives or something else has to do with how fast it appears. No matter how long the hives remain—and an outbreak can last weeks, depending on the type and cause—the reaction needs to have appeared suddenly. Beyond that, hives can look a lot like other rashes: raised, itchy bumps, the centers of which turn white when pressed.
If you develop hives but no other symptoms (e.g., difficulty breathing), make a note of what you were doing as the rash appeared. This sleuthing can help you discover if you're reacting to a chemical, allergen, irritant, or even a stressful situation.
Angioedema is skin swelling, often concurrent with hives. While angioedema is often associated with allergic reactions, it can also happen with no known cause or result from a rare hereditary condition.
Any swelling of unknown origin should be taken seriously. Angioedema swelling usually occurs in large, firm welts that are warm to the touch and may be red or painful.
Contact dermatitis can be the result of direct physical contact with allergens or irritants. The primary difference between allergic and irritant contact dermatitis is the speed of onset. Allergic contact dermatitis usually takes a while to appear (e.g., several instances of wearing a ring containing nickel). In contrast, irritant contact dermatitis typically occurs immediately after handling a substance.
Whether dealing with allergic or irritant contact dermatitis, you'll end up with a rash. That rash could include one or all of the following skin symptoms:
Common Causes of Skin Allergies
Anything can cause an allergic reaction, but some things are way more likely to cause skin allergies than others. When thinking of skin allergies, your mind may immediately go to poison ivy, sumac, or oak, dust mites, pet dander, mold, and other indoor and outdoor allergens we accidentally encounter regularly.
However, there are also many ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products that can cause allergic reactions. These include (but aren't limited to):
If you find you have reactions after using specific treatments or products, stop using them and bring the container (or a photo of its ingredients) to your doctor so you can work together to pinpoint your allergens.
Additionally, you may find you have allergic reactions to different types of jewelry and cloth. So, be mindful of your entire beauty regimen, not just your cosmetics!
How to Treat Skin Allergies
Many skin allergies can be treated at home without a doctor's intervention. However, speaking to a doctor before beginning any treatment regimen can help ensure you're making the safest possible choices.
Doctors may recommend allergy shots to build up immune resistance or prescription interventions. Or they could determine your reactions don't require that level of treatment and suggest some self-treatment alternatives.
You can also try these at-home options for treating skin allergies if you know you're not in immediate danger (i.e., you're breathing easily and not in debilitating pain) and are awaiting a doctor's visit. Remember, not every treatment works for everyone, and anything can be an allergen, so stay vigilant!
How to Prevent Skin Allergies
As the cliché goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While skin allergy prevention may take a lot of time and work upfront, it can save a great deal of worry, pain, time, and money on doctor's bills later. We can't control everything we come into contact with, but we can control many of the cosmetics and personal care products we use. Here's how.
Even if you don't currently have skin allergies, reading labels for common allergens can help prevent allergies from arising and keep sensitive skin safe. Watch out for anything containing formaldehyde, parabens, latex/natural rubber, metals, and fragrances.
Learn About Toxins
Toxic cosmetics contain dangerous products, whether intentionally or otherwise, many of which can lead to skin allergies and reactions. Labels may or may not list these toxins, but some cosmetics are more likely to contain unlisted toxins than others. Knowing what to buy can help prevent reactions.
Read Product Reviews
Before purchasing a product, even one that seems allergen-free at first glance, read product reviews to see if what the product claims and what people experience or have discovered are the same. You may find a common thread of reactions to a product that can alert you to potential issues.
Several online databases can help you research a product before you try it on your skin. For example, Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database lets you search by product name, then gives you detailed information and rankings on ingredient safety. Along with overall allergy risk, EWG provides ingredient-by-ingredient explanations of toxicity and allergy concerns.
Replace and Rotate
As you become more familiar with allergens in your hair and skin care products, start to replace your current products with safer options. Also, consider rotating them often, so you don't begin to develop sensitivities to any one item.
Try a Patch
If you have sensitive skin, set up your own patch test by applying a small amount of any new product to the inside of your arm a couple of times a day for two days. If you have no rash, redness, or other reaction after 24-48 hours, then you should be okay to apply it to your face and body.
Keep Things Clean
Keep the area where you store your cosmetics clean so nothing gets cross-contaminated with allergens. Similarly, keep your makeup brushes and applicators clean and throw away old cosmetics regularly.
Switch to Natural Deodorants
Traditional deodorants and antiperspirants often have aluminum compounds, which can cause redness, peeling, and itching if you're allergic to them. Aluminum-free natural deodorants can help you stay fresh without irritating metals.
The FDA does not require companies to detail specific fragrance ingredients—they can simply list "Fragrance" on the label. This means that any number (even hundreds!) of natural and chemical synthetic ingredients may make up a product's unique smell, and there's no way of knowing what's in it. While you could try different "fragrances" to see which ones cause reactions and which don't, it's not worth the risk! Instead, opt for fragrance-free options or products that use single-ingredient scents.
Aim for Water-Based Moisturizers
Emollients, which can include popular products like coconut butter to more mysteriously named ones like myristyl lactate, make your skin feel soft—but they also are more likely to cause allergic reactions (or at least breakouts) than water is.
Organic and natural products often contain fewer toxins, particularly sulfates—major culprits of allergic reactions. However, natural or organic products can still be allergenic.
Lose the Essential Oils if You're Sensitive
They may be natural, but so is pollen—and just as some people react to pollen, some people react badly to essential oils. If you're reacting to something containing an essential oil, switch to a version that doesn't contain that particular oil and see if it causes any reactions.
Get an Allergy Test
If you do all this and still have allergic reactions, go to the doctor and ask for an allergy skin test. Since you're probably looking for just a few ingredients, a doctor may prescribe a patch test, which focuses specifically on contact dermatitis causes. However, if you have many allergies or severe allergic reactions, they may opt for skin prick or injection tests.
Ease Off the Cosmetics
There's nothing wrong with loving makeup and hair products, but for your skin's sake, consider using less. If you're making a quick run to the store, for instance, perhaps you can go makeup-free! No matter what, be sure to remove makeup at the end of the day. Also, avoid spraying fragrances directly onto your skin and apply them to your clothing instead to avoid skin contact.
Use This, Not That: Substitutes for Commonly Allergenic Ingredients
For nearly every toxin or ingredient you're allergic to in cosmetics and personal care products, there is at least one healthier alternative ingredient that may be less likely to give you skin trouble. Here are just a few commonly used swaps.
Aluminum Magnesium Oil
Aluminum is frequently used in deodorants to reduce sweat, but it's also a common cause of underarm allergic skin reactions. Products with magnesium oil, or just the oil itself, can be very effective as deodorants and antiperspirants.
Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) Grapefruit Seed Extract, Essential Oils, Vitamin E
Like parabens, MIT is used as a preservative to prevent microbial and bacterial growth in beauty products. However, this neurotoxin is responsible for allergic reactions. Natural preservatives are generally much less allergenic and healthier for the body.
Petroleum-Derived Colorants Plant-Derived Dyes and Mineral Pigments
Artificial colors, which may also contain coal tar and heavy metals, can lead to allergic reactions and skin irritation. Avoid "FD&C" or "D&C" followed by a number on product labels. Plant-based dyes, like beet coloring, provide rich color without the risk of serious allergic reactions.
Petroleum Jelly/Petrolatum Unrefined Coconut Oil, Jojoba Oil, Cocoa Butter, Shea Butter
While petroleum jelly may cause skin allergy issues for a good number of people, it's also a widely recommended treatment for eczema. Fortunately, a variety of alternative ingredients can provide healthier moisturizing and protective properties.
Propylene Glycol Propanediol, Vegetable Glycerin
This moisturizer is common in many personal care products and is also used in anti-freeze and paint. For those who are allergic, it can lead to allergic contact dermatitis, including itching, redness, and swelling. Natural emollients and moisturizers provide much healthier and less irritating options.
Sodium Laurel/Laureth Sulfate Castile Soap, Soapwort, or Decyl/Coco Glucoside
These foaming agents are harsh cleaning ingredients that strip natural oils from the skin and cause irritation and allergic reactions. Natural and organic soaps and shampoos often have sulfate-free versions that are gentler on the skin and hair.
Synthetic Sunscreen Zinc Oxide
Chemical sunscreen ingredients—like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone—can lead to hormonal disruption and are linked to skin allergies. Zinc oxide acts as a barrier to reflect harmful UVA/UVB rays.
The real challenge is that nothing is one-size-fits-all. Switching and swapping products until you find the right ones for you involves a lot of trial and error. If your allergies are severe, getting an allergist involved can help fast-track the process.
Best Products for People With Skin Allergies
When you start shopping for safe cosmetic products, there are a few words to look for right off the bat that indicate products may have fewer allergy-causing ingredients:
While not all safe products will have those words on the packaging, and not all products with the words are safe for you and your unique body, knowing these phrases lets you scan shelves a bit more easily. Before purchasing, read the entire ingredient label to ensure it doesn't contain any of your allergens.
Here are a few products that score a "low hazard" rating and have no or low allergy concerns, according to EWG.
Aveeno created this body wash specifically for itchy and dry skin. This dermatologist-recommended product contains no fragrances, dyes, or soaps, but it does have eczema-soothing oatmeal. Amazon reviewer BLS titled their five-star review, "OMG, MY ECZEMA IS GONE!"
Cetaphil sells a variety of products created specifically for sensitive skin, including this restoring lotion that improves elasticity. As the #1 doctor recommended brand for sensitive skincare, it's worth checking out. "I love this lotion," mentions a satisfied customer. "It moisturizes and soothes skin. It is unscented, so it doesn't irritate sensitive skin."
Formulated with colloidal oatmeal, this fragrance-free and dye-free formula (also without parabens, steroids, and phthalates!) soothes skin and restores the moisture barrier. It's approved by the National Eczema Association and 97% of parents who use it for their babies. A reviewer writes, "This really helps with my daughter's eczema overnight by easing the itch and making the patches way less noticeable. We use this after EVERY bath!"
Many hair styling products contain chemical irritants that can lead to allergic reactions. Free & Clear (from sensitive skin care company, Vanicream) is free of fragrances, dyes, formaldehyde, parabens, and lanolin. "Since I started using it no more acne and contact dermatitis like I would get from other hair gels on the market. This has been the only product that works for me. It has been a life saver and liquid gold!" says Free & Clear user, Hazel.
This fragrance-free cleanser removes makeup and moisturizes without many of the harsh chemicals and allergens in other products. "It is a very gentle, hydrating cleanser that is perfect for my dry, sensitive skin," says a reviewer. "I absolutely love that it is fragrance-free because I can only use fragrance-free products on my skin."
Free of aluminum, baking soda, parabens, and other allergens, this fragrance-free natural deodorant not only fights body odor all day long but is much gentler on the skin than traditional deodorants. A happy customer writes, "I have extremely sensitive skin and have tried many different types of natural deodorant/antiperspirants. Either they didn't block the odor or I'd still have an allergic reaction. But this has worked wonderful and the stick lasts a long time."
This fragrance-free lotion is perfect for all ages for head-to-toe moisturizing. Fast-absorbing and hypoallergenic, it's also free of many common allergens and irritants, including dyes, silicones, and parabens. An allergy-prone reviewer explains, "I love it and have gifted it to both my Mom and Aunt. Unfortunately I cannot have any scent (I break out in hives) so I go with the Purely Sensitive which works great and does not give me hives."
Formulated for babies but effective for all ages, this gentle preservative-free shampoo and body wash is ideal for eczema, dry skin, cradle cap, and other sensitive skin conditions. "I recently found out that I'm allergic to fragrance," writes one customer. "I had to change all my products I use daily to fragrance-free. This shampoo lathers very well and has absolutely no smell whatsoever!"
Resources to Learn More About Skin Allergies
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI)
This organization is for allergists and immunologists, and it strives to further our understanding of their fields. You don't need to be a member or a medical professional to access many of their resources, including information about skin allergies.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA)
This is a one-stop-shop for people hoping to learn about allergies and asthma. If you have a question about skin allergies or any other relevant topic, chances are the answer is on here!
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
As a Breast Cancer Prevention Partners project, the Campaign works to educate consumers on toxic chemicals in cosmetics and advocate for change. Their page on allergens and irritants provides a wealth of evidence-based information on common cosmetic culprits.
Run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus covers everything from what symptoms to look for and links to in-depth information to finding medical professionals.
National Eczema Association Product Directory
This directory lists more than 250 products that have received the NEA's Seal of Acceptance for treating eczema. Detailed product information and ingredient lists enable you to choose products that will work for you.
Top 20 Eczema Blogs and Websites
This list, compiled by Feedspot, can let you look through a variety of bloggers without having to dig. Choose your favorites to follow and learn along with them.
Toxic Cosmetics: Ingredients and Contaminants to Avoid in 2021
Our article doesn't strictly focus on skin allergies, but it can give you an idea of what ingredients to worry about when choosing your cosmetics. Many of these same ingredients cause allergic reactions in users.
Test Your Skin Allergy Knowledge
Ready to put your skin allergens know-how to the test? Take our quiz to see if you’re ready to protect your skin!
1. Suppose you're allergic to any type of fragrance and are searching for a product that won't irritate your skin. What ingredient in the below label could be problematic?
Ingredients: Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Glycerin, Cetearyl Alcohol, Safflower Seed Oil, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Shea Butter, Benzyl Cinnamate, Verniciflua Peel Wax, Ethyl Macadamiate, Caprylyl Glycol, Panthenol, Microcrystalline Cellulose, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Potassium Sorbate, Malic Acid.
2. Which of the following ingredients is a less allergenic (and healthier!) replacement for the preservative, methylisothiazolinone (MIT)?
b) Grapefruit seed extract
c) Vegetable glycerin
d) Zinc oxide
b. Grapefruit seed extract is a natural preservative that can take the place of harsh chemical preservatives in cosmetics.
3. Is a product that’s labeled “Organic” guaranteed to be free of allergens that can cause allergic skin reactions?
No! People can be allergic to anything, even natural ingredients. However, natural and organic products tend to have fewer of the harmful chemicals that can lead to issues.
4. If you’re experiencing what appears to be an allergic reaction on your skin, which of the following steps should you take?
b) Reapply the product in another spot to test
d) a & c
d. Bathing and moisturizing with a “safe” product can help rid your skin of allergens and protect it from further irritation.
5. Which common deodorant ingredient can lead to underarm allergic skin reactions?
Aluminum compounds in deodorant act as potent antiperspirants, but they can also cause uncomfortable redness, peeling, and itching if you're allergic.
6. Hives can be a reaction to an irritant or an allergen. How can you tell if your hives are an allergic skin reaction?
You can tell hives are the result of contact with an allergen when they appear suddenly.