Cosmetics allergy

Author: Vanessa Ngan, staff writer, 2012.

What are cosmetics?

Cosmetics are defined as topically applied products that are used to beautify, cleanse or protect the hair, skin, teeth or complexion. Countries around the world have in place regulatory standards that ensure these products are safe for the workers handling them, the environment, and for use by consumers.

RegionRegulatory standards
New Zealand Cosmetic Products Group Standard. Environmental Protection Authority (EPA)
Australia NICNAS Cosmetics Guidelines. National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS)
United States Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Europe Cosmetics Directive. European Commission Consumer Affairs

In essence, cosmetics should not contain any active drug ingredient that may affect the structure or function of the skin. However, the division of cosmetics and drugs is not always clear as there are many products available that have two intended uses, e.g. an antidandruff shampoo is a cosmetic because it is intended to cleanse the hair but it also contains a drug to treat the scalp and dandruff. Such products must comply with the requirements for both cosmetics and drugs.

Cosmetics can be broadly divided into the following groups.

Cosmetic groupExamples
Facial make-up Eye make-up, lipstick, blushes, foundation
Nail care Varnish, remover, artificial nails
Skin care Cleanser, moisturizer, toner
Hair care Shampoos, hair colour, dye, regrowth treatment
Oral care Toothpaste, mouth wash
Body cleansers Soap, bath additives, shower gel
Shaving Shaving foam/cream, aftershave
Fragrances Perfume, cologne
Deodorants Deodorant, antiperspirant
Sun protection Sunscreen agent

What is cosmetics allergy?

As you can see cosmetics play an important part in our daily life. It is estimated that on average women are using at least seven types of cosmetics each day, so it is not surprising that reactions to these products are quite common. Although the prevalence of cosmetic allergy in the general population is unknown, several studies suggest that up to 10% of the population will have some type of reaction to a cosmetic over the course of a lifetime. This figure may be much more as many mild reactions occurring at home are self-diagnosed and often self-treated.

An allergy to a cosmetic can produce a range of reactions.

Contact urticaria
  • local burning sensation, tingling, itching may occur within minutes to about 1 hour after contact with the skin
  • swelling and redness (wheal and flare) may be seen
  • rash usually resolves by itself within 24 hours of onset
  • difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, rash with swelling
  • rarely occurs but can be fatal
  • reports of death due to allergen in permanent hair dye
Irritant contact dermatitis
  • accounts for 80% of all cases of contact dermatitis
  • can occur in anyone but people with atopy are more prone to irritant dermatitis
  • usually begins as patches of itchy, scaly skin or red rash, but can develop into blisters that ooze
  • for strong irritants a reaction may occur within minutes or hours of exposure
  • for weaker irritants it may take days or weeks of continued exposure before symptoms appear
Allergic contact dermatitis
  • reaction only occurs when a person’s immune system is sensitized to the allergen (i.e. person is allergic to a specific ingredient)
  • a rash usually develops more than 12 hours after contact with the allergen and usually peaks about 48 hours after exposure
  • symptoms include redness, swelling, intense itching and hive-like breakouts
  • face, lips, eyes, ears and neck are the most common sites for cosmetic allergies
Photocontact dermatitis
  • rash is caused by the interaction of sunlight with an ingredient in the cosmetic

Some people may suffer from one or more reactions. In particular, atopic individuals are more prone to irritant contact dermatitis, which in turn increases their likelihood of allergic contact dermatitis as their skin barrier function is weakened and more sensitized to the allergen. It is possible for a cosmetic allergy to develop even after years of using a cosmetic without previous problems.

What are the allergens in cosmetics?

The range of cosmetics is vast so the pool of allergens is infinitely huge. The groups of allergens that appear to most frequently cause cosmetic allergy are fragrances, preservatives, and paraphenylenediamine (PPD) found in hair dyes.



PPD hair dye

Other allergens used in cosmetics that can cause cosmetics allergy include:

Am I allergic to cosmetics?

Cosmetics allergy is diagnosed by performing special allergy tests, i.e. patch tests. Diagnosis may involve testing against a number of different chemicals due to the many potential allergens that cosmetics are made up of, as well as the person's own cosmetics as is. See individual contact allergens for patch testing recommendations.

An open application test may also be recommended.

What is the treatment for cosmetics allergy?

Contact dermatitis should clear rapidly once the cosmetic allergen is removed. Over-the-counter creams and ointments containing mild topical steroids, such as hydrocortisone 0.5-2.5%, may be used to help control itching, swelling, and redness. In more severe cases, a prescription steroid cream may be required, as well as antibiotic medication if the skin becomes blistered and infected. Bland emollients such as cetomacrogol cream can be used to soothe and relieve dryness.

What should I do to avoid cosmetics allergy?

If you have a cosmetics allergy the best way to prevent any problem is by avoiding all products that contain the allergen you are sensitive to. Some steps you can take to reducing cosmetic allergy reactions include:

Your dermatologist may have further specific advice, particularly if you are highly sensitive to particular cosmetic allergens.

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