Itchiness, redness, rashes. Irritation, burning, stinging. These symptoms may seem similar, and reactions to beauty products are not uncommon—so how can you tell if you’re dealing with allergic or sensitive skin?
With any allergic reaction, the immune system is always involved. Think of it as your built-in bodyguard: your immune system’s job is to protect against foreign substances and disease, and it does this in several ways, including triggering inflammation.
But for some, their immune system can be a little overzealous, getting defensive even when not necessary. Simply put, an allergic reaction is an abnormal immune response, and it can be triggered by even benign things (such as dust, a frequent cause of respiratory allergies).
When it comes to skin allergies, the most prevalent ones include allergic contact dermatitis (a type of eczema). It can cause itchiness, redness, swelling, bumps/blisters and other symptoms. Common culprits include exposure to metals (e.g. nickel jewelry), and dyes, perfumes and preservatives in cosmetics, according to the Canadian Dermatology Association. And you might not see skin redness right away—the inflammation can show up even 48 hours after contact with the allergen.
Interestingly, sometimes an allergen won’t cause a skin reaction unless it’s “activated” by sun exposure. The Canadian Dermatology Association points out that this condition—called photoallergic contact dermatitis—can happen with shaving lotion, sunscreen and some perfumes. Since allergies aren’t curable, it’s best to avoid known triggers—an allergist can pinpoint them with a patch test.
Skin that isn’t allergic but just sensitive is more mysterious. This is partly because sensitive skin can’t be confirmed with an objective screening test—it’s a self-diagnosed condition. But tons of people think they have it: in one U.K. study, more than 51 percent of the women, and 38 percent of the men, believed they had sensitive skin.
Sensitive or reactive types describe feeling irritation, burning or stinging after applying cosmetics. And while doctors may consider the symptoms subjective, they’re no less real for those experiencing them. In these cases, I advise sticking to formulas specifically designed for, and tested upon, the extra-sensitive; they’re oftentimes free of preservatives, fragrance and colourants.
Sensitivity is linked to a weakened skin barrier, so it’s key to avoid over-drying cleansers and to regularly moisturize. Also, be cautious and gradual when introducing anything new, particularly if the product has highly potent actives (such as retinol): limit usage to every other day, for instance, until you’re sure it can be well tolerated.