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An Allergist & Immunologist Shares 3 Habits That Can Secretly Irritate Your Skin

woman looking in mirror applying skincare
Image by mapodile / iStock
September 29, 2022
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Every beauty professional has their nonnegotiable steps. In our series, Like a Pro, we tap experts for the top three techniques they absolutely swear by. Here, you'll hear from a variety of industry insiders on the fail-safe tricks they always keep in their back pockets. We're all about simplifying your beauty regimen wherever you can, and sometimes the best routines are as easy as 1, 2, 3.
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According to recent surveys, 60 to 70% of women identify as having sensitive skin1—and yet searching for products that won't set your skin aflame often feels like an uphill battle. Ever slathered on the most gentle and nourishing formula you can find only to have an angry reaction days later? You're not alone. In fact, board-certified allergist and immunologist Anjuli Mehrotra, M.D., saw so many patients with aggravated, itchy skin, even after using fragrance-free, hypoallergenic formulas—she discovered that many of these folks were actually affected by "invisible culprits" oft overlooked in the skin care space.

Now, Mehrotra has made it her mission to shed light on these hidden reactors and introduce a new line of sans-allergenic products, called Evme. Ahead, find her must-have tips when shopping for sensitive skin care:

1.

Don't take marketing claims at face value. 

"My best tip for people who have sensitive skin is to read the label on each product," says Mehrotra. "Don't take marketing claims at face value and always evaluate the ingredients in your products." For example, let's look at the term hypoallergenic: At present, there are no set definition or regulation of the term, so irritating ingredients can still sneak their way into these formulas. In fact, "Up to 90% of personal care products labeled as 'hypoallergenic' still have major allergens!" Mehrotra declares. "Many of these formulas still contain essential oils and other potential hidden fragrances, which can be very reactive." 

On that note, you'll want to take a closer look at products labeled "fragrance-free" too since formulas may weave in natural aromas that agitate hypersensitive skin. We repeat: Look beyond the marketing claims.

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2.

"All-natural" doesn't always mean "safer."  

It's a concept we've discussed time and again at mbg: "Synthetic" is not a dirty word. Yes, we do tend to stay away from certain synthetics in the clean beauty space, due to some skin and environmental concerns. But some all-natural ingredients carry those same concerns, too.

"It's a misnomer that reactors are only synthetic in nature," says Mehrotra. "I always tell my patients that using 'natural' products does not protect you from reactions." For instance, she says lanolin (derived from sheep's wool) and propolis (aka beeswax) are known possible reactors but very popular in natural-leaning skin care formulas. Nothing against lanolin or beeswax—both are effective occlusives that help lock in moisture—but it just goes to show that potential allergens run the gamut (even in 100% natural products), so if you have sensitive skin, it's important to be as discerning as you can.

3.

Patch test longer than you think. 

If you have sensitive skin, chances are you know your way around a patch test. For those unfamiliar, patch testing is essentially testing a new skin care product on a small patch of skin (get it?) before slathering the confection on your entire face and risking a reaction.

Now, some people can get away with patch testing on the inside of their wrist or on the skin behind their ear—if you don't face a reaction there, it's a safe bet for your face, right? Wrong. Especially for those with sensitive skin, patch testing requires a bit more time and effort. "The biggest mistake people make with home patch testing is not waiting long enough to see if there is a reaction," says Mehrotra. "Contact dermatitis, aka topical skin allergies, tends to cause reactions in a delayed fashion, with a reaction starting any time from the time of exposure up to a few days later." 

So to patch test at home, she recommends applying a dime-sized amount of product right on your jawline for two to three days. Each morning, assess the spot for any bumps, redness, irritation, or rash. "If you are all clear by day four or five, you can proceed with trying the product on your face," Mehrotra says. That may sound like a bigger time commitment, but tending to inflamed, reactive skin is a much bigger lift, don't you think?  

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The takeaway. 

Skin sensitivity is a spectrum—some people even react to common, bland ingredients, so it's important to understand your personal triggers. (Mehrotra features some more educational materials and videos on the Evme site, so feel free to check out her advice there.) Even products labeled “hypoallergenic” or “fragrance-free” can still contain irritants, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from adding new products to your routine. “It can be scary to try new products when you have sensitive skin,” Mehrotra notes. “But you can find products that will work with your skin after doing a little bit of homework and testing.”

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