Does this sound familiar: You’re excited to try a new skincare product you’ve heard wonderful things about. It goes on beautifully and feels great—but then the next morning, a few days later, or even weeks later, your skin’s negative reaction to the skincare starts to show.
People can have varying negative skin reactions that range from red patches to swollen eyes, or a tight, dry feeling. You may even see bumps in the mirror that look like puberty has started all over again. The inevitable question is, what happened and what caused your skin to react this way to the new product?
What causes the skin to react to new products?
Sometimes, using a new product or a new mix of products can cause the skin to have a negative reaction — even if the products are well formulated. You may even wonder if you did something wrong, or if the product itself is faulty.
There are six primary reasons why skin reacts negatively to a new product, a new skincare routine, or even to products you've used for months or years:
1. The product(s) was poorly formulated
It possibly had harsh or proven-irritating ingredients that caused the negative reaction, disrupting the skin's microbiome. Ingredients we warn about such as alcohol (SD or denatured), fragrance (synthetic or natural), or numerous fragrant plant extracts show up in countless products. The reaction can happen immediately after you try a new product, or it can develop over time. Sometimes, when several fragranced products are used, the skin reaches a critical tipping point and reacts strongly. That’s one reason why using several products with “just a little” fragrance can overwhelm the skin.
2. An allergy to a specific ingredient or combination of ingredients
This has nothing to do with the quality of a cosmetic; rather, it’s a personal skincare reaction to an ingredient or a mix of ingredients. It's like being allergic to cats, a problem many people have, but it’s certainly not the fault of the cat and it doesn’t make cats bad.
3. Using the wrong product for your skin type
For example, using oil-absorbing products when you have dry, flaky skin can make your skin even drier and cause red, scaly patches. If you have oily skin, using thick, emollient or waxy products can cause the skin to develop more bumps and clogged pores.
4. Applying too many products with potent ingredients at the same time
When it comes to anti-aging products, some people think that if a little is good, then more must be better. So, they start using three types of exfoliants at the same time, followed by a face serum with a high percentage of vitamin C, and then a high-concentration retinol moisturizer followed by a skin brightening product.
Even for the most durable skin types, applying these products all at once is overkill. It’s not that they don’t all have a place in a skincare routine, but instead of applying them all at once, they can be alternated between your morning and evening skincare routines or applied on alternate days. And no one needs to use three exfoliants at the same time.
5. Using abrasive scrubs or stiff-bristled cleansing brushes
Abrasive scrubs can cause extremely negative reactions such as micro-cracks in the skin’s surface that chip away at its barrier, making the skin more vulnerable to anything else you put on it.
Some people just happen to have reactive and overly sensitive skin
This final reason is the most difficult to assess. For them, the more skincare products they use, the greater the risk of a reaction, especially if any new product they use contains even a small amount of problematic or bioactive ingredients.
How do you tell if a skincare product is irritating your skin?
Like any good detective, solving the mystery of why your skin has a reaction to a new product (or products) requires examining multiple possibilities to identify the most likely culprit. Taking the time to do this means you'll be less likely to go through a "my-skin's-gone-haywire" episode again.
1. Avoid problematic skincare ingredientsthat cause sensitivity
Sensitising ingredients can make oily skin and acne breakouts worse, especially for those with oily, break-out-prone skin. When these ingredients aggravate the skin’s surface, this can cause a chain reaction and make the skin worse. Using only well-formulated products in your skincare routine is essential.
2. Be certain the products are a good match for your skin type
Oil-absorbing or matte-finish ingredients will be a disaster on dry skin, while emollient, thick moisturizers will be a problem for someone with oily skin or combination skin with oily areas.
3. Be cautious of products with high concentrations of good skincare ingredients
Generally, ingredients like niacinamide, retinol, vitamin C, BHA (salicylic acid), or AHA (glycolic or lactic acid) are brilliant for the skin. However, it can be different for those with sensitive skin. You want to start by adding these products to your skincare routine in lower concentrations and alternate the days you use them. If all goes well for a period of weeks, then you can test a higher strength of each ingredient, but only introduce one new product at a time.
4. Sunscreens can be suspect if they contain synthetic sunscreen ingredients
This doesn’t make synthetic sunscreen ingredients bad, but they can be more sensitising. The best option, in this case, would be to use a sunscreen for the face that only lists titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide as active ingredients.
5. Even basic, good skincare products can trigger negative reactions for some people
When you introduce a new product(s) into your existing skincare routine, skin reactions may occur for some people regardless of the formulation. If the reaction is mild, stop using one of the products and see what happens. If that doesn't help, stop using another one of the new products and see what happens after a day or two. If that doesn't resolve the problem, then go back to the previous routine that didn't cause your skin to react.
Unfortunately, when you reach this point, the cycle of finding new products that don't result in a skin reaction begins again—unless you want to keep using your former products, assuming they're well formulated. It helps to keep a notebook to jot down which products your skin reacted to so you spot common denominator ingredients that may be causing it.
What isn't causing your skin reaction?
Some people think silicone ingredients (examples would be cyclopentasiloxane or dimethicone) in skincare products can cause negative reactions but it isn’t true. In fact, just the opposite is true: Silicones are a group of uniquely gentle ingredients that form a permeable shield, soothe skin, and provide exceptional moisturizing properties.
Lots of people also think synthetic or manufactured cosmetic ingredients are bad for the skin but that isn’t the case. There are good and bad natural and synthetic ingredients. Moreover, an ingredient being natural doesn’t automatically make it better, safer, or gentler for the skin.
What to do if you have a reaction to a skincare product?
Having a negative reaction to a new skincare product doesn't mean the product is badly formulated. Of course, there are badly formulated skincare products that can cause all sorts of reactions, but more often than not, the bumps, redness, and other symptoms are due to a personal reaction to an ingredient or a combination of ingredients.
Remember to think like a detective so you can—as quickly as possible—determine what’s causing the reaction. This is tricky because it's not always as easy as pointing the finger at the new product you just started using on your skin. It might be the product itself or it might be how it interacts with the other products you already use—especially if they contain common sensitisers like fragrance.
Think of how adding one ingredient to a recipe can completely change its taste. Similarly, adding a new product to an existing skincare routine may cause trouble (or be very helpful) for your skin.
Regrettably, the answer isn’t easy because reactions to skincare products have a broad range of causes. Thankfully, there are solutions, too; it just takes some detective work to figure it out.
How to make skincare reactions go away?
Knowing the cause of your negative reaction will go a long way in helping your skin calm back down – after all, removing the cause of the irritation means the irritation stops.
Avoid potent active ingredients (such as high percentage exfoliants and retinoids) while your skin is re-regulating itself. It’s also a good idea to use the gentlest products possible in all steps of your skincare routine. Seeking out known soothing ingredients such as liquorice extract, bisabolol, allantoin, and willow bark can also help your skin get back to normal more quickly.
How long does it take for your skin to get used to a product?
Most well-formulated skincare products shouldn’t cause a reaction at all, meaning that if you have selected one that is gentle and fragrance-free, there should be no time needed for your skin to acclimate to it.
It is true that ingredients such as retinol can take some time to get used to, so if you haven’t used that ingredient before, start slowly – say, once a week – then gradually build up your skin’s tolerance. Starting out any active ingredient with a higher percentage or in greater frequency is generally not recommended – it’s all about making sure you give your skin a chance to get used to it. Once a certain frequency or strength is working well for you, experiment with increasing it – but, if that causes a reaction, reduce it back to where you started for best results.
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References for this information
International Journal of Cosmetic Science, April 2016, issue 2, pages 120-127
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, November 2010, issue 5, pages 789-798
Clinical Dermatology, May-June 2011, issue 3, pages 311-315
British Journal of Dermatology, August 2008, issue 2, pages 267-273
Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, July 2008, issue 4, pages 191-120