Up to 24% of Americans experience an allergic skin reaction at some point, many of which are caused by beauty and skin care products. In fact, there are more than 3,700 substances that are known to be contact allergens, many of which are found in cosmetic products. Most commonly, acne and anti-aging products have the potential to cause a reaction due to their potent ingredients, but it’s possible for some people to build up a tolerance to products in order to get the benefits of them.

Common ingredients that trigger skin irritation

Aluminum is a common ingredient in deodorants and is responsible for causing red, irritated, sore armpits that can also result in skin peeling. Stronger deodorants will usually cause stronger reactions as they have higher levels of aluminum. Unfortunately, building up a tolerance to aluminum-based deodorants is unlikely, but some people can tolerate products designed for sensitive skin. Fragrances, also found in deodorants and many other beauty and skincare products, cause irritation in over 20% of Americans. It can be difficult to know which fragrances you’re having a reaction to due to labeling and even unscented products can contain fragrances, but they have even more fragrance chemicals added in to mask the smells.

Different types of acid ingredients are known to cause irritation when people first start using them, such as salicylic acid, which is used to treat acne and oily skin. Topical retinoids, used in anti-aging products to normalize skin cell maturation and promote the stimulation of collagen, and glycolic acid, the active ingredient in chemical peels, both have the potential to cause skin irritation, itchiness, redness, burning and dryness, especially if too much product is applied. Various metals, sulfates and even essential oils can cause anything from a mild skin irritation to a severe allergic reaction and are found in countless beauty and skincare products.

The difference between irritation and an allergic reaction

The benefits of a product that causes skin irritation can outweigh the negative, meaning you may want to continue to use it. It’s important to make the distinction between an allergic reaction and skin irritation so that you know whether you should immediately stop using a product or try to build up your tolerance to it. One of the biggest things to remember is that skin irritation usually remains in one area: the area you’ve applied the product.

An allergic reaction can present all over the body, including where the product hasn’t come into contact with. Skin is also more likely to swell and blister with an allergic reaction and can occur months or years after using a product, whereas irritation will be fairly immediate.

Building up your tolerance to irritants

Building up your tolerance for certain products is done when the pros outweigh the cons, such as using an acne cream that can help skin, boost self-esteem and prevent scarring in the future. This outweighs the downside of skin becoming temporarily irritated. When using products that are known to cause irritation, dermatologists recommend starting them gradually. Applying the product two or three times a week for a month and then moving onto a couple of times a week until you’re able to use it daily can help your skin to adjust. It’s important not to apply more than necessary as this can exacerbate symptoms of irritation. Generally, a pea-sized amount of product for your face is all that’s needed and you shouldn’t apply anything after a hot bath or shower as the pores will be open and more susceptible to irritation.

Moisturize to reduce irritation

While building up your tolerance to an irritant it’s a good idea to keep the skin well moisturized. Applying moisturizer before and shortly after the product will help to soothe the skin and reduce the chance of it going scaly or thickening. You may also be able to mix the product with moisturizer to dilute it but check with a dermatologist prior to doing this to make sure the two will mix safely.

It’s a good idea to do a patch test with any new product that you use, particularly if you’re prone to skin reactions. If you have a reaction, then you know it’s best not to apply the product onto delicate skin, such as around the eyes, unless you feel the benefits will be worth it. Always consult with a professional if you’re not sure about a reaction and try alternative, gentler products if they’re available.