Explaining Cosmetics Allergens

Did you know that anyone can develop an allergy at any age to virtually any substance? An allergic reaction is the body’s way of responding to an “invader.” When the body senses a foreign substance, called an antigen, the immune system is triggered. The immune system normally protects the body from harmful agents such as bacteria and pathogens. Its overreaction to an otherwise harmless substance (an allergen) is called a hypersensitivity, or allergic, reaction. Anything can be an allergen, including dust, pollen, plants, medications, foods (milk, shellfish, peanuts, etc.), insect bites and animal dander.

Cosmetics and personal care products manufacturers invest heavily in safety, quality control and product testing before releasing products to market. These products are safe for most users. A small percentage of individuals, however, may still experience adverse reactions, such as allergy symptoms. The most common allergens are some fragrance, preservative and hair dye ingredients. Allergic reactions most often appear as itchy, red rashes on the skin – also known as contact dermatitis. Symptoms can range from mild discomfort to life-threatening anaphylaxis. *

The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to know what you are sensitive to and how to avoid it. One way to do this is by carefully reading the product ingredient label and avoiding ingredients you know (or think) you are allergic to. While terms like “hypoallergenic,” “fragrance-free” or “for sensitive skin” can be helpful for some consumers, just remember that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to allergies; everyone’s immune system has the potential to respond differently to different substances.

Regardless of known or suspected allergies, you should always check labels before using any product and follow manufacturer instructions, applying only as directed. Manufacturers of certain hair dyes, for example, instruct users to first test a small amount of product on their skin before applying it more broadly. Reading the label is important even if you are not prone to contact dermatitis or have purchased the product before.

If you have taken all appropriate precautions and still experience irritation or an allergic reaction, stop using the product immediately and contact the manufacturer via the listed toll-free phone number or website. The company can provide additional information that may help you and your health care provider determine the cause of your reaction and best course of action.

*Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any symptoms of anaphylaxis – including shortness of breath, trouble swallowing, lightheadedness, chest pain, a rapid or weak pulse, nausea and vomiting or lack of consciousness.

For additional information about cosmetic allergens, please use the resources below.

FDA: Allergens in Cosmetics

CosmeticsInfo.org: Fragrance Products

Personal Care Products Council: Voluntary Fragrance Ingredient Disclosure Guideline