Cosmeceutical Facts & Your Skin

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Cosmeceutical Facts pamphletCosmetics and skin care products are part of most people’s daily grooming habits. The average adult uses at least seven different skin care products each day. These include fragrances, astringents, moisturizers, sunscreens, skin cleansers, hair care items, deodorants/antiperspirants, colored cosmetics, hair cosmetics, and nail cosmetics.

The majority of people experience few problems from these products, however, problems can arise either with the first few applications, or after years of use. People usually know which product is causing the problem, but severe, chronic reactions may require the skills of a dermatologist.

What are the possible problems associated with the use of cosmetics and skin care products?

Reactions to skin care products can be simple irritations, depends on the condition of the skin, or a true allergy involving the immune system. Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common problem seen with cosmetics and skin care products.

What is irritant contact dermatitis?

Uninjured skin is an excellent barrier to most substances found in cosmetics and skin care products. If skin is very dry or injured, openings make that barrier less protective. Burning, stinging, itching, and redness may be signs that a product is irritating the skin. Bath soaps, detergents, antiperspirants, eye cosmetics, moisturizers, permanent hair-waving solutions and shampoos are the most common skin irritants. Even water can irritate very dry skin.

What is allergic contact dermatitis?

Some people are allergic to a specific ingredient or ingredients in a product. They react whenever they are exposed to the ingredient, although it can take up to several days for the symptoms to appear. Signs include redness, swelling, itching, and fluid-filled blisters.

What are some of the ingredients that cause allergic reactions?

Fragrances and preservatives, ingredients commonly found in skin care products and cosmetics, are the most common cause of cosmetic allergic reactions.


Fragrances cause more allergic contact dermatitis than any other ingredient. More than 5,000 different fragrances are used in cosmetics and skin care products. Less “allergenic” fragrances have been developed to minimize the problem.

Remember that a product labeled “unscented” may really contain a fragrance which masks other chemical odors. A product must be marked “fragrance-free” or “without perfume” to indicate nothing has been added to make it smell good. Some fragrance reactions occur only when the skin is exposed to sunlight.


Preservatives in cosmetics and skin care products are the second most common cause of skin reactions. Preservatives prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria that can cause skin infections, and protect products from oxygen and light damage. Cosmetics that contain water must include some type of preservative.

cosmeticsConsumers who react to one preservative will not necessarily react to others. Examples of preservatives include paraben, imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanol, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and formaldehyde, and should be listed as ingredients on product labels.

Colors can be used to adorn the body

What are skin care products?

Skin care products are designed to maintain healthy skin. They include astringents,moisturizers, and sunscreens.


Astringents remove oils and soap residue from the skin. They are generally drying and may contain water, alcohol, propylene glycol, witch hazel, or salicylic acid. These may cause itching, burning, or tingling in people with dry, sensitive, or irritated skin.


handsMoisturizers prevent water loss by layering an oily substance over the skin to keep water in, or by attracting water to the outer skin layer from the inner skin layer. Dry skin causes cracks and fine wrinkles, losing its effectiveness as a barrier, and causing pain and itching. Substances that stop water loss include petrolatum, mineral oil, lanolin, and silicone. Substances that attract water to the skin include glycerin, propylene glycol, proteins, and some vitamins. These ingredients may cause an allergic reaction.

Allergic contact dermatitis to lanolin in a moisturizer


Sunscreens contain chemicals that absorb, reflect, or scatter light. Light-absorbing chemicals include the PABA esters, avobenzone, and the cinnamates, that can cause an allergic reaction. Physical sunscreens contain fine powders of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that reflect or scatter light. There are no known allergies to physical sunscreens.

What are personal care products?

Personal care products that help keep skin and hair clean and fresh smelling include skin cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, and deodorants/antiperspirants.

Skin Cleansers

Soaps, detergents, bath/ shower gels, and bubble baths remove dirt, body oils, and bacteria. They prevent odor and infection but heavy use of these products can over dry the skin causing flaking, itching, and irritation. People with dry skin should choose a mild cleanser, bathe/shower with cool water, minimize water contact, and apply a moisturizer immediately after bathing while the skin is slightly wet.

There are several different varieties of soaps. Deodorant soaps have an antibacterial agent to eliminate odors. Beauty-bar soaps are generally less drying and irritating.


Shampoos remove dirt and oils from the scalp and leave the hair soft and shiny. Allergic reactions to shampoos are uncommon since their contact with the skin is brief but they can irritate and dry the skin when rinsed over the body.

There are several types of shampoos: mild baby shampoos do not irritate the eyes; conditioning shampoos cleanse lightly and leave hair soft; shampoos for oily hair remove oil; and shampoos for damaged hair are pH-adjusted to prevent more damage.


Conditioners are applied after shampooing to make hair shiny, easier to comb and style, and more manageable. They are not a common source of skin reactions themselves; they can have fragrance and preservatives.

Deodorants and Antiperspirants

Deodorants kill bacteria and leave a pleasant smell. Antiperspirants prevent sweating. The fragrance in deodorants and the aluminum salts in antiperspirants rarely cause problems. Skin irritation can occur if these products are used on already irritated skin, immediately after shaving, or if spread too widely around the armpit.

What are colored cosmetics?

Colored cosmetics are applied to the face, eyes, and lips to beautify and adorn the body.

Facial Cosmetics

eyeshadowFacial cosmetics, “make-up”, are used to color the face. It is important to select make-up carefully since it remains in contact with the skin for a long time. Ideally, make-up should be hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic, and non-acnegenic — meaning it produces fewer allergies and will not plug pores or cause acne. Look for cosmetics with sunscreen which will help prevent skin cancer and wrinkles.

Redness of the upper eyelid from an allergic
contact dermatitis to an eyeshadow ingredient

Eye Cosmetics

Eyelids are the most sensitive skin on the body. Eye cosmetics include eye shadow, eyeliner, and mascara. Lighter colored, matte-finish powdered eye shadows are less irritating. Water-based (soluble or washable) eye cosmetics are easier to remove. This is important because scrubbing or vigorous rubbing to remove eye cosmetics may cause irritation. Often irritating and allergenic substances can be introduced to the eye area by the fingers.

Eye cosmetics should never be shared and should be replaced every three to four months because of possible bacterial contamination.

Lip Cosmetics

Lip cosmetics include lipsticks and lip balms. They moisturize dry, cracked lips, and provide sun protection. Some long-wearing lip stains have been linked to allergic contact dermatitis. Saliva is a common cause of irritant contact dermatitis.

What are hair cosmetics?

The appearance of hair can be altered by changing its color through dyeing, or its shape by permanent waving.


hairdyeTemporary hair dyes wash out after one shampoo. Gradual hair dyes produce a color change over a two to three week period. These dyes generally do not cause problems. Semipermanent hair dyes that wash out after four to six shampoos and permanent hair dyes that do not wash out can cause allergic reactions. These products should be tested on a small area of skin behind the ear or inside the elbow for 24 hours before using.

Allergic reaction to hair dye can cause
tremendous facial swelling

Permanent hair dyes make hair lighter or darker. Ammonium persulfate, sometimes used to lighten hair, can cause contact dermatitis. It can also cause an immediate allergic reaction like hives and wheezing.

Permanent Waving

“Permanents” make straight hair curly. A perm solution breaks the chemical bonds in straight hair to reform them in a curled position. This process can damage the hair. Hair should not be permed more often than every three months. If the perming solution is left on too long, is too strong or is applied to hair already damaged by dyes, bleaches, or recent permanents, the hair could break. Scalp irritation may also occur.

What are nail cosmetics?

Nail cosmetics are used to color nails, increase nail strength, or to artificially add nail length.


Nail polish can cause allergic contact dermatitis. A person allergic to nail polish may develop a rash on the fingers, eyelids, face, and neck — places the nail polish or fumes may have touched while it was drying. Formaldehyde is a common ingredient that causes allergies. People with nail polish allergies can try hypoallergenic polishes that are formaldehyde free. Red polishes may cause a yellow harmless discoloration of the nail.

Cuticles prevent infection and protect the nail-forming cells and should not be cut or removed.

Artificial Nails

neckThe illusion of long nails can be created with plastic nails that cover the entire nail or nail tips. These artificial nails are attached with glue that may contain methacrylate, a common allergen. Methacrylate-free glues may cause the underlying nail to peel and crack. Nail repair kits also use these glues.

Allergic contact dermatitis to nail polish causing a rash on the neck

Sculptured Nails

Long-term use of sculptured nails, custom-made to fit permanently over natural nails, can cause severe and painful reactions, including infection of the skin around the nail, loosening or loss of nails, and dermatitis.

Women who have worn artificial or sculptured nails for a long time may notice their real nails are thin, dull, and brittle. Dermatologists recommend that regular artificial nail users take them off every three months to allow natural nails to rest.

What are cosmeceuticals?

Cosmeceuticals are skin care products designed to go beyond strictly coloring and adorning the skin. These products may improve the functioning of the skin and be helpful in preventing premature aging. Examples are alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, and beta hydroxy acid such as salicylic acid. These hydroxy acids increase skin exfoliation (the removal of dead skin cells) making aging skin appear smoother and feel softer. Some vitamins, such as vitamin A (retinol), may improve the appearance of aging skin by making the skin function better, but they may be drying or irritating and must be used appropriately. Dermatologists know how to use cosmeceutical ingredients and can advise their patients about the best ways to achieve healthy looking skin. Sunblocks prevent photo-aging and photo-carcinogenesis (cancer from the sun) and should be the cornerstone of any skin care regimen.

What the Dermatologist Does

Cosmetics and skin care products are part of grooming and daily hygiene. If a problem is suspected, a dermatologist can diagnose and treat the problem. Patch testing may be used to determine if there is an allergy to specific ingredients in these products. Dermatologists can tell you what should be avoided and personalize a skin care regime for you. They can also answer your questions and provide additional information about the safe use of cosmetics and skin care products.

To learn more about solving problems related to the use of cosmetic & skin care products, call toll-free (888) 462-DERM (3376) to find a dermatologist in your area.

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Toll-free: (888) 462-DERM (3376)
Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology
National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides
© 2005 American Academy of Dermatology
Revised 1994, 2001, 2004
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