How to prevent allergies to personal care products?

Allergic contact dermatitis is a skin condition characterized by itching, redness, cracks, dryness and pain in response to different allergens, including cosmetic ingredients 11.

Interesting statistics:

  1. An average woman uses 12 personal care products per day, containing 168 ingredients in total 9.
  2. An average man uses 6 personal care products per day with up to 85 ingredients 9.
  3. Approximately 6% of people regularly using cosmetic products experienced contact allergy 5.
  4. Occurrence of contact allergy to cosmetics has doubled between 1990 and 1998 7.


The most common cosmetic allergens 1, 2, 4:
- Fragrances
(30-40% of allergic reactions) 10
Fragrance is an odorant natural or synthetic substance. The common belief is that only synthetic fragrances can cause allergy, but, in fact, natural essential oils are also potential allergens.
- Preservatives
Isothiazolinones (methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), methylisothiazolinone (MI) and their mixture) are highly allergenic ingredients. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives might also cause allergic contact dermatitis 3. Parabens rarely cause allergic reactions unless product is applied on the damaged skin.
- Hair dyes (the most common sensitizer is p-phenylenediamine, or PPD)
- Pigments with nickel, cobalt and chromium in eye shadow and mascara
- Sunscreens (in particular, oxybenzone and dibenzoylmethane)
- Natural botanicals – for example, essential oils, especially, tea tree oil
- Antioxidants – for example, galates, butyl hydroxyanisole, idebenone (synthetic analogue of coenzyme Q)
- Others: vehicles (lanolin, propylene glycol) surfactants (cocamidopropyl betaine), emulsifiers, emollients, polymers (toluenesulfonamide formaldehyde resin)
In theory, all components used in cosmetics should be considered potential allergens 2.

The term ”hypoallergenic cosmetics” is not mentioned in neither US 1, 10 nor EU legislations 8. It means that cosmetic manufacturers can define themselves what the term really means. Few comparative studies showed that the composition of so-called ”hypoallergenic” products is not much different from the regular products 10. Thus, labeling a product as hypoallergenic might be no more than a marketing trick.

How to prevent cosmetics-related allergies:

1. Identify the allergen
The good news is that avoiding the contact dermatitis is possible. The bad news is that it involves inconvenience and often high costs for the patient 2. The first thing to be done is to identify which substances provoke an allergic reaction. However, it is a long process that has to be performed by an experienced dermatologist. Patch test is a routine method for identification of substances that cause allergic reactions. Different allergens are applied on the upper part of the back and fixed with adhesive tape. In 48-72 hours the dermatologist removes the patches and examines the skin 6.

2. Check the list of ingredients
Reading the list of ingredients should be the first thing to do when you are choosing cosmetics. It can be found on the cardboard box or on the pot itself (sometimes inside the small sticky leaflet). Be ware of the unknown substances and ingredients you are allergic to.

3. Test a new product on a small area of your skin
Apply some of the product on the skin at the bend of elbow and leave it overnight. If there is no irritation, apply a small amount of the product on the skin behind the ear and leave it for 24-48 hours. Avoid getting the test-area wet while taking shower. If any irritation occurs, do not use the product.

4. Get rid of old cosmetics
Personal care products can easily become contaminated upon extended storage. Moreover, some cosmetics contain preservatives that slowly decompose and produce formaldehyde – a known carcinogen and skin sensitizer (read more).

This article is based on reviewing multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals


  1. Alani J.I., Davis M.D., Yiannias J.A. (2013) Allergy to cosmetics: a literature review. Nov-Dec;24(6):283-90. doi: 10.1097/DER.0b013e3182a5d8bc.
  2. González-Muñoz P., Conde-Salazar L., Vañó-Galván S.(2014) Allergic contact dermatitis caused by cosmetic products. Actas Dermosifiliogr. Nov;105(9):822-32. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2014 Mar 20.
  3. de Groot A.C., Flyvholm M.A., Lensen G., Menné T., Coenraads P.J. (2009) Formaldehyde-releasers: relationship to formaldehyde contact allergy. Contact allergy to formaldehyde and inventory of formaldehyde-releasers. Contact Dermatitis. 2009 Aug;61(2):63-85. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0536.2009.01582.x. Review.
  4. Hamilton T., De Gannes G.C. (2011) Allergic contact dermatitis to preservatives and fragrances in cosmetics. Skin Therapy Letter, 16:1Y4.
  5. Lundov M.D., Moesby L., Zachariae C., Johansen J.D. (2009) Contamination versus preservation of cosmetics: a review on legislation, usage, infections, and contact allergy. Contact Dermatitis. 2009 Feb;60(2):70-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0536.2008.01501.x.
  6. National Library of Medicine - Medical Subject Headings. Patch testing. Available here
  7. Nielsen N.H., Linneberg A., Menne T., Madsen F., Frølund L., Dirksen A., Jøngensen T. (2001) Allergic contact sensitization in an adult Danish population: two cross-sectional surveys eight years apart (the Copenhagen Allergy Study). Acta Derm Venereol 81(1):31-4 (2001 Jan-Feb).
  8. Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on cosmetic products (Text with EEA relevance). Available here
  9. Schnuch A., Geier J., Lessmann H., Arnold R., Uter W. (2012). Surveillance of contact allergies: methods and results of the Information Network of Department of Dermatology (IVDK). Allergy; 67: 847Y857.
  10. Wolf R., Wolf D., Tüzün B., Tüzün Y. (2001) Contact dermatitis to cosmetics. Clinical Dermatology Jul-Aug;19(4):502-15.
  11. Wolf R., Orion E., Ruocco E., Baroni A, Ruocco V. (2013) Contact dermatitis: Facts and controversies. Clinics in Dermatology, 31, 467–478.


Victoria's picture

Hi, are allergies to cosmetics and sensitive skin the same thing?..

Natalia's picture

Hello Victoria! There is a certain correlation between sensitive skin and allergies to cosmetics. For example, person subjected to repeated cases of contact dermatitis, most likely also has sensitive skin. But not all people with sensitive skin suffer from contact dermatitis. On the other hand, contact dermatitis might also be caused by contaminated cosmetics – in that case it is not at all related to exaggerated skin sensitivity. One more thing is that phenomenon of sensitive skin is not clearly defined. Often symptoms of sensitive skin are only subjective (such as stinging or burning), and no obvious signs of irritation are present. On the contrary, contact dermatitis is a disease with its own clinical manifestations.


Angel's picture

Checking a list of ingredients is a good thing, but I heard that often some ingredients are kind of  "forgotten" to be added to the list...