Cosmetics and Skin Care Products                             

Cosmetics 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, coloured cosmetics, hair cosmetics and nail cosmetics.    

Most people experience few problems with these products. Dermatologists estimate that problems arise in only .021% of all people. Problems can arise, however, either with the first few applications or after years of use. Most people know which product is causing difficulty; severe reactions may require the skills of a dermatologist.    

Adverse Reactions

Reactions to skin care products depend on the condition of the skin and the immune system. Uninjured skin is an excellent barrier to most substances people come into contact with daily. If the skin is overdried or injured in any way, openings make that barrier less protective. Skin reactions are classified as an irritant or allergic contact dermatitis.

  • Irritant Contact Dermatitis: 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. Irritant contact dermatitis is more common than allergic contact dermatitis.     
  • Allergic Contact Dermatitis: Some people are allergic to a specific ingredient or ingredients in a product. Symptoms include redness, swelling, itching and fluid-filled blisters. People will usually react whenever they are exposed to the ingredient, although it could take up to several days for the symptoms to appear.

Common Causes of Reactions

Fragrances, preservatives and lanolin, ingredients commonly found in cosmetics, cause most skin problems.

  • Fragrances: Fragrances cause more allergic contact dermatitis than any other ingredient. More than 5,000 different fragrances are used in skin care products, from the most common sources - toilet water, perfume, cologne and bath powder - to toilet paper, soap, shampoo and household products. Products labelled "unscented" may, in fact, contain a fragrance to mask other chemical odours. 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: Preservatives in cosmetics and skin care products are the second most common cause of skin reactions. They prevent bacterial and fungal growths that can cause skin infections, and protect products from oxygen and light damage. Cosmetics that contain water must include some type of preservative. Consumers who react to one preservative will not necessarily react to others.       
  • Lanolin: Lanolin is used in cosmetics and skin care products as a skin conditioner. Some people develop swelling, itching and redness of the eyelids when using lanolin-based products around the eyes. Many products labelled "hypoallergenic," meaning "causing reduced allergy," contain lanolin.  

 Skin Care Products  

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

  • Astringents - 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. Individuals with dry, sensitive or irritated skin may experience itching, burning or tingling following their use. 
  • Moisturizers - Dry skin develops cracks and fine wrinkles, losing effectiveness as a barrier and causing pain and itching.   Moisturizers 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. Substances that stop water loss include petrolatum, mineral oil, lanolin and silicone products.  Substances that attract water to the skin include glycerin, propylene glycol,  proteins and some vitamins.   
  • Sunscreens - Sunscreens contain chemicals that absorb, reflect or scatter light. Light-absorbing chemicals include the PABA  esters and the cinnamates. People can be allergic to either, but allergies to both are rare.Physical sunscreens, also known as "chemical-free"  sunscreens, contain ground titanium dioxide. There are no known allergies to physical sunscreens.  

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 and bubble baths remove dirt, body oils and bacteria, preventing odour and infection. Heavy use can overdry the skin, causing flaking, itching and irritation. People with dry skin should choose a mild soap or soapless cleanser, use as little soap as possible, bathe/shower with cool water, minimize water contact and apply a  moisturizer. Soaps come in several different varieties. Deodorant soaps use an antibacterial agent to eliminate odours, but may be irritating. Beauty-bar soaps contain synthetic detergents and are generally less drying and irritating.
  • Shampoos: Shampoos remove dirt and oils from the scalp and help rinse hair. 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 don't 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: Conditioners are sometimes applied after shampooing to make hair shiny, easier to comb and style and more manageable. They are not a common source of skin reactions.   
  • Deodorants and  Antiperspirants: Deodorants kill bacteria and leave a pleasant smell. Antiperspirants prevent sweating. The fragrance of deodorants and the aluminium salts in antiperspirants rarely cause problems. Skin irritation can occur if these products are used on already irritated skin, right after shaving or spread too widely around the armpit.   

Coloured Cosmetics   

Coloured cosmetics are applied to the face, eyes and lips.   

  • Facial Cosmetics: Facial cosmetics, "make-up",  are used to colour 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, noncomedogenic and non-acnegenic - meaning it produces few allergies and won't plug pores or cause acne. Look for cosmetics with sunscreen, to help prevent skin cancer and wrinkles. 
  • Eye Cosmetics: Eyelids, the most sensitive skin on the body, need to be treated with care. Eye cosmetics include eyeshadow, eyeliner and mascara. Lighter coloured, matte-finish powdered eyeshadows are less irritating. In general, using water-soluble cosmetics will reduce irritation often caused by the solvents required to remove waterproof eyeliner and mascara. Remember that other 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.   
  • Lip Cosmetics: Lip cosmetics, lipsticks and lip balms, moisturize dry, cracked lips and provide sun protection. Some long-wearing lip stains have been linked to allergic contact dermatitis.         

Hair Cosmetics   

The hair's appearance can be altered by changing its colour, through dying, or its shape, by permanent waving.   

  • Dyes: Hair dyes lighten, darken and cover grey hair. Temporary hair dyes wash out after one shampoo. Gradual hair dyes produce a colour change over a two- to three-week period. These dyes generally don't cause problems. Semi-permanent hair dyes that wash out after four to six shampoos, and permanent hair dyes that don't 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. Permanent hair dyes are the only product that can make hair lighter or darker. Products used to lighten hair can cause both irritant and allergic contact dermatitis in some individuals. It can also cause an immediate allergic reaction to hives and wheeze.  

Nail Cosmetics   

Nail cosmetics are used to colour nails or artificially increase nail length.   

  • Polishes: Nail polishes can cause allergic contact dermatitis. A person allergic to nail polish may develop a rash on the fingers or eyelids, face and neck - places the nail polish may have touched while it was drying. People with nail polish allergies can try hypoallergenic varieties.   Individuals who manicure and polish their nails should not cut, poke or remove nail cuticles. Cuticles prevent infection and protect nail-forming cells.
  • Artificial Nails: The illusion of long nails can be created with plastic nails that cover the entire nail or nail tips. These artificial nails attach with glue that may contain methacrylate, a known allergen. Methacrylate-free glues may cause the underlying nail to peel and crack. Nail repair kits also use these glues.  
  • 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.   


Cosmetics and skin care products are part of grooming and daily hygiene. Problems rarely develop from the use of these products. Your dermatologist can answer your questions and provide additional information on how to use cosmetics and skin care products safely.