Cosmetic Allergy


Every one of us reacts differently when in contact with the numerous ingredients in cosmetics (some people don’t react at all!) This page provides a brief introduction to some common cosmetic allergy information. For more detailed sources check out the useful links section on this page.

Common Cosmetic Allergens

  • Fragrances
  • Plant Extracts
  • Preservative Chemicals
  • Hair Products
  • Finger Nail Coating

Jargon Buster

Irritant Reaction

Is an experience of reddening of the skin, itching, burning or stinging within minutes of using a product which is common to people with sensitive skin (common in people with skin complaints such as rosacea and dermatitis). An irritation reaction clears rapidly once the use the product that is causing the problem has ceased.

Note: An irritant type of reaction does not involve the immune system.

Allergic Reaction

An excessive reaction by our immune system as a result of repeated exposure to an ingredient in the cosmetic referred to as allergen. Typical allergic reactions symptoms involve irritation, swelling and nettle rash/hives. Most reactions occur locally in tissues in a particular part of the body the most common sites for cosmetic allergies being the face, lips, eyes, ears, and neck although reactions may appear anywhere on the body.

Allergic reactions can be:

  • Immediate: occurs suddenly, generally a few minutes after exposure to the allergen e.g. hay fever or allergic asthma.
  • Delayed: shows after a passage of time which is usually 24 to 72 hours, after exposure to the allergen e.g. allergic contact dermatitis which appears as itchy, sore, red bumpy skin, which becomes flaky and dry.

Note: You can become allergic to something which you have been using for a long time without problem. If further contact with the allergen is avoided, there will be no further reaction and the skin heals.


In cosmetics this term is used to describe products that have a ‘reduced potential to cause allergic reactions‘ which is a result of manufacturers increased efforts in the selection of ingredients and by product testing to reduce further the already low incidence of adverse reactions to cosmetic products.

Note: Do not be mislead by the description of products as being  ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘natural’, as these can contain an array of common allergens most common being fragrance (parfum).


Sensitisation is the process that your immune system goes through to recognise and memorise an allergen and then make antibodies against it.

The time taken to become sensitised to an allergen varies from days to years. Some people stop in the sensitisation phase, experiencing symptoms but never fully developing an allergy.


Allergy Testing

Patch Testing

Can help determine when your skin has become allergic to a specific external substance. It involves applying small amounts of allergen to the upper back under special dressings and observing the skin’s reaction after several days. This sort of test requires special expertise and is usually performed in hospital by a dermatologist. 

Repeat open application test

A simple method to find out if you could have an allergy to a cosmetic is to apply it to a 50 pence sized area of your elbow crease every morning and night for up to a week. This type of test should not be done with things that you would usually wash off such as shampoos or shower gels, as these will simply irritate the skin. If redness and small bumps appear, it suggests you may be allergic to something the product.

Allergy SOS

  • Temporarily stopping use of all cosmetics on the affected area and treating the skin with a steroid cream.
  • Use of a gentle soap substitute such as emulsifying ointment or an aqueous cream instead of soap for washing and also left on the skin as a moisturiser.

Note: More severe reactions require medical attention.


Useful Links

‘FactsAbout’ has more information on Allergies and Safety Matters

A fact sheet on Cosmetics Ingredients Labelling

Check Out i-brand if you are worried about fake products

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