Trust us, we get it: There’s a certain exhilaration that comes with peeling open a new skin-care product, especially one that everyone’s been raving about. But even with a glowing reputation among press and celebs alike, your skin might not totally agree with the potion or see what the hype is all about.
Using the wrong products for your skin type happens all the time, but how do we know if it’s time to call it quits with the latest addition to our medicine cabinets? Carolyn Holdsworth, aesthetician and founder and CEO of Nurture Spa, says any time your skin has any reaction you don’t normally have, that’s a sign to reconsider the products you are using. Below, the most common skin-care warning signs.
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Your Complexion Is Dry and Peeling
Holdsworth says using the wrong products can exacerbate an existing skin condition, such as dryness or even oiliness. “If your skin is normally dry and tight, using to many acid-based products could make the situation worse,” she says. Rachel Liverman, cofounder and CEO of Glowbar, adds, “when the skin’s acid mantle is stripped—this can be due to using too many harsh products, like foaming cleansers—anything you apply on top will result in stinging.”
Dry skin can be normal, but if you find that your complexion is rough and peeling—Liverman contends skin that feels or resembles parchment can happen due to over-exfoliation—it’s time to make changes. Products like peels and face washes often contain strong acids that can be harsh on your skin, so trying scaling back on these ingredients if you notice your skin is looking a bit battered and tough.
“If your skin is peeling too much, you’re probably using too many acids,” adds New York dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. “Don’t combine alphahydroxy acids with salicylic acids and retinol. One acid may be enough.”
You’re Experiencing Rashes
Rashes can definitely be caused by a variety of factors, but they’re also a big indicator of allergic reactions in response to using certain cosmetic products. Makeup and skin-care formulas can contain allergenic inactive ingredients, which usually contribute to the product’s overall look and smell. However, it’s usually these same ingredients that can lead to those irritating rashes you’ve noticed on your skin.
“Rashes can be caused by preservatives, fragrances or acrylates found inside cosmetic products,” says Beverly Hills, CA, dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, MD. “Consider getting allergy patch testing at your dermatologist’s office to determine the offending agent and then you’ll know which ingredients to look out for in the future.”
“To speed up healing, switch to mild, hypoallergenic products until the inflammation has stopped,” Holdsworth explains. “Also, try not to scratch the affected area if it itches, and do not exfoliate—chemical or manual—the area until it is completely healed.”
You’re Noticing Breakouts
Breakouts can form in response to using the wrong products, especially because small, red bumps may show that your skin is reacting to something negatively—Holdsworth says if your skin is usually normal or crystal clear and breakouts suddenly begin surfacing, take notice.
To determine if your products are actually the source of your breakouts, it’s best to allow time for your skin to adjust to them, and be very observant of any changes you may notice before your next dermatologist visit.
“Try to allow two or three weeks for your skin to adjust to a new routine, as breakouts happen when you incorporate a new product,” says aesthetician Heather Wilson. “Evaluate each product you use and make one change at a time. It might take time to find the cause of your breakouts, so try to be patient.”
Your Skin Is Red and Dry
“A product that causes skin redness and/or dryness indicates irritation and should be discontinued,” contends Washington D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, MD. “When skin is inflamed, it could lead to unwanted dyspigmentation—or blotchiness—that can be difficult to remove,” says the doctor, noting that if a product is making your skin itchy, you’re likely allergic to one of its ingredients. “Application of hydrocortisone cream should be applied to reduce the itch.”
Your Reactions Are Persistent
“If hours to even a week after starting a new product, you experience symptoms, stop the product for a week and see if they resolve,” instructs Nanuet, NY dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD. Then, wait a week and then try again. “If the symptoms recur, you likely found your culprit.”
Another option instead of trying it on your face again is to self patch test: “Apply a small amount of the product on your upper inner arm once or twice a day for three days and see what happens,” says the doctor.
You’re Seeing Uneven Texture
If uneven texture is suddenly a problem, celebrity facialist Joanna Vargas says to listen to your skin. “Redness, breakouts, dry patches, uneven texture and inflammation are all signs the product you are using doesn’t agree with you,” she says.
Your Skin Has Become Oily
Oily skin may be the norm for some, but if oil usually isn’t a concern for you, then perhaps your product formulas are affecting your skin.
Our skin contains a natural layer of oil that acts as a protective barrier, so when harsh cleansers and creams strip this layer, called the stratum corneum, Liverman says the skin immediately goes into a repair mode to keep it protected. “Your oil glands will produce more oil to make up for this dryness, which can lead to breakouts and overly oily skin,” she says.
To combat this issue, Wilson recommends looking for products that provide hydration without adding excess water. And, to keep the greasiness down, she strongly urges trying a weekly charcoal mask, which will help absorb any excess oil.
“If you’re experiencing more oil than usual, try to decrease the amount of oil-absorbing skin care products within your routine,” says Wilson. “Look for serums and gel-cream moisturizers that are infused with hyaluronic acid, which provides hydration (water) without adding oil.”
Your Face Burns or Stings
While some cleansers and facial masks deliver a tingling sensation, it’s important to understand that there is a big difference between a slight tingly feeling and a painful burning sensation. How can we tell if a slight sting is due to active ingredients getting to work or if our skin is trying to tell us something?
“Active ingredients often, but not always, have a tingling effect that lasts moments, not minutes,” explains Holdsworth. “If your skin is feeling sensitive to the touch, if it stings or burns when you are washing your face hours later after using the product, or if your skin remained very pink or red more than an hour after application, I recommend eliminating that product from your regimen for the time being.”
Certain chemicals inside products can be too strong for delicate skin types, as sensitive skin in particular can experience an unwanted burning sensation upon using some skin care essentials.
“If your skin feels like it is on fire, do not suffer in the name of beauty—wash it off,” suggests Dr. Shainhouse. “It is likely that your skin is too sensitive for the product you are using.”
When selecting products, Dr. Jaliman recommends being extra cautious. Some anti-aging products for example, can be too strong for sensitive skin types, especially because retinoids contain strong ingredients that can sting. “If your skin is burning on application of a retinol, talk to your dermatologist about changing to a gentler anti-aging ingredient like Vitamin C or resveratrol,” says Dr. Jaliman.
You Have Bumps
If bumps are repeatedly popping up on your skin, chances are you’re using products that are weighing down your skin. “Most bumps indicate that the skin is inflamed and irritated, and most bumps are not indicating an allergy to an ingredient, explains Holdsworth.
While there is definitely a chance bumps on the skin can be telling you a bigger story, Holdsworth says they are usually a form of dermatitis, “which can be managed through ceasing the use of any new product you added to your regimen or any products with highly active ingredients, such as vitamins A or C, for example.”
To avoid risk for irritation, New York dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, urges his patients to check all their product labels to make sure their cosmetics are non-comedogenic. “Ingredients like oxybenzone are possible allergens that can cause a reaction similar to eczema, and they’re bad for people with acne-prone skin.”
You’ve Been Getting Hives
“The appearance of hives indicates a more extreme sensitivity to the product,” says Dr. Alster. Often looking like red welts, hives can be the result of your body reacting to ingredients found in cosmetic formulas.
To see if your hives are a result of using the wrong products, aesthetician and director of brand development at InstaNatural Heather Wilson recommends to stop using your products completely, and then seek out the help of your dermatologist.
“People can be allergic to ingredients in a skin-care product, so hives can definitely occur,” explains Wilson. “Cool water compresses followed by application of hydrocortisone cream and oral—not topical—Benadryl will ameliorate the reaction,” Dr. Alster instructs.
Your Skin Itches
Fragrance is one of the key aggressors inside some beauty products, and it can trigger skin itching and irritation. If your skin is severely red and itchy after using that new cream or face wash, talk to your dermatologist about potential allergens.
“If your skin is itching and red, you might be having an allergic reaction to an ingredient,” explains Dr. Jaliman. “Look to see if there’s fragrance in your products, and try to avoid them, as fragrance usually is the number-one cause of an allergic reaction.”
Your Skin Feels Tight
Tightness can also be an indication that your new miracle product just isn’t right for you. Using the wrong cleansers in particular, can strip your skin of its natural protective oils, causing dehydration, irritation and dryness. To overcome tight skin with ease, Wilson recommends looking for pH balanced products to help gently treat your skin.
“Don’t ignore tightness, as it is can impair skin health and cause increased oil production, large pores and wrinkles,” she says. “If your skin feels tight after cleansing, look for products that are pH balanced and contain gentle and natural-based surfactants.”
Brown Spots are Becoming an Issue
Brown spots are usually caused by long-term sun exposure, but if they are still a problem, even with the aid of a sunscreen product, perhaps it’s time to rethink your sunscreen formula altogether.
“If you’re getting brown spots on your face and uneven pigment, maybe your sunscreen isn’t giving you broad-spectrum protection,” explains Dr. Jaliman. “Choose SPF 30 or above with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.”
The Bottom Line
“Although there are some products like retinoids that we routinely ease people into gradually to reduce side effects, don’t assume that you must go through a period of discomfort with any new product,” says Dr. Waldorf, noting that the most common reason for side effects like the above is irritation rather than an allergy.
“You may be using too much, too often or combining too many products that are potentially irritating and go beyond what your skin can manage. All of the symptoms mentioned can be a sign of irritation.”
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