How to Treat an Allergic Reaction on Your Face Like a Derm

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Out of the hundreds of beauty products I’ve tried over the years, I’m surprised I haven’t experienced more than a couple allergic reactions. One in particular had me driving to an Urgent Care in a panic with red streaks down my face, but they soon subsided. A colleague of mine experienced a similar situation recently, but with the help of some medication and a couple days time, she was fine too. Here, dermatologists share their insight on the most common types of allergic reactions on the face, what they look and feel like, and how to treat them effectively.

The Most Common Allergic Reactions 

East Hampton, NY dermatologist Kenneth Mark, MD says beauty products can cause reactions from preservatives or any other ingredient. “The eyelid skin is particularly sensitive; however, the most common cause of eyelid dermatitis traditionally is NOT from eye makeup, but rather from ingredients in nail polish and/or nail polish remover,” he explains. “This illustrates the point that our fingers are often touching our eyelids, and anything one comes in contact with can cause a reaction.”

Hallandale Beach, FL dermatologist Dr. Bertha Baum agrees, saying this type of eyelid dermatitis is more common than you think, and many people are unaware this can happen due to nail polish materials. “Fragrance is a common agent that causes allergic reactions on the skin, too, as well as parabens, sulfates, dyes, benzyl alcohol and others,” adds Dr. Baum. Click here to see our dermatologist-recommended list of fragrance-free skin-care products.

What do allergic reactions typically look and feel like?

Depending on the type of allergic reaction, Dr. Baum says the skin can be itchy, red (doctors generally refer to redness by the medical term, erythema), scaly, and/or swollen. “The swelling can also progress to vesiculation, little pustules or full-on blisters,” adds Dr. Mark. “And, all skin allergic reactions will itch. If it does not itch, it can still be an irritant dermatitis like a burn, but not an allergy.”  

Which products and medicines should you use if you have an allergic reaction?

“Ideally, using a medium-potency steroid would be best, but even a low-potency option such as hydrocortisone will help, as will anti-inflammatories, Benadryl and calamine ointments,” says Dr. Baum. “Putting the creams in the refrigerator will help, too, because cold compresses help calm the itch. Depending on the type of reaction, certain patients may need an EpiPen for skin reactions as well, although this is rare.”

At what point should you see a doctor?

According to Dr. Mark, patients should seek professional help if the rash is on an overly large part of their body, in a sensitive area, and/or if symptoms are severe and the allergic reaction is causing a lot of pain, itching, swelling, etc. “The standard protocol will be to take oral antihistamines and topical prescription steroids as needed, and in the most severe cases, oral steroids such as prednisone.”

Dr. Baum stresses the importance of seeing a doctor if you’ve experienced multiple allergic reactions because it can be very difficult to find the original causing agent. “Also, we recommend doing Patch Testing—we use the T.R.U.E test in our office—and in some cases we do bloodwork where we check for underlying conditions that could be causing the reactions to make sure we cover all possibilities,” she adds.

“The key is to know that these types of allergic reactions are ‘delayed type hypersensitivity’ and typically take three weeks to resolve, even with treatment,” Dr. Mark explains. “Patients get into trouble when they get treated at an Urgent Care with a five-day course of treatment and then they can often experience a ‘rebound flare.’ The clinical pearl is to treat for three weeks!”

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