I had a major skincare reaction: Here’s how I calmed it
You won't be surprised to know with a job as a beauty editor, I’ve tried LOTS of stuff. People always ask how my skin copes with the chopping and changing and for the most part, I’ve been able to reply that it’s rarely, if ever, thrown a hissy-fit thanks to a product.
Hoooboy, have I been a little smug about that. Don’t worry, I’ve been taken down a notch or two!
RELATED: How to treat skin prone to redness
I get hormonal acne and deal with dehydration and some pigmentation and I have little fine lines I wish weren’t there, but I generally know how to check in with my skin each day and take stock of the state it’s in and treat it accordingly. I generally understand which ingredients really work for me and I also try and stick with a new formulation for a number of weeks so I know if it’s had an impact - positive or negative.
So it was a wake-up call to say the least, to suddenly deal with my skin flipping out on me when I had a dramatic and instantaneous reaction to a new product.
Nothing kills the new beauty buzz than something being a major FAIL for your skin!
Here’s where I get a slapped hand for being a bad beauty editor who should know better: I never patch test, and it came back to bite me in a big way. Thankfully, though I made a mistake, years of speaking with experts and writing about those with sensitive skin, means I could react quickly to minimise the situation.
When I was offered a sample of a new essence from a cult-fave botanically-based brand that had already received rave reviews online (first lesson - what's right for someone else might not be right for you!), I said sure, I’ll try that!
Skin expert Caroline Parker, Head of Education for Dermalogica, who is responsible for training Dermalogica staff throughout New Zealand, says in general, you should always try a small amount at first use, even if you aren't usually sensitive. (NB: The product tried was not from Dermalogica)
But I didn't, did I?! After cleansing my skin before bed as usual with an oil cleanser and a gentle gel cleanser, I pressed the essence into my skin as directed while I chatted to my partner in the bathroom as he was brushing his teeth. Within a minute or two, he announced “Babe, your face looks sunburnt’.
All of a sudden my face had turned beet red and was uncomfortably hot. I turned back to the mirror and was surprised by how intensely red it had already become in a matter of 2-3 minutes.
Left: My face a few minutes after I’d removed the product and misted with spring water (my grumpy face says it all really!) and what my skin normally looks like (in daylight, with makeup). Places where I’d missed applying clearly include the side of my temple and my upper lip, which didn't react. Soothing products I used include: Avene Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream, $18.99; La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Sensitive Moisturiser, $39.49; Avene Eau Thermale Avène Thermal Spring Water Mist, $14.99; Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair, $84
What causes skin reactions?
According to Caroline, most reactions to skin care are irritant contact reactions. “During this type of reaction your skin can respond with tingling, stinging or redness where you have applied a product, and the skin response subsides once the product is removed. Sometimes this can happen if the skin is pre-sensitised. For example, after waxing or a chemical peel the skin will be hyper-reactive, and a product that you can normally use could feel irritating.”
Other times a product might be too active for your skin. “It may contain higher levels of active ingredients like hydroxy acids or retinols.
“Skin can also just perceive an ingredient in a product is an irritant and after using the product for a few days the reaction then becomes visible.
It’s not always the obvious active ingredients that can trigger a skin reaction, it can be fragrance or preservatives, even botanical extracts, which are often used for their soothing effect, can cause irritation. We often perceive plant extracts as being gentle but consider something like ongaonga (tree nettle) or stinging nettle - itcan feel very nasty if we brush against it. “
WHAT TO DO
Step one: Remove it
First things first, get the product off your face. I turned to the basin and instantly splashed my face with cold water, trying to remove it. The burning sensation was increasing and I was nervous to add any cleanser in case it made it worse, but because the essence contained oil, it clung to the skin, so I used a tiny amount of gel cleanser and rinsed again with cold water.
“Most irritant contact reactions will subside when the irritant is removed so the first step is to quickly remove the product off your skin,” advises Caroline.
Step two: Cool it
“Then, cool your skin down with cold compresses; for example, hold a cold face cloth or cold cotton compress against your skin and, as it warms up, swap it for another cold compress until you feel and see the redness reducing.”
I did this by soaking a face cloth with cold water and putting some ice cubes inside before applying it as a compress for a few minutes. I also misted my hot, puffy and sore face with Avene Thermal Spring Water face mist. This pure water is famously anti-irritant, and the fine spray kept my face moist and felt cooling.
Step three: Try an antihistamine and stay calm
“An antihistamine tablet might help,” says Caroline, “but always check there are no interactions with other medication you are taking.
“It can be difficult to remain calm during a skin reaction, but it really will help, as the stress response just increases the intensity of the reaction and literally adds fuel to the fire. “
Thankfully my partner has hayfever (thankfully for me, that is) so after a minute or two I remembered antihistamine pills can help reduce the redness, swelling and itching in many skin reactions. I took one with some water and re-positioned myself in front of a fan, extremely worried the reaction was only getting worse.
FInally, sweet relief! About 15 minutes after I took the antihistamine the redness started to chill out, and the heat diminished a bit, but I still kept the fan on and misted my face regularly for the next couple of hours.
Step four: Go basic and stick with bland products
It should go without saying that once you’ve reacted badly to something you shouldn't go in for more punishment, even if you've spent a pretty penny on the product, so stop using it right away.
“Following a reaction treat skin as you would if it had been sunburnt,” advises Caroline. “Use cool water and be gentle, keep the application of other products to a minimum and choose calming, hydrating options. Avoid anything that will make your skin get hot for a few days including strenuous exercise and hot showers.”
My skin was still warm and slightly red the next day so I skipped any makeup and continued with the mist as well as added a layer of Avene Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream on top. Designed for fragile skin, I usually put it on any burns (curling tong wounds are my nemesis!) or extremely dry skin, and it was a relief to have it handy.
Simple fragrance-free products from brands like Dermalogica, Cetaphil, Avene and La Roche Posay are also known to care for reactive and irritated skin gently.
To ensure I gave my skin’s protective barrier a boost - harsh reactions can leave surface lipids diminished - in the following weeks, I also followed the advice of experienced beauty therapist and creator of Prologic skincare, Rachel Robertson. “Increase your intake of water, and Omega 3 and use skincare containing barrier loving ingredients like fatty acids, phospholipids like lethicin and antioxidants. And always wear SPF and protect your skin from the sun”.
Step five: See a doctor
It’s nerve wracking not knowing the reason you have a reaction. I never did figure out why the product I used didn't agree with my skin, but after a couple of weeks of gentle care it was back to normal.
It’s important to remember while the product I used touts it’s potent natural actives, everyone’s skin reacts differently so naming the product wouldn't do much good. I researched its use elsewhere (available extensively overseas) and couldn't find evidence of other reactions. I also reached out to the founders of the brand who helped me troubleshoot the issue. I suspect a couple of botanical ingredients I may have sensitivity to and will continue to do my own investigations and stay alert for them in other products.
For more severe reactions or ones that cause long-lasting issues, it’s important to see your doctor who can help with advice and if necessary refer you to a dermatologist or allergy specialist for more detailed and long term care.
* Have you ever had a reaction to a skincare product?