So you’ve read part one of our series on how to handle a bad reaction to a cosmetic product. You’ve determined that what you’re experiencing is indeed a product reaction, and you’ve identified the guilty product and removed it from your routine. What next?
Let Your Skin Heal
If you’ve played around with enough skincare to have run into an adverse product reaction, it’s likely that you might be tempted to want to fix the reaction by trying yet more products. I get a ton of DMs from people asking what new-to-them product I would recommend to help speed the healing of the reaction they got from some other new product they tried.
I know this may be disappointing to hear, but: Don’t. Now is not the time.
Your skin is already compromised, and you’re already dealing with the effects of its unhappiness with some substance you put on it. In a state like this, more unfamiliar products may make the problem worse. Ingredients that could be fine for your skin when it’s in its normal condition could irritate it now.
Also discontinue use of any highly acidic, exfoliating, or otherwise potentially irritating actives until your skin is better. This means laying off of L-ascorbic acid vitamin C serums, AHA and BHA products, face scrubs, and retinoids in particular. Now is not the time to use anything that’s going to remove any part of whatever is left of your skin barrier.
Take It Back to the Basics
To help your skin recover, keep it clean, well moisturized, and as free of contact from other potential irritants as possible. To do so, take your routine down to the safest, most basic, most familiar products you own. The blander the better. Think products that you find boring under normal circumstances but that you also know play well with your skin. Some examples of what to look for are:
1. Unfragranced products in general
This doesn’t just mean free of artificial fragrance. Fragrance ingredients billed as natural—typically, fragrant essential oils—can also be sensitizing and irritating. Some common ones you’ll find in skincare are bergamot, lemon, orange, lavender, and eucalyptus.
2. Very mild, gentle cleansers
Steer clear of true soaps, which you can identify from the ingredients by the combination of potassium hydroxide (lye) with fatty acids like myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, and/or lauric acid. Also be wary of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which is one of the harshest of the synthetic detergents. Be aware of the pH level of your cleanser as well: a lower-than-neutral pH will generally be gentler on your skin than a high pH. Shoot for a pH in the range of 5.5-7 if you can.
3. Occlusive moisturizers
Heavier creams will help keep your skin moist, which improves healing. Creams that contain mineral oil and/or petrolatum (also known as petroleum jelly) are great for this purpose. Mineral oil molecules are typically too large to penetrate skin or clog pores; instead, they form a moisture-trapping film on top of skin. Petrolatum/petroleum jelly is just mineral oil mixed with waxes and performs similarly. Many people in the skincare community swear by a thin layer of plain Vaseline as their final step moisturizer before bed when their skin is suffering!
Try Healing Ingredients Already in Your Routine
If you already own and have already successfully used any more specialized calming, healing, repairing, or protective products, those can also help. Again, if you don’t have anything in your rotation that performs these functions, now isn’t the time to get something new. But if you do have products with these themes, patch test them on a small area of the reaction zone to make sure they won’t further burn, sting, or irritate it. If they pass the patch test, you can add those to your post-reaction routine. Some ingredients I find helpful are:
- Centella asiatica/cica products. Centella asiatica extracts and the centella-derived compounds madecassoside, asiaticoside, and asiatic acid are often used for their wound healing and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Propolis. Produced and used by bees to seal and protect their hives, this resinous substance is also known for its anti-inflammatory and wound healing properties in skincare and may contribute some antibacterial benefits as well.
- Snail mucin/snail secretion filtrate. When it comes to product reactions, wound healing is the major draw for this ingredient, but a good snail product will also provide an additional lightweight but tangible barrier on your skin to help keep contaminants out.
It may take some time for a product reaction to fully heal up. I’ve had some linger for a week or two, for example. At this point, the name of the game is patience: If you start messing with your skin prematurely, you’re likely to bring the reaction back with a vengeance. So be gentle with your skin while you wait.
And in the meantime, figure out what to do with the product that you’ve realized you can’t use.
Learn From Your Reaction
As time goes on and you become more familiar with your skin’s quirks, figuring out what to avoid will be easier. To accelerate that process, take some time to examine the ingredients list of the product that caused your reaction this time. If you can, compare its ingredients to those of products that you know for a fact work well with your skin. Isolating the ingredients that they don’t have in common will give you some clues about what you shouldn’t use in future.
Keep a list of products that irritated your skin and the specific ingredients you suspect are the problem. If you develop a reaction to other products, repeat the process and add them to your list as well. You’ll gradually refine your knowledge of what you should use.
(Incidentally, doing the same thing for the products that work exceptionally well for your skin is a great idea too. You’ll be able to figure out which ingredients work best for your skin and can apply that to your future purchasing decisions.)
What to Do With That Product Now
But what about the actual bottle or tube or jar of product that you now know you can’t use?
I’m not a fan of simply tossing unused product. The beauty industry and beauty consumers already generate a lot of waste simply by the nature of the business; the least we can do is try not to make the problem worse. Body skin is often tougher and less prone to reactions than facial skin, so whenever possible, I just use up products unsuitable for my face on the rest of my body. My feet in particular always appreciate a fancy cream. Avoid using rejected products on your hands, since you run the risk of accidentally getting them on your face again if you ever touch your own face.
Many of us also happen to have other people in our personal circles who would welcome a gently used product. Since everyone’s skin is different, a product that didn’t work out for you may turn out to be someone else’s holy grail. Ask around, and you’ll probably find more than a few willing takers.
Finally, if you have multiples of a product that you can’t use, consider donating unopened, unexpired products to women’s shelters. Many shelters will welcome personal care items like these, since they can help bring a much-needed sense of normalcy and self-care into the days of women who have had their lives upended by domestic violence or other traumatic situations.
And Next Time, Patch Test
As a last note, if you want to minimize the chances of another reaction happening to your face, take a few precautions the next time you introduce a new product to your routine. As I mentioned in part one of this series, only introduce one product at a time, and give that product ample time to show whether or not it will irritate your skin before you add anything else that’s new. If you can, also patch test a new product on a small area of facial skin. I like doing it near my jawline, where any reaction won’t be too visible.
And don’t let a reaction turn you away from skincare! For each product that didn’t work out for you, there may be one that will work out for you magnificently.
How did you heal your skin after a bad reaction to a skincare product? Let us know what happened in the comments!