Skin sensitivities vs. allergies. What’s the difference?

You slather your body and face with creams and lotions, scrunch or spray product on your hair, dab on under eye cream all before applying your makeup. Then one day you notice blotches, itchiness or worse, an all over rash that sends you running to the dermatologist!

 If you are suffering from a true allergic reaction, your entire immune system, not just the outer layers of your skin, reacts abnormally to a substance which in turn causes the visible and uncomfortable effects of irritation on your skin. The area of irritation may not even be the specific spot where the product was applied, and in severe cases can be widespread over the entire body.  You can be born with an allergy to certain substances, and you can develop allergies over time as well.  If you have an allergic skin reaction to a substance you are likely suffering from Allergic Contact Dermatitis which can only be accurately diagnosed by a medical professional.

 While a “sensitive skin” reaction can feel very much like an allergic reaction in certain individuals, it is not the same thing. Skin irritation experienced by people with sensitive skin, or Contact Irritant Dermatitis, happens when an irritating substance is applied to the skin but does not involve an abnormal immune response.  Like allergic contact dermatitis, the irritation can be immediate or it can occur over a period of time.  Unlike allergic contact dermatitis, the reaction is specific to the area where the substance came in contact with the skin and does not occur in areas where it was not applied, and typically once you stop using the irritating product the skin returns to normal.  While the reaction experienced by someone with an allergy is related to a heightened immune response to an allergen, the reaction experienced by someone with skin sensitivity is more related to their own skins particular barrier function.

 Some of the most common culprits behind skin irritation and skin sensitivity stem from the use of products which contain harsh preservatives, fragrances and other ingredients that assist in keeping a product “held together” known as emulsifiers. Others include petrolatum and mineral oil used as inexpensive skin conditioning agents, and chemical additives like cocamidopropyl betaine which is often found in hair conditioners and cleansers.  This particular ingredient has been associated with both non-allergic skin irritation as well as allergic contact dermatitis, reactions that could be due to the ingredient itself or to contaminants associated with it.  Like cocamidopropyl betaine, there are other substances that can cause both allergic and non-allergic reactions including “natural ingredients” like lanolin, or chemical ingredients like propylene glycol which is often used as an inexpensive humectant.

 Next week we take a look at how to read a label so that you can identify and avoid the most commonly known skin irritants that may be lurking in your skin and hair care products!



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