What's an allergy?
An allergy is excessive immune system response to substances including pollen, certain foods, medicines or ingredients found in everyday products. Allergies vary from person to person - we all have our own way of reacting to these substances.
Skin allergy symptoms include unbearable itchiness, hot or uncomfortable skin, red patches, spotty breakouts and so forth. If you have a food allergy or intolerance you may be more prone to skin allergies.
Hypoallergenic vs allergen-free vs controlled allergens
For those of us with non-scientific minds, product labels are often complete gobbledygook. But if we want to avoid flare-ups, we need to brush up on the lingo:
- Hypoallergenic: a substance or product that's unlikely to cause an allergic skin reaction. These products have been dermatologically tested and approved.
- Allergen-free: these products are completely allergen-free, meaning there's zero risk of a flare-up. Ingredients in question include certain essential oils or natural perfumes.
- Controlled allergens: these products are free of substances considered by experts to be allergy-provoking. The UK is governed by EU regulations, backed up by organisations such as the CPTA (Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association).
Hypoallergenic skincare products - the specifics
Cosmetic products designed for sensitive skin must respect our skin's pH level, be non-irritating and gentle enough for our fragile epidermis. Hypoallergenic beauty products (skincare treatments, shampoos, cleansers, make up...) are manufactured according to the latest, allergological guidelines. They must limit the risk of an allergy or flare-up. However, they're not entirely risk-free - we may not know in advance if we're allergic to a certain ingredient. To be classified as 'hypoallergenic', treatments have to undergo a number of dermatologically controlled tests. Treatments are repeatedly applied to volunteers with allergy-prone skin to see if there's an allergic reaction. The slightest hint of a flare-up means that a product won't be licensed for sale and must be reformulated. The best hypoallergenic treatments are completely allergen and perfume-free. This includes preservatives such as MIT (methylisothiazolinone), which is known to cause flare-ups. In other words, an ideal hypoallergenic product will contain as few ingredients as possible - think "less is more" when scouring labels!
Who should use hypoallergenic products?
Hypoallergenic products are geared towards fragile or allergy-prone skin. That said, they also cater to sensitive skin. However, it's important to know the difference between sensitive, easily-irritated and allergic skin. Sensitive and easily-irritated skin isn't necessarily allergic. Sensitive skin is usually caused by a frail cutaneous barrier that leads to inflammatory conditions (for example red patches or irritated skin), without there being an allergic reaction to a particular substance. Easily-irritated skin flares up when external factors, such as sunburn, cold temperatures, harsh cleaning products or stress temporarily throw it off kilter. Allergies, however, result from an abnormal immune system response when our skin comes into contact with particular ingredient. Eczema, hives and severe itching may all stem from an allergic reaction.
If in doubt Our tips:
- Book an appointment with a dermatologist, who'll be able to diagnose a skin allergy and advise you on which products to use.
- Test products before use by applying a tiny amount to the inside of your elbow or behind your earlobe. Doing so will show you if your skin's allergic to one or more ingredients.
- If you have sensitive skin or have previously suffered from allergic reactions, then it's best to go down the hypoallergenic route.
- If you know that you're allergic to a particular ingredient, read all product labels and avoid it like the plague.