Skin Irritation or Allergy?: How To Tell What You’re Really Dealing With

by beautifulwithbrains
how to tell if it's a skin irritation or allergy

Is it an irritation? Is it an allergy? What is going on?!

You’ve just slathered on your new moisturiser and next thing you know, your skin is burning off. It stings. It itches. It turns redder than a tomato.

You’ve never been allergic to anything before, but I guess there’s always a first time. Or maybe it’s just a bad cause of irritation.

Problem is, when you react badly to a skincare product, it’s hard to tell. Irritation and allergies often have the same symptoms. How can you figure out what you’re dealing with?

How To Tell If You’re Dealing With A Skin Irritation

What Causes Skin Irritation?

Here are the most common culprits:

  • Citrus extracts
  • Essential oils
  • Fragrance
  • Harsh weather
  • L-Ascorbic Acid
  • Mint extracts
  • Overcleansing
  • Overexfoliatin
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Vitamin A (retinol, tretinoin, etc)

If you have sensitive skin, avoid everything on this list. They’re a sure recipe for irritation.

Everyone else, be careful. A lot of people can take these extracts in small doses. It’s too much of a good thing that makes it bad.

Want to know what ingredients you really need to avoid in your skincare products? Sign up to the newsletter below to receive the “Skincare Ingredients To Avoid” cheatsheet:

Related: 7 Natural Ingredients That Can Irritate Sensitive Skin

What Are The Symptoms Of A Skin Irritation?

I’m sure you have a fairly good idea of them already, but here we go:

  • Redness
  • Itchiness
  • Burning and stinging
  • Chapped and scaly skin

How Do You Recognise A Skin Irritation?

If you’re experiencing a skin irritation, the symptoms will develop within a few minutes after one single exposure – and only on the area that was in contact with the culprit.

How Do You Treat A Skin Irritation?

If you’re dealing with a skin irritation, here are the best ways to treat it:

  1. Ditch the product: A given, I know, but I had to say it anyway.
  2. Wet cloth/ice pack: Apply it on the irritated area for 5/10 minutes or until the itch subsides.
  3. Take an oatmeal bath: Colloidal oatmeal has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe any kind of irritation, redness, and itching. 
  4. Moisturize: Use a basic, fragrance-free moisturiser like CeraVe PM Facial Moisturising Lotion. 

Related: Why Colloidal Oatmeal Is A Must For Sensitive, Irritated Skin

How To Tell If You’re Dealing With A Skin Allergy

What Causes A Skin Allergy?

An allergy occurs when your immune system becomes hypersensitive to a substance. It can happen at any time.

You may have been using something for decades, without any problems whatsoever, and then, one crappy day, your body decides it’s an enemy and starts producing antibodies to fight it.

Next thing you know, you’re dealing with a nasty rash.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Skin Allergy?

Unfortunately, they’re mostly the same as those of irritation:

  • Redness
  • Itchiness
  • Burning and stinging
  • Chapped and scaly skincare
  • Hives

How Do You Recognise A Skin Allergy?

While an irritation shows up on the area that came in contact with the culprit, allergy symptoms can develop anywhere on your body. Oh, and the itchiness is so much worse.

How Do You Treat A Skin Allergy?

If the worst has happened and you’re dealing with a skin allergy, here’s what you need to do to treat it:

  • Avoid the trigger: I know it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. Throw the offending product away and don’t use anything else with the ingredient that triggered your allergy.
  • Cool compress: It can calm down a bad rash. Make sure you moisturise afterwards.
  • Take an oatmeal bath: Colloidal oatmeal has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe allergy symptoms.
  • Use an anti-itch cream: Apply an OTC hydrocortisone or calamine lotion helps relieve the itching.

Related: Calamine: The Secret For Soothing Irritated, Sensitive Skin

Have you ever had a bad reaction to a skincare product? Let me know in the comments below.



Nikki January 28, 2009 - 3:10 pm

Thanks for the differences 🙂 I think I have both 🙂 But I mostly suffer from Skin Irritations 😀

taraseason January 29, 2009 - 12:37 am

Hi Nikki,

I’m sorry to hear that you have skin sensitivities and allergies. I don’t know how much use this will be for you depending on your locale, but I work for THRIVE Allergy Expo here in Chicago. We are producing a large scale business to consumer expo dedicated to providing the best and most effective products for people with skin allergies, sensitivities, and conditions as well as for people with food, respiratory, eye and latex alleriges at McCormick Place on April 18-19th, 2009.

If you are able to attend, you will have the opportunity to find skin allergy relief, learn more about skin allergy triggers from medical physicians and professional and non-profit organizations whose missions are related to skin.

Actually, please visit our website at and you will see all the non-profit skin organizations we are affiliated with. They are a wonderful resource for product recommendations.

Good luck!

sab January 29, 2009 - 4:36 am

oh wow! i usually refer to them as the same. haha! thanks gio!

prettybeautiful January 29, 2009 - 8:02 am

yeah same as nikki, i suffer alot of skin irritation =/ and thts really annoying!

beautifulwithbrains January 29, 2009 - 8:58 pm

NIkki: I’m sorry to hear that. Different ingredients can cause different reactions but as long as you know what ingredients are causing the problems you can avoid them and be fine 🙂

taraseason: thanks for sharing. It is a very nice initiative.

sab: you’re welcome. Lots of people do, hope this helps to clear the confusion!

prettybeautiful: I’m sorry to hear that. Unfortunately there are a lot of ingredients that can cause iritation, esp if you have sensitive skin. It must be very frustrating.

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