Experimenting with new skin care, makeup, or hair dye is all fun and bathroom selfies until you end up with an allergic reaction on your face. If your skin doesn’t like whatever you’ve swiped or dabbed across it, you may see tiny bumps, dry patches, swaths of red, or welt-like hives—not to mention all that irritation can cause it to itch like hell. In these moments, you’re probably focused on one thing: treating the allergic reaction ASAP.
Dealing with a skin rash on your body is bad enough, but the face tends to be particularly sensitive, so how are you supposed to move on with your life when this tender area is acting like you owe it an apology? We asked a few dermatologists this critical question, and they gave us their best advice for soothing initial irritation as well as safely reintroducing your favorite cleansers, serums, and creams to your skin care routine post-freak-out. And when you’re ready to try something new, they’ve got you covered there too—you’ll want to be smart and strategic about it, after all, in order to keep your complexion calm and clear.
Here’s everything you need to know about what an allergic reaction on your face looks like, how to heal your angry skin, and what you can do to avoid the misery of it all in the future.
How to tell if a rash is a symptom of an allergic reaction
There are two types of contact dermatitis, a form of eczema that is usually characterized by an itchy rash on the skin: irritant and allergic. If a substance is causing irritant contact dermatitis—commonly referred to as just irritation—it’s affecting the stratum corneum, the protective top layer of skin that keeps things like irritants and allergens out.
But when a product leaves you with allergic contact dermatitis, that means it’s causing an allergic response involving cells in your skin that are part of your immune system, Jennifer Mancuso, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at the University of Michigan, tells SELF.
In general, “how [the reactions] look and feel is actually very similar,” Nada Elbuluk, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Clinic at the USC Keck School of Medicine, tells SELF. Both types of contact dermatitis can cause symptoms such as burning, stinging, itchiness, dryness, and reddening (depending on your skin tone). But the severity of the reaction can vary widely.
For instance, if you’re experiencing a mild case of irritant contact dermatitis, you’ll likely notice signs of dryness and inflammation—such as redness, itchiness, peeling, and flakiness—immediately after applying a product or a few hours later. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, you could develop burning and even blisters, Temitayo Ogunleye, MD, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells SELF. (FYI: Symptoms usually become more intense with repeated exposure to the irritating product.)
If your contact dermatitis is a type of allergic reaction, you’re likely to experience more severe signs, including burning, itching, and excessive dryness, Dr. Ogunleye says. A facial allergic reaction can also present as a red rash—again, depending on your skin color—which often spreads beyond the area where the product was applied; hives, a type of raised and itchy welt, are another common symptom. If you have an allergy, it may only take a very small amount of contact with the offending ingredient to cause a problem.
Some allergic reactions may also only occur when your skin is exposed to the allergen and the sun, which is called photoallergic contact dermatitis. Sunscreen, shaving cream, and perfume are all common causes.
Why do skin allergies often feel so sudden?
If it seems like your skin is having an allergic reaction out of nowhere, when it’s never happened before and you haven’t changed your routine, you’re probably not doing anything wrong. That’s often just how it goes: Allergies can develop when your skin becomes sensitized over time to whatever ingredient is causing the issue and this typically requires multiple exposures, Dr. Mancuso explains. So you might have no idea that you’ve been developing an allergy to something you’re using until it one day rears its inflamed, rash-y head.
Plus, allergic reactions usually don’t show up immediately; it could be hours or days after exposure before you see or feel any of the symptoms mentioned above, making it difficult to trace the cause. It could be triggered by something you’ve been using for a while and, therefore, assumed you had no issue with, for example. Or if you’re trying a new serum, say, with an ingredient that you previously became sensitized to, then you could have a reaction the first time you apply it.
You may also develop a rash somewhere other than the area where you originally applied the problematic product. For example, if you’re allergic to an ingredient in nail polish, your fingers may not react. But if you scratch your thin-skinned eyelid with a polished finger? That might leave you with allergic contact dermatitis around your eye—a connection that might be tough to make.
Additionally, things you ingest—like foods and medications—can also cause an allergic reaction on the face. If you think your angry skin could be connected to something other than a topical product, make note of that and let your primary care physician (PCP) or dermatologist (if you have one) know. They may refer you to an allergist, who can help you get to the bottom of your irritation.
How to treat an allergic reaction on your face
No matter how your reaction is showing up, the first thing you should do is stop using whatever product you suspect might have caused it. If you're experiencing severe symptoms like a weak and rapid pulse, a swollen tongue or throat, trouble breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or dizziness, you should seek immediate medical care—head to the emergency room, as these could be signs of a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
If you just have mild skin irritation, there are some things you can do on your own or with the guidance of your dermatologist or PCP to feel better, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Wash the product off your face with cold water or use a cold compress as needed for 15 to 30 minutes at a time to soothe any stinging or itching.
- Apply an over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream or take an oral antihistamine—like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or loratadine (Claritin)—to help manage itchiness, following the directions on the package.
- Avoid scratching the area, which can make the rash worse and open the skin up to infection.
- Minimize sun exposure to avoid causing any more damage to the skin while it heals.
If home remedies aren’t working for you or your symptoms are on the severe side, your doctor may prescribe a topical corticosteroid cream or an oral steroid medication to reduce the inflammation.
How long an allergic reaction on the face lasts will vary from person to person, but most contact dermatitis generally clears up within two to four weeks—as long as you avoid any additional exposure to the allergen. If your symptoms persist for longer than that, you’ll definitely want to see a doctor to figure out what’s going on.
How to prevent another allergic reaction
Having an allergic reaction on your face can be taxing both for your skin and your state of mind, especially if you're not totally sure what caused it. If you develop contact dermatitis—irritant or allergic—and you don’t know where it came from, talk to your PCP or dermatologist. They'll probably recommend taking a break from your skin care and makeup routine for a while and adding back in only a few products unlikely to cause an issue, like mild cleansers and moisturizers.
The experts we spoke with suggest sticking with tried-and-true gentle formulas from brands like Cetaphil, CeraVe, and Vanicream during this time, or looking for products listed as hypoallergenic and fragrance-free, or those with the National Eczema Association seal on the label. Your doctor might also set you up for patch testing to try to figure out which ingredient you're allergic to, Dr. Elbuluk adds.
Once your skin calms down and stays clear for a couple of weeks, it’s safe to start reintroducing one product per week to "tease out what’s causing the allergic reaction," Dr. Ogunleye says—it could be anything from a fragrance to a preservative. From there, she adds, you’ll want to be careful to read the packaging on any new product and to test it on your inner arm before putting it on your face to make sure your skin doesn’t freak out. While no one wants an itchy rash anywhere on their body, it’s better to take the chance on a less conspicuous area instead of risking another allergic reaction on your face—and having to nurse it back to health all over again.