It can happen quickly, innocently. A rash or itchy skin that appears out of the blue and suddenly, you’re allergic. Take a look:  

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You notice a rash under your eyes or on your eyelids. Image credit: www.ehealthgazette.com

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You dye your hair and your scalp turns red, as well as your forehead. www.consultantlive.com

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The skin underneath your wedding ring is chafed and itching. www.karlandkat.com

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Your waistband is breaking out in a rash. Image credit: escholarship.org

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You break out where your cell phone rests on your face. Image credit: www.cmaj.ca

It’s an allergic reaction to a product or something that is coming in contact with your skin that can seemingly develop overnight. This condition is called contact dermatitis and is the result of your body becoming sensitized to an ingredient or ingredients in a product you are using. In most cases, the allergy-inducing products are used for a long time and suddenly without warning, the skin reacts to it. For some reason, the immune system goes crazy. It is such a common, prevalent problem that dermatologists are now specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of it.

Here are two stories of women who’ve had this experience:

Shayne:

Shayne always had seasonal allergies to such things as dogs, mold, dust and pollen. After the birth of her last child, she noticed new food allergies popping up, most notably to dairy, tomatoes and brazil nuts. She eliminated those from her diet (that’s pretty much all Italian food). Then she noticed that sometimes her right eye would develop an eczema looking rash and would swell shut. She would stop using her regular products and it would stop. But, then it would begin again. She began using “all natural” products, such as Kiss My Face or Tom’s of Maine. But the problem persisted.

Ouida:

Ouida (pronounced Wee-da) had minimally invasive spine surgery to correct two herniated disks on her sciatic nerve. She had two rods and six screws placed in her back. Instead of relieving her back pain, her back pain changed. She experienced strange pains in the area of the surgery that felt like she was being “electrocuted”. Her skin on her back was itchy, it broke out in blisters and it turned white. She stopped all of her medications on the advice of her doctor, but the itching did not stop.

I don’t know about you, but I use lots of products day in and day out (skincare and beauty products, cleaning products, hand sanitizers, medicine on occasion, you name it), and stories like this give me pause. Take a look at what the Mayo Clinic lists as some of the common allergens and irritants that can cause contact dermatitis:

  • Nickel, a metal widely used in earrings and other costume jewelry, watchbands, zippers and clothing fasteners, hair curlers and eyelash curlers, and coins
  • Poison ivy, oak or sumac, which contain a strongly allergenic oil (urushiol)
  • Cashew nuts, which contain a substance chemically similar to the urushiol found in poison ivy
  • Antibiotics, antihistamines or antiseptics you apply to your skin as lotions or creams (topical medicines)
  • Fragrances or flavorings, including those that contain balsam of Peru, an oil from a Central and South American tree
  • Strong detergents or soaps
  • Skin cleansers
  • Makeup and other cosmetics
  • Deodorant
  • Clothing or shoes
  • Household cleaning products
  • Formaldehyde and other chemicals
  • Natural rubber (latex)
  • Jewelry

I asked Louisville dermatologist Dr. Tami Cassis and she says allergic product reactions seem to be more common in women over 35. Though there is no crystal ball to predict if or when you might react to an ingredient, long-term exposure seems to be the culprit. I’m really hoping I don’t develop an allergy to my favorite products or jewelry, but since I’m the curious sort (and a former Girl Scout who likes to be prepared), I also asked Dr. Cassis what you do if this happens.

The first thing, besides discontinuing use of the product that you believe to be the offender, is to get patch tested. This is different from a regular allergy test. A regular allergy test tests for things such as pet dander, grass, mold, shellfish, etc. A patch test tests 75 ingredients on your body in patches on your back. (The patches include such things as nickel, paraben, petroleum, fragrance, dyes. The list is long.) A dermatologist administers the patches on a Monday, you return on a Wednesday to get them taken off and then return to the doctor on Friday to see which ingredients you are allergic to.

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This is what your back looks like during the patch test. And scroll quickly past the next image if  you don’t want to see what the allergic reactions can look like. Image credit: dermassociatesoftb.com

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These are various reactions that help determine the severity of a product allergy. Image credit: ainotes.wikispaces.com

Within the last few years, a computer test has been developed that will generate the results of your patch testing and then tell you which products you can use safely. Before, patients were all asked to be meticulous label readers. But here’s the catch if you are reading labels, according to Dr. Cassis. Companies are not necessarily honest about their ingredients. There are many many different ways to list rubber, and if you do not have knowledge of all of the pseudonyms, you would never know. It is “the underbelly” of the preservative world according to her. Preservatives are in everything, and it is for this reason that our exposure rate is so increased and widespread and starts at such a young age.

Finding relief from a product allergy can be much more complicated than just a simple eye cream change. Some patients patch test, only to find that they are allergic to up seven or eight things. Here’s what happened to Shayne and Ouida:

Shayne:

Shayne’s patch test revealed that she is allergic to heavy metals such as nickel, chromium and gold. This means she can only wear platinum (at least she can give her husband this excuse!). Also, she is allergic to acrylates, which are used in everything from hand sanitizers, to hair products to lotions. She is allergic to all natural fragrances, as well. This means she cannot wear ANY makeup, for all makeup contains minerals. She wakes up, washes her face and leaves the house wearing not a stitch of products, other than Vaseline on her lips. And the only hair product she can use is pressed coconut oil. Think about this for getting dressed for a job interview, or Derby, or a black tie. No makeup at all. Shayne says a year of being beauty product-free has been the most humbling experience. She still has flare ups, too. It starts with her ears getting hot and then moves over to her eyes.

Ouida:

Ouida went to see Dr. Tami Cassis on the advice of her family physician, to treat the itchy skin around her incision. Dr. Cassis looked at the incision, diagnosed her as allergic to the titanium metal in her spinal rods and got her into patch testing immediately. The doctor who administered the patch test said that they had never seen anyone test so positive to so many allergens. Ironically, the manufacturer of the spinal rod had just recently changed the metal from nickel to titanium, as so many people were allergic to nickel. Less than 1% of the population of the world is allergic to titanium. She had to wait 18 months to get her metal rods replaced with porcelain ones and now her back is better. As a side note, she also realized she was allergic to fragrances, dyes, and any synthetic products. She has to wear 100% cotton, 100% wool or 100% silk. Try finding a bra made of those materials. Or workout clothes. She can tolerate a blended fabric for about two hours before she starts breaking out and itching.

Yes, these women have had extreme cases that most of us won’t be faced with, but if you do find yourself suddenly allergic, Dr. Cassis says to ask your dermatologist to refer you to physician who specializes in patch testing.

Thank you, Dr. Cassis! For more information about patch testing, visit the T.R.U.E. Test website: www.truetest.com. For more information about Dr. Cassis or her practice, visit her website: cassisderm.com.