Top 5 Allergens in Moisturizers

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Moisturizers that claim to be all-natural can still contain allergens. Is your favorite lotion doing your skin any favors? See more skin care ingredient pictures.
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You apply lotion or body cream to get smooth, silky legs, but you end up breaking out in hives. What gives? Yes, you need to moisturize to maintain a proper skin care regimen, but your body is constantly changing, and the way it reacts to things can be just as dynamic. Knowing the top five allergens in moisturizers can help you avoid products that are likely to irritate your skin. As with food choices, skin moisturizing makes for good health. But like food allergies, some people can develop skin allergies to ingredients contained in moisturizers [source: Orton]. In this list, HowStuffWorks takes the guesswork out of identifying potential allergens in moisturizers, so you'll be ready to shop smartly the next time you go to restock your beauty bar.


5: Fragrance

You may not be surprised that fragrance is one of the top five allergens in moisturizers. Just about every skin care cream, lotion, body butter and so on contains fragrance mixes that make you want to use it. These fragrances also mask the not-so-pleasant scents of other ingredients.

But what you don't know about this good-smelling stuff may be getting under your skin -- literally. Here's why: You may be one of 20 percent of people who get an allergic reaction (also known as contact dermatitis) to the chemicals that comprise fragrances [source: New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated]. What's more, people who develop fragrance allergies seem to experience an increase in the severity of reactions over time.


When you apply a skin moisturizing product that contains an allergen, your skin may become red, itchy and bumpy. Or, you may get a more severe reaction, such as discolored, flaky skin. If your skin suddenly breaks out in a rash once you apply a specific moisturizer, you'll probably want to rinse it off and a start using a different one that's fragrance-free.

4: Preservatives

Going about your daily skin care routine, you probably wouldn't even think twice about preservatives in your skin moisturizing products. It's common for facial and body lotions and creams to contain preservatives that reduce the risk of bacterial contamination [source: Mayo Clinic]. But would you believe that formaldehyde -- the same stuff that keeps dissection-ready frogs and embalmed corpses from rotting -- is used in a number of cosmetics, including moisturizers?

Formaldehyde is added to things you may encounter every day, ranging from industrial products like floor wax to mascara and blush. It's even found in hygiene products like shampoos and moisturizers. You probably won't have to rummage through your medicine cabinet for very long to find a beauty potion that contains quaternium-15, a preservative that releases formaldehyde. You may also want to look out for similar substances that release formaldehyde, such as:


  • bromonitropropane diol
  • diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • hydroxymethyl nitromethane
  • imidazolidinyl urea

Some moisturizers contain not just one preservative, but combinations of them. If you're looking for a moisturizer that won't irritate or trigger a reaction, then you'll probably want to stay away from those made with any of the preservatives we learned about here. But before you hit the beauty aisle, keep reading. You'll find more skin moisturizing tips in the next section.

3: Sunscreens

Slathering on moisturizer enhanced with sunscreen can save you an extra step in your skin care routine. But beware: Sunscreens are one of the top five allergens in moisturizers. Not every sunscreen causes allergic reactions, and not every person is allergic to sunscreen. To complicate things even further, you can't just avoid sunscreen altogether. It's necessary to protect your skin from the harsh effects of the sun, including cancer caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. Yet, there are few things to keep in mind about sunscreens to help you find the one suited for your skin.

Certain substances in sunscreens are potential allergens. Here are some to watch out for:


  • octocryle
  • dibenzoylmethanes
  • salicylates
  • cinnamates
  • benzophenones
  • para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)

[source: Crump]

You'll also want to keep an eye out for padimate A and O, which are related to PABA, because they can cause contact dermatitis in some people. If you have a sunscreen allergy, your dermatologist can help you find your ideal formula.

2: Lanolin

Wool alcohols, which are derived from sheep's fleece, can be used in skin care products. One such wool alcohol, lanolin, is a common emollient. As you may know, emollients are one of the active ingredients in moisturizers that replace oils in your skin and make it smooth. As with formaldehyde, you can find lanolin in a number of industrial products and household items like shoe polish, as well as in cosmetics.

If you notice your skin becoming swollen, red and itchy, and if you develop puffy blisters, these are signs that you may be allergic to the lanolin in your moisturizer, makeup or shaving cream. People with leg ulcers are especially susceptible to lanolin allergies. The good news is that there are other oil-based moisturizers that might work for you. If lanolin is making you itchy, opt for a lotion that contains mineral oil, instead.


1: Food Allergens

We'd be missing the mark with this list if we didn't include the obvious: Some foods that trigger allergic reactions when you ingest them can also cause harm when applied to the skin. Sure, it sounds simple enough, but it's easy to overlook. Take soy, for example, which causes some people to get food allergy symptoms like itchy, irritated skin. A similar reaction can occur when a skin moisturizing product that contains soy is applied directly to the skin. Itchy red and bumpy skin will signal that your body doesn't tolerate soy, even if it just makes external contact.

Eggs, milk, peanuts and wheat are a few other things that cause food or skin allergies with some people. If you know you're allergic to a food that we haven't mentioned, you'll want to pay attention to whether it's in the moisturizer you use. Keep this skin moisturizing tip in mind: If you ever develop a skin allergy, you may want to switch to a moisturizer that doesn't contain the ingredient you already know causes you a food allergy.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Association of Dermatology. "Allergic Contact Rashes." August 20, 2009. (August 29, 2009).
  • Boussalt, P. "Oat sensitization in children with atopic dermatitis: prevalence, risks and associated factors." Allergy. European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Allergy. Vol. 62(11). Pages 1251-1256. November 2007. (August 29, 2009.)
  • Crump, Vincent St. Aubyn. "Sunscreen Allergy." (August 29, 2009.)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Moisturizers: Options for softer skin." December 16, 2008. (August 29, 2009).
  • New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated. "Fragrance mix allergy." June 15, 2009. (August 29, 2009.)
  • Orton, David I. et al. "Cosmetic Allergies." American Journal of Clinical Dermatology." 2004. Vol. (5), pages 327-37. (August 29, 2009).$=relatedreviews&logdbfrom=pubmed
  • Saab, Tracie DeFreitas. "Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Fragrance Sensitivity." September 5, 2008. (August 29, 2009).
  • Truett, Trey. "Wool alcohols: Lanolin." (August 29, 2009.)