I’ve always considered my face the perfect product guinea pig. I’ve been fortunate enough to never suffer from severe sensitivities or acne, so trying out a new product or treatment never phased me. Those sheets you fill out before a facial explaining your concerns or past diagnoses? It’s a long list of N/A for me. Well, until four months ago.
In a beauty editor’s worst nightmare scenario, I came in contact with an ingredient in a mask that, low and behold to my knowledge, did not agree with my skin. I washed off the mask to find my skin bright red, tight, and stinging, and kind of like I had sat outside in the sun for five hours without SPF. I splashed my face with water, applied a cooling mask (which immediately stung), and put an ice pack to my face. After a few hours, my skin returned to a pink state, and I shrugged thinking it was just a bad reaction and that was that... But then the side effects continued. Over the next few weeks, my normal go-to products stung or burned, I was breaking out more, and I was blotchy. I started treating my skin with more anti-acne products, thinking I was dealing with a bout of blemishes. Finally, after a few weeks of trail and error, an itchy, pimply rash on my forehead that would not go away sent me to the dermatologist's office. Enough was enough.
I explained everything to my dermatologist, Dr. Patricia Wexler, as it happened. The reason my skin was freaking out? I had completely compromised my skin barrier.
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She told me that the skin barrier holds high levels of ceramides that protect the immunologic and homeostatis health of the skin, which keeps out bacteria, allergens, and maintains moisture. "In your case, inflammation and an immune response caused this barrier impairment and the loss of moisture from your skin," she said.
The side effects of this, she explained, tend to be inflamed, dry skin, which is exactly what I was dealing with. To make matters worse, my impairment triggered an eczema response, to which I figured was acne and started treating as so. The result of that bad idea? Even more irritated skin because I was sucking whatever moisture I had left out of my face.
Now, allergic reactions aren't the only cause of barrier impairment. Atopic dermatitis (eczema), according to Dr. Wexler, is actually the suspect. "Other causes of barrier impairment include excessive washing with soap, dust mite proteases, infections such as staph aureus, and topical allergens," she noted.
The fix was completely transforming my beauty routine, cutting most of my serums, oils, and favorite cleansers out and swapping them for mild (read: less likely to irritate and with little actives) formulas that were heavy in moisture to build up my barrier once again. I also had to cut the acne products because they weren't doing anything for the rash of eczema on my forehead.
Dr. Wexler recommended a gentle micellar water, like Simple's Micellar Cleansing Water ($9; target.com), Eucerin Eczema Relief Creme ($8; walgreens.com), a prescription for my rash on my forehead, Elta MD Clear SPF Broadspectrum 46 ($33; dermstore.com), and SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator ($178; dermstore.com). And that, my friends, was all I was told to use. I was also instructed to pat all my products on my face, instead of rubbing which could trigger a histamine response.
Over six weeks, the redness faded, the rash on my forehead completely cleared up, and my skin felt and looked like my moisture levels were rising. The stinging subsided, and I started to feel more confident not wearing foundation or concealer on the weekends because my tone was getting back to normal.
So am I cured? Maybe, but maybe not. According to Dr. Wexler, patients that have barrier issues could have a genetic predisposition and should be extremely careful so another episode doesn't arise. However, if it's due to an allergen, which seems likely in my face, recurrences aren't expected.
When skin returns to total normality, Dr. Wexler said patients can slowly add back in favorite products.
My suggestion? If you're dealing with a bad reaction to a product, don't diagnose yourself and go see a dermatologist as soon as you can. If you already know you have barrier impairment, consider following some of Dr. Wexler's tips or exactly what your skincare pro tells you to do.
While I'm so excited to give my anti-aging serum the limelight once again, I will definitely be taking it one tub of cream at a time.