How to spot a potential allergic reactions vs. irritation, according to skincare experts

When using new acne products, be on the lookout for these symptoms.

Allison Buckley Avatar

Allison Buckley, NP-C
Feb 26, 2020 · 7 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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Welcome to Ask Curology, a series on the Curology blog in which one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare, from finding the best sunscreen for your skin type to figuring out what your dry skin is trying to tell you. This week on the blog: whether you call ’em blotches or splotches, red face irritation can happen to anyone—and it can even be a side effect of your Curology custom cream. Here’s how to soothe red, itchy skin on your face, whether it’s a result of irritation or an allergic reaction.

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Dear Curology,

Help! My face is burning and red and dry! I’m prone to dry skin, but why is my face red now that I’ve started my trial of Curology? And more importantly, how can I get rid of the redness on my face?!

Sincerely,

A Curology Newbie

Dear Newbie,

Ack! We’re sorry you’re dealing with face redness—thankfully, many remedies are relatively simple, whether your irritation is due to a new prescription ingredient or a result of having super dry skin. It sounds like you’re one of the lucky ones who get to experience both—and you’re certainly not alone. In your case, it’s important to know that when starting any new topical prescription medication like your Curology Custom Formula, it’s not unusual to experience temporary dryness, flaking, redness, mild itching, or stinging.

We understand that these symptoms can be worrisome and may seem like a setback, but they are often normal! Your skin may be more sensitive and dry as the ingredients start to unclog pores and smooth the skin’s surface.

As dermatology providers, we see this all the time—so here’s one easy way to help you cope while your skin adjusts: Use a gentle cleanser! Try a hydrating facial cleanser that’s free of harsh alcohols (like your Curology cleanser) and be sure to wash with your fingers—washcloths, scrubs, or devices like rotating brushes might worsen irritation of your skin. In general, it’s best to stick to a simple routine (like the Curology 3-step routine) while your skin adjusts.

Here are some other tips that can help you ease the irritation.

If your skin is red and irritated, you may want to try:

  • Applying your moisturizer before your Curology medication. It’ll work just as well over or under your moisturizer. We recommend applying a thin layer of a thicker variety, such as our Curology rich moisturizer.

  • Using a humidifier—they’re a good investment for anyone hoping to ward off skin dryness (especially in the winter). Run it in your office while you work, in your living room while you relax, or in your bedroom while you sleep—it’s great to use anywhere you spend a lot of time.

Close-up of a pair of hands squeezing some Curology moisturizer onto their fingertips.

If your skin is red and irritated, you may want to avoid:

  • Rushing through your skincare routine. Wait at least 10–20 minutes after washing your face before applying your medicated cream. If you apply a product with active ingredients to damp skin, your skin can absorb the product more quickly, which can lead to irritation.

  • Over-applying skincare. Apply your Curology medication Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. Once your skin has adapted to it, you can slowly increase the frequency from there.

  • Take care with extra active ingredients. Introducing too many actives at once can cause skin chaos. While your skin is adjusting to your Curology Custom Formula, we recommend giving a pass on products that contain ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, retinol, salicylic acid, and alpha-hydroxy acids (like glycolic or lactic acid). Once your skin has gotten the hang of your Curology Custom Formula, you can slowly add these back into your routine, one at a time.

What’s the difference between allergy and irritation?

It’s also important to know that there’s a difference between temporary irritation and an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction is an immune response, and it can take hours or days for a rash to appear.¹ If you are experiencing anything much more significant than mild dryness, flaking, redness, itching, and/or stinging, reach out to your Curology provider as soon as possible for advice and further recommendations. But keep in mind that if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it isn’t necessarily an allergic reaction either.

What causes irritation?

The tricky thing about skin irritation is that many different things can trigger it, and because everyone’s skin is unique, one person’s skin may react differently than another’s. Here are a few common reasons why your skin might be dry, itchy, or experiencing some other symptom of irritation.

  • Not enough moisturizer. It’s always important to use a good moisturizer, especially if you are also using an acne treatment. Dry skin is prone to irritation,² so don’t forget to apply your favorite facial moisturizer at the end of your skincare routine.

  • Harsh ingredients. Too much of a good thing can actually turn out to be a bad thing. If you’re using multiple acne treatments with different active ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or retinoids, they can cause irritation.

  • Genetics. It might not come as much of a surprise; after all, Mama said there’ll be days like this. But yes, genetics has also been linked to being a factor for allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.³

  • Immune system. Allergic contact dermatitis is an immune response.⁴ Your immune system plays a role in determining what exactly you’re allergic to.

  • Preservatives. These are also common allergens that may cause irritation in some people.⁵ If you have a known allergy to certain preservatives, check the label of your products, including makeup and hair care, to see if they contain them.

  • Household items. Things you have around the house like detergents, disinfectants, antiperspirants, and cosmetic products can also cause adverse reactions.⁶ If you recently tried a new brand of deodorant or dish soap and noticed a negative skin reaction, it might be the culprit.

What should you do if you have a negative reaction?

If you do happen to experience a negative reaction to any skincare product, the best thing to do is stop using it immediately. Doing so will give your skin a break and allow it to heal. If you’re suspicious that you may be having an allergic reaction to a specific product or combination of products, be it for skincare or another purpose (detergents, etc.), take a break and see if your skin responds. If the reaction clears up, chances are likely you’ve found the product or products that are to blame.

How can you help prevent and minimize skin irritation?

Skin irritation is uncomfortable, but luckily, there are several simple habits you can adopt to help minimize the possibility of upsetting your skin in the first place. 

  • Do a spot test. If you’re trying a new product and are unsure about how your skin might react, do a small spot test before going full force. This may help you catch a negative reaction quickly. Irritation often occurs after repeated applications, so just know a single spot test might not be sufficient to catch a potentially irritating product. And keep in mind, that this type of test does not replace the in-office patch test performed by a medical provider. 

  • Always read the label. If you know that your skin is irritated by certain ingredients, check the labels of new products to see if they’re lurking in the formula. 

  • Keep it fragrance-free. Fragrances have been known to irritate skin or cause an allergic reaction,⁷ so when it comes to your skincare products, go with unscented options whenever possible.

  • Speak with a dermatologist. If you want to get more specific and in-depth advice, a dermatologist or medical provider can help you identify what could be causing your irritation or allergy.

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When it comes to taking care of your skin, we’ve got your back. Curology brings dermatologist-designed skincare right to your door—alongside guidance and expertise you can trust. Let us do the heavy lifting by creating products packed with great ingredients—all you have to do is sign up. If you have questions about your Curology products, feel free to reach out to your provider. If you are worried you might have an allergic reaction, make an appointment with your local medical provider for diagnosis and treatment. Showing your skin some love has never been easier, thanks to Curology—and you can get your first month free.*

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FAQs

What’s the difference between allergy and irritation?

An allergic reaction is an immune response, and it can take hours or days for a rash to appear. If you are experiencing anything much more significant than mild dryness, flaking, redness, itching, and/or stinging, reach out to your Curology provider as soon as possible for advice.

What causes irritation?

  • Not enough moisturizer. Dry skin is prone to irritation, so don’t forget to apply your favorite facial moisturizer at the end of your skincare routine.

  • Harsh ingredients. If you’re using multiple acne treatments with different active ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or retinoids, they can cause irritation.

  • Genetics. Genetics have also been linked to being a factor for allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.

What should you do if you have a negative reaction?

If you do happen to experience a negative reaction to any skincare product, the best thing to do is stop using it immediately. Doing so will give your skin a break and allow it to heal.

• • •

P.S. We did the research so you don’t have to:

1. American Academy of Dermatology. Eczema Types: Contact dermatitis causes. (n.d.).

2. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 skin care habits that can worsen acne. (n.d.).

3. Kezic, S. Genetic susceptibility to occupational contact dermatitis.International journal of immunopathology and pharmacology vol. 24,1 Suppl ( January- March 2011).

4. Mowad, C. M., et al. Allergic contact dermatitis: Patient diagnosis and evaluation. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016).

5. Food and Drug Administration. Allergens in Cosmetics. (2022, February 25).

6. American Academy of Dermatology. Eczema Types: Contact dermatitis causes. Ibid.

7. Johansen, Jeanne D. Fragrance contact allergy: a clinical review. American journal of clinical dermatology. (2003).

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Allison Buckley Avatar

Allison Buckley, NP-C

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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