I was never what you would call “hot,” but people always told me I had pretty skin.
The first dermatologist I saw diagnosed the rosacea, which causes facial redness, flushing, burning, pimples, and flat, red bumps called papules. The second dermatologist told me I also had seborrheic dermatitis, which causes redness, flaking, itching, and scaling. It felt like there was a fire burning under my face, yet I also felt horribly itchy.
Unfortunately, nothing those first two dermatologists did helped. I went to four more with no luck. The seventh dermatologist, Dr. David Cohen, happened to specialize in skin allergies and rosacea, so he offered to patch test me to see if I had any allergies that were making my skin problems worse. I didn’t think I was allergic to anything, but I was desperate. Getting patch tested means spending several days with chemicals in tiny aluminum chambers taped to your back. No showering.
On the first day, when they put my patches on, there was a guy there who was so sensitive that the tape made his skin erupt. For me, the itching started the second day and continued until the test was over.
On the fourth day they read my results: Surprise! I had a ridiculous number of allergies! I was allergic to:
1) two metals, nickel and gold
2) two preservatives found in cosmetics, diazolidinyl urea and methyldibromoglutaronitrile/phenoxyethanol (it took me a year to spell those)
3) cinnamic aldehyde, a chemical used for fragrance in skin creams, soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, hair products, and cosmetics (It’s also used for flavoring in candy, drinks, ice cream, and gum.)
4) bee propolis, a natural substance found in beeswax and raw honey
5) two dental materials used in composite fillings and crowns*
I had become allergic to almost all my haircare products and skincare products, as well as to most of my dental work.
I got the bee propolis allergy from a raw honey mask that was supposed to cure seborrheic dermatitis. I put raw honey on my face every other day. In only three weeks, I developed the allergy; propolis is a strong sensitizer.
A lot of people think you can’t develop allergies to natural substances, but certain plants contain powerful allergens. For example, cinnamic aldehyde comes from the bark of cinnamon, cassia (Chinese cinnamon), and related trees.
Because of my cinnamic aldehyde allergy, I use only fragrance-free products. When an ingredient list says “fragrance,” you really don’t know what’s in there, because manufacturers don’t have to disclose the individual ingredients (at least in the U.S.). Fragrances can contain anywhere from dozens to hundreds of ingredients, all lumped in under that “fragrance” label. Many of these are endocrine disruptors or allergens. Some common fragrance allergens are limonene, linalool, hydroxycitronellal, and geraniol. Even products labeled “unscented” often contain a masking fragrance. “Fragrance-free” is the label to look for.
Skin allergies tend to last for life (although, for a lucky few, they do go away). People can become allergic to any product, even something they’ve used for years. (It’s much more likely that people will become allergic to things they use every day.)
Since I have allergic contact dermatitis and food allergies combined with rosacea, a lot of my allergic reactions show up on my face. If I get a rash on my body I can sometimes hide it, but if I get something on my face everyone can see it.
When I was tested, Dr. Cohen’s office gave me a list of safe products from the Contact Allergen Replacement Database (CARD), but for two years I was too scared to put anything on my face other than moisturizer and mineral sunscreen (with rosacea, the sun is a trigger, as is heavy exercise, hot showers, alcohol, extreme heat and cold, wind, and pretty much everything). The sunscreen had a whitish cast (it has a lot of zinc oxide) that slightly masked the redness. And rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis flare and subside, so sometimes I was really red and didn’t want to leave the house, sometimes I was moderately red, and sometimes I looked almost normal.
Because I took medication, cut out dairy and gluten, used distilled water to wash my face, and avoided my skin allergens and as many rosacea triggers as I could, by early 2013 I had improved. I felt brave enough to try foundation to hide the remaining redness. But the list I had gotten from the dermatology office was now three years old, and companies change their product formulas all the time. Luckily, Dr. Cohen told me there was an iPhone and web app that updated the safe products list to reflect changes in ingredients. Update, February 2015: The app is currently not working with iPhones 5 and 6, and the home page does not seem to be accepting new accounts for the app’s web-based version. I will update when I know more about what’s being done to fix these issues.
With allergic contact dermatitis, previously enjoyable activities like shopping become an exercise in frustration—nope, can’t use that, nope, not that, oh wait, what about that … probably not. Instead of thinking, “Will I like this product,” you think, “Will this product give me an itchy, burning rash that will last for weeks, if not months”? I obsessively read every label, trying to remember all the names of all my allergens (cinnamic aldehyde is also called cinnamal, cinnamaldehyde,
3-phenylpropenal, 3-phenylacrolein, benzylidinacetaldehyde, cassia aldehyde, etc.). This is when the app was helpful; it screened for all the names of the allergens and cross reactors (related chemicals that people with my allergies often react to).
When I looked for foundation, the app showed me a few mineral brands and a few liquid brands.
With rosacea, it’s better to use products containing as few ingredients as possible, because even if I’m not allergic to something, my skin is so hypersensitive that a lot of ingredients, like talc, can cause a flare-up.
So, for the liquid foundations on my list, the two Physician’s Formula brands had 23 and 16 ingredients, respectively, the L’Oreal had only seven but was impossible to find, and the CoverBlend Exuviance had 22 ingredients. And some of the ingredients looked like this:
Nylon-12 is actually nylon; it’s used in cosmetics as a thickener. Bonus points: It can cause allergies! Polyethylene is “a product of petroleum gas or dehydration of alcohol; one of a group of lightweight thermoplastics.” So far we had nylon and plastic, and only two ingredients in. Butylene glycol (not pictured, farther up the list) “has a similar toxicity to ethylene glycol, which when ingested may cause transient stimulation of the nervous system, then depression, vomiting, drowsiness, coma, respiratory failure, and convulsions; renal damage may proceed to kidney failure and death. One of the few humectants not on the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list of the FDA…” (Ruth Winter, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, 2009).
Yeah. Maybe time to look at the mineral makeup.
I noticed the mineral foundations on my list, Bare Minerals and La Bella Donna, had the same ingredients: bismuth oxychloride, titanium dioxide, iron oxides, mica, and zinc oxide. I was nervous about bismuth oxychloride because I had read it caused rashes and acne, but the other ingredients seemed OK. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide were already in my sunscreen, and my skin didn’t react to them (there is research linking lung damage to titanium dioxide, but it’s believed to be safer** in makeup that doesn’t use nanoparticles). I started researching mineral foundations with similar ingredients, and I found one, Alima Pure, that had titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, iron oxides,*** and mica,**** but no bismuth oxychloride and no nanoparticles. Also, a friend with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) used it occasionally. And many of the reviewers on the company’s website sounded like me: They had rosacea or contact allergies, or they were just looking for less toxic products.
Buying mineral foundation online is confusing. Alima Pure has 61 shades. My previous foundation-buying experience consisted of finding the shade closest to ghostly white and taking it to the cash register. Alima organizes colors by range, and colors in the lightest range, the “zero,” were way too pale for me. I couldn’t imagine anyone wearing these, except maybe for Goth makeup or Halloween costumes.
Since Alima is Internet-only, they will send you samples until you find a match. But you have to figure out if your undertones are pink or yellow. I thought the rosacea would make undertones a no-brainer, but no, rosacea is considered an overtone. I spent a lot of time peering at my jawline, my neck, and the inside of my arm in various types of lighting and annoying people by asking them if I seemed more pink or more yellow. I even bothered J.
After three exchanges of foundation samples, I figured out that I had some pink undertones and some yellow undertones, and I could wear two shades, Neutral 1 and Beige 1 (the “one” range is the second palest). I bought them both (I have no sales resistance). Neutral 1 matches my neck perfectly, but it has some pink undertones, so if I’m having a “red day” I have to wear it with Alima’s green color-corrector powder (which I don’t like as much as the foundation). Beige 1 has a yellowish undertone that cancels out redness, but it doesn’t match my neck as well, although it’s close enough to be unnoticeable.
Note: I have no financial affiliation with Alima Pure, except I cleaned out my wallet buying their stuff, because I was so happy to find something that didn’t make me react and that made my skin look normal. And they just had a winter sale, so I spent even more, dammit. (The foundation isn’t cheap: It’s $25 a jar, but it lasts a long time.)
I did buy the foundation brush, which I liked because it allowed me to apply a smooth coat of makeup with one or two swipes. With Bare Minerals, you “buff” the makeup in, which can be irritating. Also, the Alima brush is synthetic, so it’s softer than animal-hair brushes. The downside: The brushes are dyed black, so you will sometimes get one that bleeds dye for the first wash. (That sort of thing gives me a mini nervous breakdown, so I called customer service and they sent me a new one, which I washed about 800 times before using it, just in case. It’s good now!)
I’ve been using the foundation since last April, and I haven’t had any reactions. It hides the rosacea pretty well with a regular coat, but if I want to look like I’m wearing blush I just put a very light coat over my cheeks. I was at a makeup counter several months ago buying a gift certificate for a friend, and a woman looking at blushes asked me what shade I was wearing. “It looks so natural,” she said. “Thanks!” I replied. “It’s actually a skin disease.” She said she hadn’t seen a color called “skin disease” and asked where she could find it.
I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Note: To find a dermatologist who does allergy patch testing, visit the American Contact Dermatitis Society page and click on “Find a Physician.”
*I did a separate patch test for dental materials.
**Nanoparticles and micronized particles are the worst, but it’s best to try not to breathe in any mineral makeup that contains titanium dioxide.
***Iron oxides can contain nickel because of the mining process. Some people with nickel allergy react to them. I haven’t reacted to the iron oxides in this makeup, but that’s just me (I haven’t tried any other makeup since getting allergic contact dermatitis). I have a lot of allergies, but my nickel allergy is not as severe as some people’s. I always patch test a sample of everything first, as one person’s amazing product is another person’s hellish rash.
****Some people with nickel allergy react to mica. My dermatologist recommends patch testing for no less than two weeks on the inside of your elbow.