What to Know About Cosmetic Ingredients When You Have Chronic Hives

Cosmetics are items used on your body to make it cleaner, more attractive, or alter its appearance. Hair dyes, cosmetics, and fragrances are all cosmetics.

In some people, cosmetics can sometimes trigger an allergic response that causes their skin to become discolored and irritated. Other things like perfumes might trigger breathing problems.1

People with chronic hives may be even more sensitive to cosmetic ingredients than the average consumer. Reading product labels and knowing what to look for can help you avoid some common triggers of hives.

Fragrances or perfumes

Perfumes can cause skin reactions and affect the respiratory system. This is more likely to happen if you have asthma, allergies, or a cold.1

Scented products can be found in everyday household items, such as:1

  • Air fresheners
  • Cleaning products and detergents
  • Fabric softeners
  • Soaps
  • Personal care items
  • Colognes
  • Hand sanitizers

In a survey-based study that spanned 4 countries (United States, Australia, United Kingdom, and Sweden) from 2016 to 2019, nearly 1 in 3 adults reported sensitivity to fragrances. Nearly 1 in 10 of those people lost productive work days because of exposure to perfumes.2

Companies can use perfumes to hide offensive compounds in cosmetics and personal care items. Herbal components or botanical oils may also be used to disguise the unpleasant odors. Common masking fragrances include:3

  • Rose oil
  • Vanilla
  • Sweet almond oil

These products may be marketed as "unscented," “fragrance-free,” or "no fragrance."3

Preservatives

Chemicals used to keep cosmetics fresh are known as preservatives. Preservatives can cause allergies in some people, either with skin contact or if inhaled. Common preservatives used in cosmetics include:1

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a chemical that is made in some products. If you buy something with formaldehyde, it will be released as a gas for a long time. Formaldehyde is found in many household products, including cosmetics like:1,4

  • Makeup
  • Nail polish
  • Cream
  • Shampoo
  • Bubble bath
  • Deodorant

Formaldehyde may be listed on cosmetic product labels as:1,4

  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
  • Bronidox (5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane)
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate (SHMG)
  • DMDM hydantoin (1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethylhydantoin)
  • Quaternium-15 (Dowicil 200, N-(3-chloroallyl) hexaminium chloride)

Isothiazolinone (Kathon™) and methylisothiazolinone (MI)

These common preservatives are often found in liquid cosmetic products, like:1,5

  • Foundation and concealer
  • Bronzer and self-tanner
  • Eyeshadow
  • Mascara
  • Makeup remover
  • Moisturizer

Dyes

Dyes, dye chemicals, and added colors can irritate the skin and lead to allergic reactions in some people. You can find these listed as p-phenylenediamine (PPD) or coal tar on product labels.1

Metals

Metals found in cosmetics can trigger allergic reactions in some people, especially those with eczema. Check product labels for nickel and gold, which are the most common metals used in cosmetic products.1

Surfactants

Surfactants are chemicals that allow soaps to clean better by giving them a slippery feel. Some people have skin irritation or allergic reactions to these. Common cosmetics with surfactants include:6-8

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Liquid soap
  • Body wash
  • Bar soap
  • Beauty masks
  • Hair mousse and foam

Cocamidopropyl betaine is a common surfactant listed on product labels.7

Latex

Between 1 and 6 percent of people in the United States have an allergy to latex. Common cosmetics with latex include:9

  • Eyelash glue
  • Eyeliner
  • Hair bonding glue
  • Face and body paint

What can you do?

Always check product labels and follow the manufacturer's instructions. It is critical to read product labels, since some goods include things that can irritate regardless of whether you have chronic urticaria or not.

There are products available without chemicals. Keep in mind, these products can still irritate the skin if not used as directed. Follow the instructions on the label for safe use.

If you still have concerns about the chemicals in the product after reading its ingredient label, contact the company that made it.

You can also submit a report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) if you believe a product triggered your hives.

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Written by Alyson Powell Key and Katie Murphy │ Last reviewed: April 2022