Confessions Of An Allergy-Ridden Beauty Writer

What's a girl to do when her skin revolts against the contents of her beauty bag?
Publish date:
February 11, 2013
beauty, beauty products, allergies

I’m a burgeoning lifestyle writer with a penchant for all things beautiful, and as luck should have it, I’m allergic to a large percentage of beauty products –- or, rather, to a preservative that’s found in many of them, called thimerosal.

And I’m not alone. This particular preservative is said to be the fifth most common allergy, causing a reaction in 10.2 per cent of people, according to a recent study.

The end result is a face full of red, itchy, puffy eczema (a.k.a. atopic dertmatitis) that can only be remedied by one of two prescription ointments: hydrocortizone, which could allegedly eat through my skin and/or cause blindness, or tacrolimus, which gives me a fever, makes me feel like my skin is melting off (which it actually kind of is) and increases my risk of skin cancer. Both totally appealing options, right?

And so began my quest for an alternative.

 I was first made aware of this allergy when I was around 22 years old and I started getting welts all over my body from what I eventually discovered was my heavily scented laundry detergent. Next came that strange morning, pre-fourth-year English exam, when the right side of my mouth swelled up to triple its original size, and to this day I don’t know what caused it.

And then there was the realization, before I experienced the wonders of laser eye surgery, that most contact lens solutions are thimerisol-based. What’s worse, my initial reaction to said solution occurred as I was backpacking through Europe, forcing me to wander around sunny Spain with blurry vision and eyes half-shut in an attempt to limit the light-induced burning sensation.

Next, the problems moved to the most sensitive parts of my face: around the eyes, ears, mouth, and neck. The constant reactions around my eyes have taken a toll on the area’s delicate skin. I’m still not sure if it’s a result of the ongoing flare-ups over the years or the ointments I’ve been using to calm them, but what I’ve been left with are premature under-eye wrinkles that make getting carded at the liquor store a lot less frequent than I’d like to admit. 

Proactiv was one of the first skin care products that I had a very adverse reaction to -- thank goodness for the money-back guarantee. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather deal with a few pesky pimples once in a while than be left with a face covered in eczema and a linen closet full of bleached-out pillow cases.

After noticing the connection between at-home manicures and my eczema-ravaged face, I took to Google (as one does) and discovered that nail polish is the most common cause of eyelid dermatitis in North America -- I bet you didn’t know that. First, the skin surrounding my nail beds gets itchy, then my eyelids, and I wake up the next day looking like Will Smith in the food allergy scene of that ’05 romcom "Hitch."

It doesn’t happen with every polish brand, and with my very extensive collection (thanks, in part, to months and months of interning at local fashion mags) it’s become quite difficult to know which ones to bid a teary-eyed farewell to and which ones to take a risk on. Salon gel manicures and those pre-dried nail polish strips don’t seem to cause a reaction, so that’s a small consolation.

Over the years, I’ve slowly made the switch to mostly natural beauty products in an effort to avoid triggering such facial mayhem, and I’ve become pretty good at figuring out which types of regular products I can get away with using reaction-free—like most makeup, as long as I don’t fall asleep with it on (the cardinal beauty sin), because that equals disaster every time.

My skin care, in most cases, must be free of chemicals and preservative irritants, and nail polish, as previously mentioned, is another category I need to be very careful with.

Being the beauty lover that I am, I’m constantly experimenting with new products to see what my skin will accept and what it will reject. I’m always pleasantly surprised when a mass-market brand with no boastful “green” claims ends up being gentle enough for my finicky skin, and I’m of course thoroughly let down when I encounter the product greenwashing that is far too prevalent today.

I’m talking about the brands claiming to be all-natural, or wording their labels in such a way that you assume they are, when it’s really just the same old chemical-laden stuff with a higher price point. Or sometimes the brand name is strategically selected to make people believe the products are free of all that toxic garbage, using words like “clean,” “green,” “pure,” or “nature," while the products may in fact only contain very small amounts of natural oils and extracts.

Personally, I can often tell within seconds of application if a label’s been deceitful because my skin stings and itches; it will not be fooled. It’s happened with products claiming to be “all-natural” or for “sensitive skin,” and, my personal favorite misnomer, “hypoallergenic.”

That means nothing, really. Really. And to anyone who doesn’t believe me, my next-day’s swollen eyes will tell the tale.

If you’re reading this thinking, I don’t even get eczema, and I don’t have allergies; this is the most useless story ever, think again. Even if you don’t have cosmetic-related allergies, skin sensitivities or blemishes caused by mineral oil- and petroleum-filled products that are clogging your pores (oil-free is not the answer, folks), you might still have concerns about what you’re putting on your skin -- because it’s absorbed, just like the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Not to get all preachy on you, but wouldn’t you feel better knowing that the lotions you’re slathering on or the lipsticks you’re inadvertently ingesting daily are actually edible? I sure would.

But, having said that, I refuse to restrict myself to only natural products all the time. I tend to make occasional exceptions for things like fun lip color, eye makeup, and hard-to-come-by nail polish shades, but good-quality, plant-derived skin care is my non-negotiable.

Finding the best beauty regimen for yourself is all about trying different things and seeing how they make you feel. Because, after all, even truly all-natural products can cause allergic reactions in some people. So decide independently where you want to draw the line when it comes to ingredients and price point.

There’s a learning curve involved, and we all have different skin and different outlooks -- no judgment here. After more than five years of dealing with my preservative allergy, I’m still in the process of figuring out what works best for me.

 Now, what better way to give you all a head start on revamping your beauty bags than to have the sensitive-to-almost-everything girl (that’s me, duh) recommend some of the gentlest products out there? You’re welcome.

Lindsay-Approved Beauty Products

Facial skin care:


Yes to Cucumbers Gentle Milk Cleanser

Boscia Soothing Cleansing Cream

Weleda Almond Soothing Cleansing Lotion

Juice Beauty Cleansing Milk


• Naturopathica Pumpkin Purifying Enzyme Peel

Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel Sensitive

Pure+Simple Sensitive Skin Exfoliant + Face Mask

Pure+Simple Purifying French Clay Mask

Jurlique Intense Recovery Mask

Boscia Luminizing Black Mask


Holistic Vanity Anti-Inflam Calendula Skin Tonic

Burt’s Bees Rosewater Toner

Jurlique Chamomile Soothing Mist

Origins Purifying Tonic

Suki Skincare Concentrated Balancing Toner


Korres Wild Rose Face and Eye Serum

Yes to Blueberries Intensive Skin Repair Serum

Pure+Simple Algae Serum

Jurlique Soothing Herbal Recovery Gel

Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence

Ole Henriksen Truth Serum Collagen Booster


Korres Wild Rose 24-Hour Moisturizing & Brightening Cream

• La Roche-Posay Toleraine Riche Soothing Protective Cream

Josie Maran 100% Pure Argan Oil

Holistic Vanity Comforting Camellia Oil

Skinceuticals Hydrating B5 Gel

Dr. Hauschka Normalizing Day Oil

Dr. Hauschka Rose Day Cream

Aēsop Fabulous Face Oil

Perricone MD No Foundation Foundation

Martina Gebhardt Black Mud Facial Cream and lotion

Weleda Almond Soothing Facial Oil

Tata Harper Rebuilding Moisturizer

Origins Nourishing Face Lotion

Korres Evening Primrose Eye cream

Lip Care

EOS Smooth Sphere Lip Balm

Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm

Josie Maran Argan Lip Treatment


Korres Coconut Milk Showergel and Guava Body Butter

Burt’s Bees Naturally Nourishing Milk & Honey Body Lotion and Radiance Exfoliating Body Wash

Dr. Bronner’s Rose Bar Soap and Lavender Coconut Organic Lotion

Dr. Hauschka Almond Body Moisturizer

Green Beaver Gluten Free Body Wash

Weleda Sea Buckthorn Creamy Body Wash, Sea Buckthorn Replenishing Body Lotion and Sea Buckthorn Body Oil

EOS Everyday Hand Lotion


Suki Skincare Tinted Active Moisturizer

Korres Watermelon Lightweight Tinted Moisturizer, Quercetin & Oak Concealer and Mango Butter Lipstick

Tarte Amazonian Clay Finishing Powder, Airblush Maracuja Blush, LipSurgence Matte Lip Tint

Josie Maran Argan Matchmaker Serum Foundation, Magic Marker Lip and Cheek Stain, Argan Illuminizer

Bite Beauty Matte Crème Lipstick and High Pigment Matte Pencil

Boscia B.B. Cream Broad Spectrum SPF 27


John Masters Organics — all of it!


Look for brands free of the three worst chemical solvents (a.k.a. 3-free) dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, and formaldehyde, including the following.




butter London

Priti NYC

Rescue Beauty Lounge

Scotch Naturals

Spa Ritual

Does anybody else have major makeup allergies? What are your go-to brands?