It’s always extra frustrating when cosmetics that promise glowy skin and sheer coverage result in inflammation and redness. We know that beauty is not a one-size-fits-all industry, and there are some formulations that might be perfect for some while extremely irritating to others. Depending on your own skin microbiome, a certain face oil or foundation can be a godsend—or a nightmare.

Currently, we haven’t really known what prompts these allergic responses, deeming “sensitive skin” as the culprit, and we recommend those with allergies to avoid using products with triggering ingredients. 

But a study published in the journal Science Immunology shows that there’s a scientific reason some people may develop rashes from certain skin care products—and there may be a way to stop it in its tracks. 

Why do allergies happen in the first place?

Before diving into it, a little refresher on how our immune response works: When our immune systems recognize a certain chemical as foreign, our T-cells assess it as a threat and work to expel the threat from our bodies, manifesting in some sort of inflammatory response (or in this case, a contact dermatitis rash). 

But T-cells don’t recognize small chemicals as a threat, for the most part. That’s why scientists are so intrigued by allergic reactions from skin care and makeup products: because the compounds in these formulas can be tiny. Up until now the thought was that compounds in makeup should be invisible to our immune system’s T-cells—turns out, that might not be the case.

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So why do these tiny compounds cause an immune response?

When the researchers tested human cells in tissue culture, they found that common chemicals known for causing an allergic response actually bind to a certain molecule on our skin cells, called CD1a, which then makes them visible to our immune system’s T-cells. 

They identified over a dozen tiny chemicals that were able to bind to those skin cell molecules, but two chemicals of note were balsam of Peru and farnesol, which are found in everyday personal care items like skin creams and fragrances.

These chemicals not only bind to CD1a molecules, but they also kick out the lipids that naturally take place there—scientists suspect that without those natural lipids, the immune system is able to recognize the CD1a skin molecules as a threat. 

How can we use this info to stop makeup allergies?

Currently, the only way to combat an allergy to a makeup product is to, you know, stop using that product. Although there are topical creams and ointments on the market to help soothe an angry rash, avoiding products that trigger an inflammatory response is key. 

But what’s exciting about this new study is that these scientists believe they can stop the allergic response in its tracks—by applying lipids to the skin that would replace the ones kicked out by the chemical compounds, they can stop the molecules from triggering the immune response. 

They’ve identified specific lipids from previous studies and know the names of “several lipids that can bind to CD1a but won’t activate T-cells.” While more research is definitely needed before we can stop cosmetic allergies for good, researchers are confident there is a rash-free light at the end of the tunnel. According to the scientists, identifying that specific molecule is a significant first step.

“We have to be cautious about claiming that this is definitively how it works in allergic patients,” explains co-leader of the study Annemieke de Jong, Ph.D. “But the study does pave the way for follow-up studies to confirm the mechanism in allergic patients and design inhibitors of the response.” 

So, people with certain makeup allergies might not be confined to brands marketed toward people with sensitive skin. While there have been some amazing strides toward developing products for sensitive skin that don’t compromise fun and flair, unfortunately the list just isn’t as comprehensive as conventional products. But if these researchers can figure out a way to stop these compounds from triggering an inflammatory response, consumers with sensitive skin would be free to roam the aisles of beauty retailers with no qualms of irritation and redness looming over their heads.

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