SINGAPORE - I like make-up as much as the next girl. Except, I can't wear any.
Zero. Zilch. Nothing.
I am allergic to cosmetics. The slightest drop of concealer or mascara, speck of eyeshadow or even tinted sunblock causes an adverse reaction.
It wasn't always like this. While I did not pile on the war paint in my younger days, I did vary my look occasionally with a lick of lipstick, a spot of blusher or a tick of eyeliner.
These options are no longer available to me. In the past year or so, my skin has become ultra-sensitive.
It started with dark patches developing around my tender eye area, after I patted on concealer to disguise some dark circles. Even though I used an oil-based remover to try to erase the patches, they have stayed put.
A few months ago, I looked in the mirror and discovered that the bronze blusher I had brushed on had left swathes of discoloured skin on both cheeks.
My eyeshadow left my lids stained like teabags. And then my under-eye area became even darker, no thanks to bits of eyeshadow flaking off my lids into the contour.
Hanging out at a make-up emporium here, which used to be my favourite place with all its hope in jars and dreams in creams, I squeezed a tester's drop of liquid blush on a fingertip and applied it to one cheek.
A little crater appeared on that spot the next morning.
A similar thing happened when I tried to stick on false eyelashes and accidentally smeared glue on one cheekbone.
A little hole, accompanied by brown pigmentation, appeared in the area a while later.
At first, I wasn't sure what was causing the mysterious nicks and spots. I suspected sun damage, and went around in big hats and sunglasses all day.
Then, I chanced upon an article in the Daily Mail - okay, it's not exactly the repository of scientific truth, but still - which warned of "chemical make-up ingredients" that "raise risk of skin damage".
The story which ran on Feb 11, 2011, quoted experts as saying that eyeshadow is among the worst offenders and can result in eczema and inflammation on eyelids.
Nail polish on your fingertips can also irritate your eyes when you touch your face. Indeed, I tried on some magnetic nail polish - all the rage last year, for the wavy patterns you could achieve by waving a magnet over the minute iron fillings in the polish itself - and had to take it off immediately, after my cuticles started to swell.
'Organic' or 'natural' not safe either
'Organic' or 'natural' not safe either
Products labelled "organic" or "natural" could contain potential allergens too.
I went to see a dermatologist about the discolouration on my face. He told me that I had sensitive skin and to stay away from products with retinol and vitamins A and C.
By then, I had already sifted through my substantial collection of skincare and make-up products and thrown out the ones with offending ingredients.
To my horror, I found that my favourite soya facial cleanser, from a brand that prides itself on using natural ingredients, contained retinyl palmitate, a controversial ingredient that has been linked to skin cancer.
A form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate made the news in 2010 when a scientific government study in the United States found that mice coated in a cream containing the substance developed more tumours and at a faster rate than those coated with a control cream.
The results have been disputed by dermatologists since and the jury is still out on whether retinyl palmitate should be banned in sunscreens.
The thing is, applying retinyl palmitate makes the skin look fantastic, as it shrinks pores and gets rid of pigmentation.
When I use my soya cleanser, I look great. Stop using it and my skin looks duller, darker and more pock-marked.
Yet, the thought that I might get cancer from a tube is so scary, I wouldn't want to take the risk now that doubt has been cast on the ingredient's safety.
Dye caused hair to fall out
Dye caused hair to fall out
Even with these measures, my skin has reacted badly to the strangest things.
One day at the pool, I applied my kids' sunscreen on my face, thinking it would be mild enough, but I ended up with itchy welts on the cheeks.
I have patches of discolouration on the corners of my mouth, where toothpaste foam has come into contact with the skin during my daily brushing.
Last year, I cast caution to the wind and paid dearly when I dyed my hair red - the harsh chemicals in the dye burnt little holes in my face, neck, shoulders and back. My hair also started falling out. I had no choice but to shave my head.
It's slowly growing back now, but where I once had thick glossy locks, I now have modest strands thinning at the front, top and sides.
Here's my advice: Toxic elements can accumulate in your body over time, even if you show no symptoms now.
It's always better to read ingredient lists on skincare and cosmetic labels carefully and avoid those that contain ingredients and preservatives that have been red-flagged.
As a mother, I also want to be careful about what I put on my body so that I don't jeopardise my kids' health unwittingly by having them touch or inhale toxins in my cosmetics.
In the 18th century, fashionable men and women were known to die after using face powder containing lead. Ironically, even in the 21st century, we might still be poisoning ourselves in our quest for beauty.
Clara Chow is a part-time copy editor for Life!.
More cases of 'sensitive skin' caused by beauty products: Doctors
Doctors are seeing more patients who say they have 'sensitive skin' caused by beauty products and treatments.
When Ms Fitrina Lim first read about creams made from snail slime that promised smoother and clearer skin, she was intrigued.
The 24-year-old undergraduate had never had problems with skincare products in the past, so she decided to order a bottle from an online store.
"The benefits sounded enticing and I do want perfect skin," she says.
After using the snail cream for a week, however, she developed painful, red and pus-filled bumps on her face.
"It was horrible. My skin became extremely sensitive; I could not even smile properly due to the pain and no concealer could hide the bumps," she recounts.
The doctor told her she had suffered a bad reaction to the product and gave her antibiotics and prescription creams. It took six months before her skin cleared up, but not without some scarring.
Ms Lim's experience might be an extreme example, but she is among a rising number of patients who suffer from sensitive skin caused by beauty products and procedures.
But "sensitive skin" is a layman's term rather than a medical condition. It usually refers to skin that is inflamed and easily irritated.
As the term is used loosely, Dr Raymond Kwah, a specialist in dermatology at Raffles Skin Centre, says more than half of those who consult dermatologists claim to have some form of sensitive skin.
A jump in number of cases
A jump in number of cases
Doctors are seeing more patients who report skin problems caused by the use of beauty products and treatments.
Dr Harneet Ranu, a consultant and specialist in dermatology at Raffles Skin Centre, says she sees about 60 such patients a month, a 30-per-cent jump from 2011.
She attributes this partly to a rise in new anti-ageing and whitening products, as well as a growing number of affordable beauty brands being launched here, making such products more accessible.
"The average patient is also more affluent nowadays and is able to afford expensive serums, creams and beauty treatments," she adds.
Over the same period, Associate Professor Giam Yoke Chin, senior consultant dermatologist at National Skin Centre, observed a 10-per-cent increase in such patients. Last year, she saw about 70 of them.
When Urban asked its Facebook readers to share their experiences with sensitive skin, more than 10 offered anecdotes on how beauty products caused their skin to itch, flake and turn red.
There are many reasons for skin inflammation and it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the causes, especially when one's beauty ritual involves many products.
Besides, ingredients react differently on individuals, says Dr Alain Khaiat, a scientist and president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of Singapore.
Harsh ingredients a culprit
Harsh ingredients a culprit
Still, doctors say the use of harsh ingredients in potent skincare potions is one of the main causes of inflammation.
Formulas that promise instant results are popular but they may contain higher concentrations of active ingredients.
Prof Giam says those who are genetically predisposed to sensitive skin conditions, such as eczema, are especially prone to flare-ups when using anti-ageing creams that contain alpha-hydroxy acid.
They should also avoid concentrated doses of vitamins A and C, which can be drying and irritating.
Many of her patients with inflamed skin caused by anti-ageing creams tend to be older women in their 40s and 50s, who have drier skin.
"It doesn't help if they also spend long hours in air-conditioned rooms and don't moisturise their skin," she adds.
Dr Harneet also sees many Asian women in their early 30s who have sensitised skin caused by whitening products blended from ingredients such as kojic acid, hydroquinone and azelaic acid.
"The ingredients come in small doses but, when combined, can cause a nasty reaction," she says. Follow product instruction
Improper usage of the products is another reason some women end up with red and itchy faces. "Hoping that the product will work better, they apply too much, too many times a day," she adds. For instance, certain sheet masks should be used at most once a week, but some use them every other day.
"Some masks have a high concentration of whitening ingredients. If you use them every other day, your skin will become dry and inflamed," she says.
"For a product to work, it's not about how much you apply but how consistent you are in using it," she adds.
So follow the instructions on the packaging and use a new product sparingly to let your skin get used to it.
Of course, a face cream is not always to blame when a reaction occurs.
Dr Khaiat says: "We put our hands on our face all the time. A product used on our hands can also cause a reaction on the face," he adds.
"We use many products every day - household cleaners, hand wash in public areas and so on. They contain many ingredients, so determining which product is responsible for a reaction is not easy." Urban highlights the most common types of sensitive skin conditions and tells you what precautions to take when using beauty products.
Top 5 causes of sensitive skin
What inflammation can really mean
Dr Raymond Kwah, a specialist in dermatology at Raffles Skin Centre, says "sensitive skin" is a layman's term rather than a medical condition.
But it has come to refer to, among other things, allergic or irritant reactions to products; genetic skin conditions that cause symptoms of burning, stinging, itching; and rashes that develop in response to the environment or food.
One common characteristic of all "sensitive skin" types is inflammation.
Due to the loose definition of the term, DrKwah says more than half of those who consult dermatologists report having some form of "sensitive skin".
He lists the top five common types of sensitive skin:
Irritant contact dermatitis
Skin feels itchy or there is a stinging, tingling or burning sensation. There may also be dryness, cracks or a red rash on the skin. Cosmetic ingredients that may cause this form of dermatitis include alpha-hydroxy acid, which is found in some anti-ageing creams; and propylene glycol, an organic alcohol used widely in cosmetics and personal care products to moisturise the skin.
Allergic contact dermatitis
A skin reaction that is triggered by an activation of the immune system. It is less common than irritant contact dermatitis. Some possible allergens in cosmetics and skincare that can set this off include colourants, fragrances, preservatives such as formaldehyde, and lanolin, a type of wax.
Also known as hives. When the skin comes into contact with a product that it is sensitive to, it may react with immediate swelling and redness. The rash usually subsides after a few hours on its own.
Signs include a red flush, pimples and broken vessels on the face. There may also be a burning or stinging sensation that can be aggravated by cosmetics or skincare products - even those that you have been using uneventfully for many years.
People with this condition, which is often hereditary, tend to have dry skin and itchy rashes. They also have an impaired skin barrier and this increases their susceptibility to skin allergies and irritations.
In all cases, visit a dermatologist to determine the cause of your inflamed skin.
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