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Cosmetics and Atopic Dermatitis

Everyone wants to put their best face forward, and cosmetics are often part of a daily routine. Makeup, hair dye, nail products, and perfume may also contribute to an individual’s sense of style. However, these products can irritate the skin of people with atopic dermatitis (AD), the most common form of eczema. AD causes red, inflamed, dry skin that may have bumps or blisters that ooze fluid. AD also causes an intense itch.

While the chronic condition is most common in children, some people develop it as adults, and some people continue to have relapses of the skin condition into adulthood. There is currently no cure for AD, although treatment and proper skin care can help minimize symptoms and reduce flares. AD can affect the skin on many different areas of the body, including the neck, hands, face, and eyelids.1 Because AD causes damage to the skin barrier, creating cracks or openings in the outer layers of the skin, it can be sensitive to certain substances, including some soaps and cosmetics. Irritating substances can cause burning, stinging, and worsen AD, and these products should be avoided.1,2

Contact dermatitis and cosmetics

Contact dermatitis is another skin condition that occurs when the skin comes into contact with a substance that is irritating or allergenic. Contact dermatitis includes both allergic contact dermatitis (in which the skin develops an allergy to a substance) and irritant contact dermatitis (in which the skin becomes physically irritated to a chemical). Contact dermatitis can also sometimes be caused by cosmetics, including ingredients in makeup, hair dye, nail products, and perfume.2,3

A doctor can perform a patch test, in which different allergens are applied to the skin and worn for 48 hours. Patch tests can be helpful to detect allergic contact dermatitis, which causes delayed allergic reactions in the skin.3,4 Relevant allergens identified by patch testing should subsequently be avoided.

Fragrances and preservatives

The fragrances and preservatives used in cosmetics are frequently what causes an allergic reaction or irritation of skin affected by AD. It is best to choose cosmetics that are labeled “fragrance-free,” “unscented,” and “hypoallergenic.” However, even some of those products may contain masking fragrances that could cause irritation.3 Patch testing, as described above, can be used to detect allergic contact dermatitis to fragrances and some preservatives.

Hair dye

Hair dye can be a significant cause of contact dermatitis or irritate skin affected by AD. The chemicals used in hair dye can cause scalp, face, and/or neck dermatitis. Any products that seem to worsen AD should be avoided. People with AD should test their sensitivity to hair dye with a patch test prior to use.5


The best makeup brands for people with AD are those that work for the individual and do not trigger or worsen the skin condition. Most people find that brands that are hypoallergenic and fragrance-free are less likely to cause irritation.

A key part of treating and preventing flares of AD is the frequent use of moisturizers, and moisturizers are also important for facial skin and the skin around the eyes, which is delicate and can be more sensitive. Some people with AD find that makeup products that are cream-based, rather than powdered, work better for their skin.

Skin that is affected by AD has a damaged skin barrier, which is more susceptible to infection from bacteria and other microorganisms. If using makeup brushes, clean them regularly to prevent bacteria growth, or apply makeup with clean fingers.

Emily Downward | June 2017
  1. Lyons JJ, Milner JD, Stone KD. Atopic dermatitis in children: clinical features, pathophysiology, and treatment. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2015;35:161-183.
  2. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed online on 5/10/17 at
  3. Hamilton T, de Gannes GC. Allergic contact dermatitis to preservatives and fragrances in cosmetics. Skin Therapy Lett. 2011 Apr;16(4):1-4.
  4. Mayo Clinic. Accessed online on 4/30/17 at
  5. Gupta M, Mahajan VK, Mehta KS, Chauhan PS. Hair dye dermatitis and p-phenylenediamine contact sensitivity: A preliminary report. Indian Dermatology Online Journal. 2015;6(4):241-246. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.160253.