The Difference Between Allergies and Sensitivities


The Difference Between Allergies and Sensitivities

— How to identify the types of reactions you may be experiencing, and what to do about them.



Tash Havos
Content writer /
Product specialist


Often, we hear about different chemicals, preservatives and additives being terrible additions into our products, most of them classed as a dermal irritant or neurotoxin. To the naked eye, many of these types of reactions would look the same. You may experience inflammation, feel itchy, red, or swollen in a targeted area, or all over your body. It’s easy to confuse what is an irritation, to a sensitivity, to an allergy. It’s uncomfortable feeling in the unknown of it all – knowing when to continue with trial and error, or when to investigate further.

A blanket rule is that usually, people that describe their skin to be sensitive, are generally sensitive to an irritant, rather than inherently sensitive. Many people describe their skin this way out of fear that they will react to a product again, rather than completing the necessary tests to understand exactly what ingredient(s) they need to avoid. For an allergic reaction to develop, it really does depend on your genetic makeup, and the degree or length of exposure to the allergen(s) to which you’re responding to.

Photography and art direction for María Morgui’s project ‘habitar’.  By  Carlota Guerrero .

Photography and art direction for María Morgui’s project ‘habitar’.

By Carlota Guerrero.


Types of Contact Dermatitis

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) is a skin reaction following the development of an allergic response to an externally applied agent. It’s less common than irritant contact dermatitis, however, is the diagnosis to a true allergy that is formed after you’ve topically applied, ingested or inhaled a product. It directly involves your immune system response.

The reaction causes an itchy and weeping rash, localised in the area in contact with the allergen. It may develop two or more days after in contact with the allergen, which for many skincare junkies, makes it difficult to narrow it down. It can last up to 1-2 weeks after, depending how often the irritant is in contact with your skin.

Patch testing can identify the cause of this allergy, however as this is directly related to immune system response, I’d advise you to work with a practitioner to identify the issue to manage it ongoing.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

This type of reaction is not an allergic reaction; however, it is a sensitised reaction. It does not involve your immune system and usually identifies itself within the hour of using the product. You’ll see the reaction in the exact places you applied it, which identifies it pretty quickly.

Symptoms are usually inflammatory – stinging, itching, redness, swelling or a burning sensation. Although these irritants can be the same as those that cause allergies, the type of dermatitis is classified on how your body responds. The easiest way to identify between the two dermatitis’, is the time involved. If it’s immediate, it can be put down to Irritant Contact Dermatitis, but if it’s a longer lasting irritation, it could be Allergic Contact Dermatitis.

Image via  @leeorwild

Image via @leeorwild


Common Irritants

Ingredients like sulphates, alcohols, fragrance, and preservatives are common skin irritants. Fragrances are #1 offenders – whether synthetic or natural in origin. They can have a cumulative effect, and unfortunately this ingredient listing can be any of 3,163 chemicals that aren’t normally listed on labels, according to the EWG. Many of these chemicals are linked to hormone disruption and allergic reactions as they fall usually under phthalates, oxtoxynols and nonoxynols. Avoid ingredient label fragrance, parfum, unscented perfumes.

Although preservatives are necessary in stabilising product, there are ones to avoid, particularly:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES)

  • Parabens such as Phenoxyethanol, Sodium benzoate, and Benzyl alcohol

  • Petrolatum

  • Phthalates

What To Do During a Reaction

  • It’s best to discontinue any products while you’re in this state, and only use a gentle cleanser and a single-ingredient hydration product - like Jojoba, Olive Squalene, Rose oil, or Sea Buckthorn oil.

  • Avoid saunas – heat, steam, sweating and rubbing the affected area can trap heat and cause further irritation.

  • Investigate whether this is an irritation or reaction to product by patch testing first. If it’s an ongoing reaction, it’s best to get this one checked out.

  • If you’re starting a new skincare routine and are generally highly sensitive, start with one product at a time, and build up to the desired routine. Before committing to a product, I recommend you purchase samples of it to make sure it’s the one for you.



Do you suffer from dermatitis? What about sensitive skin?

How do you avoid reactions or deal with them when they present themselves?

Let us know via commenting below.

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