Oops. You didn’t do a patch test for a skincare product and turned out you had bad luck? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s safe to say that we’ve all been there.
We all know the feeling. You finally got your hands on that new, hyped-up, anti-acne or skin care product. You’re giddy with excitement and anticipation, barely able to hold yourself back from tearing up that beautiful, shiny package! Finally, you slather the new, silky goo all over your face, reveling in the feeling of victory - you’ll reap those benefits soon. Your skin will be fresher, younger, smoother, cleaner, better.
And then the burning starts. And the itching crawls all over your skin, like a thousand tiny invisible ants marching across your face. Your face is all pink, red, and sore. You wash it off, anger and confusion setting in. That supposedly amazing product didn’t make your face look better, it only made it look worse.
I won’t be mistaken if I assume that you probably blamed yourself a lot too. Hindsight is 20/20, and while it all becomes clear to us after the fact, it becomes clear to us far too late. And, while buyer’s remorse can rarely be reversed due to the arrow of time (shops rarely accept the return of used skin care products), we can at least spare ourselves some undue suffering.
How? By testing each product, or even home remedy, before we use it generously on our skin. These tests are known as patch tests, and today we will tell you all you need to know about them.
A patch test is the limited exposure of a new product on your skin. In short, it means testing the substance on a small patch of skin (hence, ‘patch’ test), before going forward and using the product on a wider area of skin, or as intended.
These products can be anything: from lip balms, moisturizers, sunscreens, face masks, cleansers, serums, gels, creams, spot treatments, to exfoliators and homemade remedies - everything that is intended for your skin can be tested at first. Yes, that includes natural ingredients, such as vegetables, fruits, animal-derived substances, and even vitamins and minerals.
For example, I make myself fresh lemonade every day. I slice a lemon in half, and squeeze out the lemon juice in a cup - but, if even a drop of that lemon juice lands on my hand, I’ll have an allergic reaction. My skin burns, then it starts itching like mad until I wash it off thoroughly with soap and cold water. But the swelling and the redness remain for up to a day or two.
So what does this mean? It means that when it comes to skincare, you always need to test even the safest and most natural ingredients. Just because you can eat it, doesn’t mean that your skin won’t react to it. And just because a skincare product is widely used, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have an allergic reaction to it.
It needs to be said, however, that not all substances are equally likely to provoke an allergic reaction in your skin. Synthetic fragrances or dyes, for example, alongside preservatives, sulfates, phthalates, and parabens are known to cause reactions much more often than other ingredients. The problem is that a large number of skin care products contain at least one of these types of ingredients, making a patch test almost a necessity.
On the other hand, people with oily skin should be on the lookout for products rich with heavy emollients. These ingredients can mess with the skin oil (sebum) production of the skin, leading to excessive oiliness, clogged pores, and acne breakouts. If you’re prone to acne or have oily skin, you should always patch test products that contain coconut butter, coconut oil, lanolin, cocoa butter and isopropyl palmitate (derived from palm oil).
So, there’s not one thing to be wary of. In order not to harm yourself, or at least not embarrass yourself in front of yourself and others, you can do a patch test first. But wait, are all patch tests the same?
Nope, they’re not. While patch tests always have the same purpose, i.e. testing a product on a patch of your skin to see how your skin will react, the reactions themselves are what sets patch tests apart. And these reactions will depend based on what you are trying to achieve, or conversely, if there is a reaction, what to avoid. For example, if you’re looking for something that will moisturize your skin, but the product doesn’t seem to work or makes your skin flaky, that’s how you know that product isn’t for you.
For the sake of usefulness and practicality, patch tests can be divided into three different kinds of tests: irritation patch tests, allergic reactions patch test, or comedogenicity patch tests (important for people with acne). Each patch test category comes with a body part that would be best suited for performing the specific test. Additionally, you can create a sort of DIY patch test, depending on your specific need or intent. (For example, a sunburn patch test, where you’ll apply a small amount of sunscreen on an area of your body then compare the results.) Here are the three main types of patch tests, how to perform them, and what you should know about them.
The skin can react in different ways. An allergic reaction is not the same as irritation, the difference being that allergic reactions involve the body’s immune system, while irritation doesn’t. If your skin becomes irritated, the reaction is usually skin-deep, and it mostly has to do with the level of sensitivity of your skin. So, people with sensitive skin might be interested to perform patch tests in order to check if a product, or a substance, will be too “strong” for their skin. Here’s how to perform an irritation patch test - especially for substances that are problematic.
First, choose an area of your skin that you find typically sensitive, or on a body part that is easily irritated. For example, if your sensitive area is your cheeks, your cheeks would be a good place to test whether your skin will be irritated by a product or an ingredient.
After identifying the patch of skin for the test, take a small amount of the product or substance, and apply it over said area. Sometimes you’ll see a reaction almost immediately, but if you don’t, a good idea is to cover the patch test area with a bandage and keep it covered for at least 24 hours. After the time passes, you should remove the bandages and check what your skin looks like. Does it look normal, and you don’t feel any itching, pain or sensitivity? Then, chances are that product (or ingredient) is pretty safe for you.
Keep in mind, however, that some substances will take a longer time to irritate your skin. For this reason, it’s a good idea to try and keep the substance on your skin for several days (or at least 72 hours). You can apply a drop or two every day if you wish so.
On the other hand, some substances are meant to cause mild irritation, regardless of your skin type. These are typically substances that contain some natural acids, or themselves are natural acids. Common skin care and anti-acne products frequently contain these kinds of substances, like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and so on. Usually, these reactions last for a short time (an hour at most) and are harmless. However, if the reaction lasts for a longer period of time, you should discontinue using the product. As always, it’s also a good idea to discuss these reactions with your doctor or dermatologist.
Having an allergic reaction is different from your skin being irritated. While irritation is not consistent, and can sometimes be thoroughly eliminated (through improving your skin’s health and lowering its sensitivity), this is not the case with allergies. When you experience irritation, the problem is your skin. However, when you are experiencing an allergy, the problem is foreign material to which your own body is reacting.
Allergies happen when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance that it finds problematic. This reaction can be intensely severe, causing a number of inflammatory processes. Your body is basically entering fight mode, sending an army of its antibodies to attack and destroy whatever the offending substance may be. However, in the process, your immune cells happen to attack your own cells too, causing all sorts of problems.
These foreign substances can be of any kind, and typical offenders include pollen, bee venom or animal proteins (usually found in all that pet fur floating around). A person can be allergic to foods most people have no issue with as well, like the notorious peanut or strawberry allergies. As you know, allergies to food can sometimes even be lethal (because they can contract the airways, choking a person), so this is not something to be trifled with.
But thankfully, when it comes to allergic reactions limited to your skin, things are far from lethal. But, they can be severely unpleasant, embarrassing, inconveniencing and even painful. Typical allergic reactions of your skin include redness, itching, or flakiness and peeling. Sometimes, if the reaction is more severe than usual, your skin can even swell and hurt.
So, how to perform a patch test for allergies? Since allergies don’t just appear on a specific area of the body but involve a system-wide reaction, there’s no need to be looking for an irritable area of your skin. Science has already answered that question, and for some reason, the skin behind our ear is the most reactive when it comes to allergies.
So, take a small amount of the product, or remedy, or ingredient that you wish to test. Apply the small amount on the skin right behind your ear, and rub it a little. Then, of course… Wait.
For how long? Well, some allergies don’t take long to make themselves known, so you can expect a reaction between anywhere from 5 minutes to 72 hours. Usually, waiting for 24 hours is a good rule of thumb, but if you want to be super certain, you can give it several days.
Of course, the rules are the same. If you are experiencing severe allergic reactions, it goes without saying that you should not be using that product or ingredient. If you experience mild allergic reactions, that you would deem bearable, it is the best to consult with your doctor and dermatologist on what to do. And, of course, if you experience no inconveniences, no allergic reactions, no pain or itching - feel free to use the skincare product or ingredient.
Oops, your acne is getting bad again? Or maybe this time you had one of those unexpected breakouts? But wait, you follow a healthy lifestyle, eating lean, exercising, keeping good hygiene… And then boom. A sudden acne inflammation out of nowhere. What gives?
Well, you’d be surprised at how big of a role your skincare products (and even home remedies) play in causing your skin to develop acne instead of preventing it.
Why does this happen? Well, not everyone has the same skin, which means that not all products will work as intended for everyone. And if you’re having unexplained breakouts of adult acne, chances are that a skincare product you are using might be the perpetrator.
So, if you’re worried that a skincare product or a home remedy might cause you acne, it’s best to perform a comedogenicity patch test before using it. In case you’re confused, comedogenicity here means ‘something that is likely to clog your pores.’ For a product or an ingredient to be comedogenic, it has to cause clogged pores. Conversely, products and substances that don’t clog your pores are called non-comedogenic.
All right, so, how to check if that popular moisturizer is comedogenic, i.e., if it will clog your pores?
First, you need to pick a suitable location for the comedogenicity patch test. And in order to be able to observe the results sooner, it is recommended that you choose an area that is prone to acne. For example, if you’re having frequent acne breakouts on the area around your nose (or the neck, or the chin, etc.), then that is the area that you will need. So, how to do a comedogenicity patch test?
It’s pretty similar to any other patch test, the difference being in the results that you’re watching for. So, take any amount of the product, and apply it to the desired area. In the case of a comedogenicity patch test, you don’t need to be careful with the amount, because you want to see if the product will cause your clogs to become clogged. (Of course, if you suspect that the product, or substance, you are testing may cause you an allergic reaction or irritation, then a small amount is preferable).
All right, so, apply the substance to the desired area.
Seeing as clogged pores, and possible acne inflammation take a while to develop, the comedogenicity patch test will last longer than the irritation patch test and the allergic reaction patch test. You can continue testing the product for a week or so, and then check the results, preferably under a magnifying mirror. If your skin seems normal and your pores don’t show any signs of clogging or darkening, you’re all good and you can continue using the product. However, if your pores have become clogged, and you’re seeing blackheads and whiteheads forming, you should stop using that product. And I don’t need to tell you what to do if it causes you a full-blown acne inflammation, right?
Regardless of whether you have any apprehension about any product or skincare substance, the wise thing to do first is to perform a patch test. You never know what your skin will react to, and life is unpredictable. These patch tests are fairly straightforward and simple to perform - pick a spot, apply a small amount of the substance, and wait. If all goes well and you don’t experience any adverse reactions, congratulations, you can continue using that product without a care in the world.
However, if your skin reacts unpleasantly, becoming red, itchy, flaky, dry, or even swollen and painful, please discontinue using that product immediately. A visit to your doctor or dermatologist will be of great help too. Medical professionals will be able to tell you more about what happened, how your body works, and of course, what to avoid in the future.
This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.