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beauty / Lifestyle

Eczema, dermatitis, dry skin? My battle finding what was causing my irritated, blotchy and flaky skin

This post was originally written in June 2022 and updated in December 2022

If my testimonial can help at least one person, I will be happy. I struggled with a very irritated, red, blotchy, and itchy skin for over two months until I figured I had an allergy to an ingredient that is present in a lot of products that we use on a daily basis. First, I thought I was allergic to Methylisothiazolinone (MI) but then I found out I’m actually allergic to Cinnamal. In this post, I’m gonna share my story, how I found out and how I deal with it.

How everything has started…

I have combination skin and, every winter, I suffer from the freezing temperatures in NYC and, of course, from the heaters. The air inside gets very dry and that changes my skincare routine every year – lots and lots of face oils, like the rosehip one – and I also bought a huge humidifier to make sure the air doesn’t get so dry. That would usually work for my skin. But everything kinda changed in January this year, after I got back from three weeks in Brazil. Suddenly, my face was irritated, red, and blotchy. It would get very dry and flaky – usually after I showered. It felt like burnt skin and it looked like that no product was helping. It was annoying cause I couldn’t wear makeup as well cause the skin was so dry and the foundation would quickly become flaky.

I took a lot of steps over these two months. As a skincare affectionate, I quickly checked my products and I figured that it could be the new retinol I was trying. I checked some reviews and found some testimonials from people with very sensitive skin and the descriptions sounded a lot like what was happening on my skin. Bingo – I thought to myself. I stopped using the product and hoped for the best. And that’s another confusing thing about what I was going through: for some days, my skin was good and then it was bad again. And that’s what happened. Afterward, I realized it wasn’t the retinol.

It took me a lot of courage to share these pictures. Here you can see how my skin looks like when I have a crisis.

Then, one day, I was checking the Insta stories from a beauty influencer that I love and someone asked her about how to deal with very dry flaky skin. “That’s what I need!”. She recommended a moisturizer from First Aid Beauty, the Ultra Repair Cream Intense Hydration – and I was able to get a sample at Sephora, to try before buying a whole jar. It is a great moisturizer and it really helps to fight the dryness – but not when you actually have another problem… She also recommended a method called “Slugging” that consists in sealing your skin with an occlusive agent, often petrolatum-based, overnight. So, I stopped by a drugstore to get a tube of Aquaphor and I would literally apply it all over my face before going to the bed. It barely helped. And, of course, I also used a lot of Eucerin lotion – it was one of the only things that helped to relieve the awful feeling that I had when my skin was on fire.

Of course that over these two months I also used Google a lot. I was sure that I had eczema so I bought more and more tubes of Eucerin. I also got Thermal Water, cause it really helped to relieve that feeling. At some point, I was just hoping for the end of winter to see if my skin would change with the weather. Going out was so annoying cause I was always reaching out to my purse to reapply the lip balm and a healing balm for my face. Some days, I just wanted to cry. I finally got really tired and frustrated of trying to figure out the problem by myself and I decided to see a doctor. I guess you may be asking yourself why I didn’t do it sooner. First cause I really thought I could figure it out by myself. I have a friend that always says we have to be our health advocates, we have to know our bodies and that’s what I was trying to do. Secondly, I don’t like the American health care system. Most of the time, it is focused on treating the consequences and not finding the causes. Plus, I still hate the fact that here in the USA you never know how much you’re gonna pay for a doctor’s visit, even with insurance. It is just not fair – but this is a topic for another day. After finally putting all my reservations about the American health care system aside, I looked for a great dermatologist in New York City. The reviews convinced me about this guy (whom I’m not gonna name here, cause it doesn’t matter) and I scheduled an appointment that later cost me almost $300 (after my insurance paid a fraction) and it didn’t solve my problem. It was March 2021, and I was struggling for two months with that problem.

The dermatologist visit

Of course, my skin was great on the day of my appointment. But I had a lot of pictures on my phone. The doctor was kind, I explained everything to him and the appointment lasted around 15 minutes. According to him, the diagnosis was dermatitis. And, for some unknown reason, it was very common to occur on people traveling from a warm place (Brazil) to a cold place. He told me I should not worry about it and he then prescribed me a Desonide lotion – that ended up costing me some extra $60. He also told me I should not use it for more than two weeks and that I should come back if my skin hasn’t improved – and then he would ask for an allergy test – something he didn’t considerate firsthand cause “you know, you will have to deal with your health insurance” – so now you understand when I say that the health care system here is not focused on investgating the root of the problems, right?

I went home happy and I started to use the lotion right away – and those two weeks were the best weeks my skin had since I started to have these problems. But, as you can imagine, everything was the same again when I stopped using the product – and before you ask, this is not a product to be used long-term. I was almost scheduling another visit to the dermatologist when Thiago, my husband, saw a thread on Twitter and showed it to me – “it looks like this guy has the same problem that you have, check this out”.

Discovering my allergy to Methylisothiazolinone

The thread on Twitter was written by Will Hayward. Over a lot of tweets, he shared his journey trying to figure out his skin problems – everything he had experienced sounded exactly like the problems I was having with my skin. The difference is that he had dealt with that for 10 years – 10 years! Will ended up taking an allergy test and that’s how he found out he was allergic to Methylisothiazolinone. On this thread, he explained that is a preservative used in a huge range of products, including soaps, shower gels, shampoos, and sunscreens.

That definitely rang a bell. I rushed to my bathroom and I checked my shampoo, a Pantene Pro-V Sheer Volume one. BINGO! Methylisothiazolinone was listed as one of the ingredients. And then, everything started to make sense. The worst crisis I had always started after washing my hair. I had bought that shampoo after coming back from Brazil, and I was alternating it with another shampoo I had – that didn’t contain the preservative. That could explain why my skin was good some days – the days I was washing my hair with the other shampoo – and it was so miserable other days – the days I was using Pantene.

I know that, obviously, it could be just a coincidence. But, of course, I started to dig in. Methylchloroisothiazolinone is a chemical used in skin care products, household cleaners, and industrial products as a preservative. It is often used in skin care products and cosmetics like shampoo, hair dye, bleach, sunscreen, baby wipes, eyeliner, blush, face powder, makeup remover, nail polish, waxing products, soaps, baby soap, and shampoo, plus household products like laundry soap, dishwasher soap, fabric softener, cleaners and more. According to an article from Occupational Dermatology Research and Education Centre website:

“Methylisothiazolinone (MI) has been used in a range of cosmetic and personal products, including disposable wet wipes, shampoos, conditioners, body washes, moisturizers, sunscreens, and deodorants, as well as in paints, cooling tower water, and cutting oils since the early 2000s. Drs Jennifer Cahill and Rosemary Nixon, dermatologists with the Skin Health Institute (formerly the Skin and Cancer Foundation Inc), have included MI in their baseline patch test series for allergies since 2011, after European reports of increasing numbers of cases of MI contact allergy. ‘Our current rate of positive test reactions to MI to November 2013 is 11.3% (40 patients who had relevant reactions of a total 353), compared with a rate of 3.5% (15/428) in 2011 and 8.4% (38/454) in 2012’, Dr. Cahill wrote. MI is now the most common cause of allergic contact dermatitis in our patient population.”

I found a lot of articles about Methylisothiazolinone and even sources listing Methylisothiazolinone-free products and, of course, I stopped using the shampoo immediately and decided to wait and see how my skin would react. I was very hopeful! And I was right about my guess. At least, that was what I thought… that I was allergic to Methylisothiazolinone. After stopping using that shampoo, my skin improved.

I celebrated too soon… I was not allergic to Methylisothiazolinone

I really believed I was allergic to Methylisothiazolinone; however, after stopping using the shampoo and removing products with this ingredient from my routine, I ended up having a few crises here and there. I would always try to remember if I had used any different products and check the labels, and since I firmly believed it was Methylisothiazolinone, I would search the internet until I found any source that suggested that said ingredient was in the formula – even if it wasn’t on the label.

I know this sounds a bit crazy, but you have to take into account that I had been dealing with an allergy for more than 6 months, an allergy that was destroying my self-esteem and my quality of life – and for which the dermatologist I consulted didn’t have any convincing answer. It was kind of a desperation to prove my theory. After having yet another flare-up during a trip to Seattle – and again being in the dark about what was really causing it, I made an appointment to see an allergist.

The consult with an allergy specialist

At the end of July, I decided to see Dr. Vahid Rahimian – and I’m only mentioning his name because I really recommend this doctor. I had already seen him in 2019, due to another allergic episode I had (nothing related to the current problem) and, as I liked him, I decided to go back. The idea of this appointment was to do the allergy patch test, to find out if my suspicion was true. I explained everything to him – and I talked about Methylisothiazolinone, and I was surprised when he said that that ingredient might not necessarily be what was causing my allergy. Anyway, I made it clear to him that I really wanted to get tested and that’s what we did it.

A week later, I got back to his office to do the test. The allergy patch test consists of putting different patches on your back, and those patches contain substances that are likely to cause allergies. In addition to the substances usually used, he also asked me to bring products that I use daily so that he could also test that on my back. Here, I confess: I should have taken more products.

You need to keep the patches on your back for 48 hours – and then you have to go to the doctor’s office to remove the patches. You can’t get your back wet, meaning not washing your hair or working out for 48h. In addition, after the doctor removed the patches, he asked me to monitor the area for another 48 hours, taking pictures periodically – because, in the case of many substances, the allergic reaction can happen days later.

My allergy test results

One week after placing the patches – and 5 days after removing them – I went back to the doctor’s office to evaluate the results. In addition to being allergic to nickel – which was not a surprise – the tests were positive for Cinnamal and also for Fragrance mix  – which contains Cinnamal among other substances – but none of the products I had brought had this ingredient – however, remember that I did I say I should have taken more products, right? I was so… dumb.

The doctor gave me some sheets with information about these ingredients and where they are usually found. But it wasn’t very clear to me that Cinnamal was something so common because the information said that it was a compound used to flavor food, also in fragrances, in some pet products, and also personal hygiene products, such as toothpaste. I was kind of confused and let’s say… skeptical. And since he had mentioned that we could do blood tests, I agreed to do it.

There I went to have blood drawn for more than ten types of tests – one of the doctor’s suspicions was that I might have Skin Lupus (skin lupus). In the midst of my reflections trying to discover some different pattern in my routine, I realized that it had been months since I had stopped taking Vitamin D – and, on my own, I also took this test.

When the results came out, the doctor called me and said everything was normal. I mentioned Vitamin D – and he said that had nothing to do with my problem. At that time, I was leaving for a 10-day trip – and I confess that I was afraid of having a crisis episode, but everything was quite normal.

Then, when I returned from the trip, I had about three more allergy episodes in less than two weeks. I was exhausted. I started to question myself: what it was something I was eating? I tried to find patterns – two of the episodes happened the day after I had attended dinners and events. Was it the alcohol? Then, on one of those days, I decided to take the sheets that the doctor gave me and try to match them with some products that I had used in those days. BINGO. That Cinnamal – and also the other ingredients of the Fragrance Mix – were not only in my perfume but in my foundation – hence the fact that I had reactions after events, obviously: I was always wearing makeup. To my surprise – and sadness – Cinnamal was much more present in my products than Methylisothiazolinone. The FBI spirit took over me and I even checked that Pantene shampoo. BINGO, it had Cinnamal. Everything started to make sense. Some things went unnoticed – but hey, nothing like an allergic reaction to make you check a label more carefully. And so, little by little, I got rid of the Cinnamal products. And there were dozens. DOZENS. Several products that I loved, from brands like Kerastase, Oribe, and the Giorgio Armani Beauty foundation itself…

How is my life today

I cannot buy/test any makeup, skincare, or hair product without checking the label. From shampoo to foundation, from hand soap to body cream – Cinnamal is a compound used for fragrance, which is why it is widely used in a variety of products. Even in lip balm! When I shared this post for the first time, in June, I received a valuable tip from a follower and I share it here: the Yuka app. You can search for products – or use the camera to read the barcode – and it shows the ingredients list for you, already listing them considered the most “dangerous” first. It is much easier for me to check a product formula using this app than reading the lowercase letters of the labels, at the risk of missing something.

Also:

  • I have my own hand soap in my bag;
  • I don’t buy products without checking the label;
  • I don’t travel without my shampoo and conditioner. I can’t risk using what’s available at the hotel as these products don’t always have a label.

A selfie taken about two weeks ago. No make up. Just moisturizer and sunscreen. I could not be happier!

Final thoughts

Looking back, I’m glad I did everything I did. I don’t blame myself for my stubbornness or my skepticism – after all, it was more than 8 months of dealing with an allergy after receiving a mediocre diagnosis from a dermatologist. I was exhausted, tired, powerless, and hopeless. Yes, it took me a few more flare-ups to finally check my products – and I confess, yes, it hurt to get rid of a lot of products I loved… but honestly, finally figuring out what was causing my allergy and seeing how my skin is back to normal.. is priceless. I spent a lot on doctor’s appointments, exams, skincare and medicines – but at least I reached a final diagnosis and I am very happy!

2 Comments

  • Rose Hawkey
    October 21, 2022 at 4:57 am

    Thanks for sharing. I’m curious, did you have to switch laundry detergents too? I’m just starting this journey. 🙁

    Reply
    • Laura Peruchi
      October 28, 2022 at 12:42 pm

      Hi Rose! I didn’t. But I will update this post soon, as I get a patch test and I found out that the ingredient that I’m allergic too is actually another one.

      Reply

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