Beauty / Health and wellbeing | 11.08.2017

Allergies and Sensitivities: What's the difference?


Most of us have experienced an allergic reaction or sensitivity at some point in our lives.

Allergies are a leading cause of chronic disease. It’s unknown why certain people develop allergic sensitivities. In some cases, it may take repeated exposure over a long period of time before an allergy develops, or it could be a combination of certain chemicals. 

If you’ve ever had a reaction to a skincare product, be it natural or otherwise, you can relate to the experience. It can be unpleasant and debilitating. People who tend to have sensitive skin are often sensitised to an irritant, rather than being inherently sensitive.

Although you might be born with a genetic makeup capable of developing allergies, you may not be allergic to specific allergens. For an allergic sensitivity to develop, its dependent on specific genes acquired from your parents, the degree and length of exposure and/or exposure to one or more allergens to which you have a genetically programmed response. 

If you’ve had a reaction to a product or procedure, it’s more likely a form of dermatitis which causes an inflammatory disorder or condition. Allergic reactions to products are often a form of dermatitis.

There are several types of dermatitis: 

Atopic Dermatitis/Eczema

Is genetic and affects 10–20% of the population. It’s a chronic, long lasting form of dermatitis that’s difficult to manage and appears episodically. Common symptoms are dry, red, scaly patches of skin that can be itchy. When it’s severe, eczema can be very painful and cause fissures in the skin. It usually affects the backs of the knees, elbow, hands, face and in severe cases, the entire body. If you suffer from eczema, a chemical may be the cause, but other factors can play a role. Whatever the case, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. Reactions vary due to our unique biochemical makeup.  

Contact Dermatitis

Is caused by contact with a substance. There are two types of contact dermatitis – allergic and irritant.  

Allergic contact dermatitis

Is when you have a true allergy to something that you’ve topically applied, ingested or inhaled. Your immune system overreacts and launches its defence mechanisms. When your skin encounters an individual ingredient or combination of ingredients, your immune system responds by accepting, rejecting or adapting to the substance. This usually occurs within 6 to 48 hours after exposure. If a reaction occurs, your body naturally produces histamines as a defence mechanism to rid the body of the unwanted toxin. Subsequent exposure to the same substance may vary. You may experience swelling, redness, itching, warm to burning skin, rash-like pimples and general irritation. Associated symptoms could be sneezing, coughing, difficult or obstructed breathing and may be linked to respiratory illnesses like asthma and sinusitis. In extreme cases, reactions can cause anaphylaxis and be fatal.  

Allergic contact dermatitis is due to previous exposure to a trigger and is often caused by repeated exposure over time. It can take several months or years for an allergy to manifest. One day out of the blue, you have a full blown, unexpected reaction. Once you’ve become sensitised (allergic) your immune system remembers and you’ll continue to be sensitive to that ingredient and react in the same way to any subsequent exposure.  

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Is known as a sensitised reaction. It’s not an allergic reaction, because it doesn’t involve your immune system. It’s localised and happens immediately (within the hour) after exposure to an irritant. Symptoms may include stinging, itching, redness, swelling or a chemical burn. The reaction subsides once the irritant is removed. The skin can then become scaly, dry, flaky, cracked and fissured. Common irritants are the same as allergic reactions, except for food allergies like peanuts or seafood. 

The simplest way to determine which type of dermatitis you have is by the time involved. If it’s immediate, then it’s irritant. If several hours or days have elapsed since exposure, then it's most likely an allergic response.  

Sensitivity or irritation from personal care products is common. Some cosmetic ingredients, such as sulfates or SD alcohol (large amount) are harsh and some plant-based ingredients are sensitising. A low or high pH product can irritate the skin by disrupting the pH

Dermal reactions are different from food intolerances, but your diet can play a major role in the integrity of your skin. Ingested allergens should be independently assessed. Just because you are unable to consume nuts for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have a negative reaction to a topical application. 

Influences and determining factors

Stress or illness Checklist

Common Sources of Allergic Reactions

The number one allergen in cosmetic products is FRAGRANCE followed by PRESERVATIVES. These two culprits are found in almost all mass-produced products. Fragrances, whether they’re synthetic or natural in origin, can have a cumulative effect. Avoid products that contain fragrance, perfume or parfum. There are literally hundreds of fragrances, so it’s easier to avoid all fragrances rather than to do specific testing.

Remember fragrances are insidious and found in just about everything from your candles to your laundry detergent to your garbage liners, so you may need to do a full house detox.

Hypoallergenic products and those marked "fragrance free” may still contain fragrances. Avoid products labeled as "unscented perfumes”.

Preservatives are a necessary addition, but a lot of broad spectrum, antimicrobial agents are known sensitisers and should be avoided especially when there are now several alternative, cleaner preservation options. 


Do you suffer from allergies or sensitivities? We'd love to hear your story about what kinds of skincare products and cosmetics give you grief and how you deal with it. Share your story and you'll go into our draw to receive $150 worth of Mukti Organics products. 


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