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Is Shaving Making You Sick? Sensitivities to Grooming Products

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A sensitivity to a product or chemical is when the immune system reacts inappropriately to that substance when taken into or applied onto the body. You may not believe that sensitivities to grooming (and other) products are likely to apply to you. However, the corporate attorneys at major manufacturers aren’t so sure. For example, there’s a warning on many deodorants that reads something like the following: “WARNINGS: Do not apply to broken skin. If rash or irritation develops, discontinue use.”

What Are Sensitivities?

Although I never gave that type of warning much thought when many years ago I first read one, that statement is addressing the real  possibility of product users developing sensitivities – that is, undesired and unintended immune-system reactions to the grooming product. Sensitivities can be developed to various products, chemicals, and foods as well.

This happens when, for some persons, their immune system begins to recognize normally-useful or -benign substances as harmful, when either applied topically, used in the mouth or nose (such as toothpaste, mouthwash, tooth whiteners or nasal spray), or swallowed. When this misidentification happens, the immune system activates, often with problematic consequences.  The problems can be merely annoying such as temporary skin itching, burning, tingling or redness (or some combination of these). They can also be more consequential and troublesome including migraine headaches, gastro-intestinal issues such as diarrhea or constipation, fibromyalgia (muscle pains from otherwise unknown causes), brain fog, eczema, auto-immune diseases, joint pain and swelling, and more. The more serious sensitivity reactions are usually to food, but not always.

My First Experience with Product Sensitivities

As a twenty-something, I had my own first-hand experience with a sensitivity to shampoo. My habit in those days was to wash my hair every day with a well-known anti-dandruff brand. Then one day, I noticed itching and red patches on and near my scalp. My dermatologist told me I was reacting to the regular use of this shampoo. His recommendation was to use the offending shampoo less frequently by using that shampoo and two others, using each every third shampooing. He did not advocate simply switching to a single new shampoo for every-day use. He warned that if I went against his advice of rotating, and simply switched to just one different shampoo, the same problem may eventually develop with the replacement product. I took his advice and the issue seemed to be resolved. I didn’t ask any other questions about the nature of this sensitivity to shampoo, and didn’t give it much additional thought for many years.

Sensitivities versus Allergies and Intolerances

Fast forward more than 30 years. I had, within that time, returned to a major research university, trained there as a registered dietitian, and become certified as a registered dietitian-nutritionist. After that, I received special training in treating food and other related sensitivities. I have been a part-time nutrition-related lecturer and instructor at the university where I studied dietetics. I also opened a private dietetics practice, and a significant part of that practice has been seeing, evaluating and advising clients who come in with various maladies that they suspect are caused by food sensitivities.

Part of my initial meeting with these clients is to briefly inform them about what sensitivities are and are not.

Sensitivities are not intolerances, nor are they allergies.

Intolerance usually usually applies to food, not grooming products, and involves the absence of an internal chemical that is necessary to digest or absorb a given food constituent. An example would be lactose intolerance.

Allergies involve a specific type of immune reaction called an IgE-mediated reaction. These reactions only occur after a second exposure to a given triggering food or chemical. In the first exposure, the perceived-as-harmful substance (called an antigen) triggers the immune system to begin producing antigen-specific antibodies that will, upon later exposure, facilitate a cascade of immune processes, which usually result in symptoms. As examples, peanut allergies, bee-sting allergies and others of this IgE-mediated type can lead to anaphylaxis, which can be life threatening if not quickly treated.  Allergic reactions occur rapidly after exposure to the triggering chemical, usually within an hour or so (but sometimes longer) though often immediately.

Sensitivity reactions can manifest more slowly in time windows ranging from immediately (for some localized skin reactions) to up to 72 hours (for more systemic reactions). Another key difference between allergies and sensitivities is that an allergic reaction may be triggered by a very small amount of the allergen such as in persons with peanut allergies, who may have a life-threatening (anaphylactic) reaction to consuming a non-peanut food that is merely processed in the same facility as peanuts. They may also have an immune reaction through the most incidental exposure; for example, as a result of someone re-heating fish in a microwave oven in the general vicinity of a person with a fish allergy.

Sensitivities, on the other hand, are usually dosage dependent. The greater the exposure, the more likely will be a sensitivity reaction and the stronger it will likely be. There is often also a reaction threshold in sensitivity reactions, below which there will be no symptoms.

Symptoms of Sensitivities

Allergic reactions can include sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, hives, and more serious symptoms including swelling of the throat (and tongue, eyes, etc.), itchy rash, rapid weak pulse, vomiting, nausea, lightheadedness, and low blood pressure among others. Sensitivity reactions can be annoying, uncomfortable or extremely disruptive of one’s daily routines, but are not usually life threatening.

More extreme sensitivity reactions will often be to foods or products taken internally and symptoms may include migraine and other headaches, diarrhea, constipation, arthritis-type maladies (with pain, swelling, inflammation, etc), auto-immune disorders of various kinds, brain fog, general fatigue, otherwise unexplained and recurring muscle aches and pains (fibromyalgia). Sensitivity reactions to topical products may include eczema, acne, rashes, skin itching, redness, burning sensations, and more.

After-shave products can be particularly troublesome because the act of shaving a patch of skin can to some degree compromise the barrier that the skin provides to keep harmful chemicals and pathogens outside the body. I’ve had almost immediate redness and hot burning (as distinguished from the cool sensation of menthol or the antiseptic burn of alcohol) after using some facial moisturizers, shave soaps and after-shave balms.

It is interesting that I’m only sensitive enough to have a reaction on just-shaved skin. After discussing this with the distributor of some of these products, the suspicion is that the offending chemical is one or more of the fragrance additives in these products. The specifics of fragrance sensitivities can be complex and difficult to track down in part because the U.S.A. doesn’t require fragrance-ingredient details to be revealed. This contrasts against European requirements, which call for more specific information to be provided.

In summation on symptoms, though they can vary greatly, the most common reactions to grooming products will be where the product is applied, and can include rash, blotches, redness, itching, tingling and burning.

Solutions to Perceived Sensitivities

The first step in the solution protocol to a suspected triggering product is to notice whether the symptoms tend to persist or if they pass rather quickly.  My long-ago reaction to a dandruff shampoo tended to be days-long persistence of itching and patches of redness. However, my recent issue with after-shave balm produced redness and a hot burn that would disappear in less than an hour.

If the symptoms are short lived and not serious, you have a couple of options. One is to simply ignore the reaction until it goes away. The risk to that approach is that you may become more sensitive over time and the symptoms may get worse. Another approach for post-shave symptoms from after-shave lotions or balms is to wait a while before applying the triggering product. For example, I found that if I used a benign product such as witch hazel immediately after the shave and then an hour later – after my skin had time to recover a bit from the shave – I applied the triggering balm, the resulting redness and hot burn was greatly diminished or entirely eliminated.  If the sensitivity symptoms are not short lived, stop using the suspected triggering product (Duh!).  This will allows you to see if the symptoms subside and stay away over time.

If so, and if the symptoms weren’t terribly serious, then try using the product again to confirm that it’s triggering the sensitivity reaction. If the symptoms don’t subside when your use of the suspected product is discontinued for a while, then it actually might be some other substance that is triggering the reaction, or it may be the discontinued substance in combination with some other product either applied topically or taken internally (food).

Remember that sensitivities are heavily dose dependent, and triggering agents may cause a reaction when enough of a single agent is used, or when smaller amounts of several agents are used at the same time.

Another option is to try similar products with different fragrances or that are fragrance free.  Some manufacturers and distributors make shave soaps, lather enhancers, and aftershave balms and lotions that have similar base formulations but with varied fragrances or no fragrance added at all. This gives you not only aesthetic options to cater to your olfactory preferences, but also options specifically for those with sensitivities to certain (or all) fragrance additives. The Art of Shaving, Col. Conk, Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements, and Van Der Hagen are examples, though there are others as well.

There is some good news in coping with sensitivities. The immune system can sometimes stand down to some degree – that is, it will essentially go off high alert when the perceived threat is absent for a while – and thereby become less reactive. Another bit of good news is that, as mentioned earlier, sensitivities are dose related. This means that once you’ve confirmed the identity of a triggering substance, after taking a sufficient break and being symptom free, you can try using the product either in a smaller dose per each use, or alternating its use with non-triggering products – or doing both smaller quantities per use along with less frequent usage.

If these tactics don’t produce symptoms, then continue the new usage protocol. However, if symptoms return, you may have to write the product off for six months or so, and then perhaps give it another judicious try. If that works, great! If not, it may likely be a candidate to be written off for the foreseeable future.

So if you begin to experience undesired redness, rash, itching, burning, tingling or other unusual reactions where you are using grooming products, it may be helpful to suspect that your immune system is reacting and you have developed a sensitivity. If so, this may be a call for observation and some trial and error to explore the cause of the problem.

If you develop signs of a serious allergic reaction, immediately discontinue the suspected allergic trigger and consult with the appropriate physician for evaluation and treatment.  Also, if you develop some medical condition or cluster of conditions for which there is no confirmed cause and for which your doctor is only able to treat symptoms, then it may be time to consider if food sensitivities are the underlying cause.
Happy symptom-free grooming and eating!

Related Posts:
Shaving and Problem Skin
Why Shaving Is The Most Important Skin Care Routine For Men
Contact Dermatitis and Shaving

Doug Hansford

Doug Hansford

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