There are a lot of things that went click for me a few weeks ago when I received the results of my skin allergy testing. Those sunscreens I kept reacting to? Not the problem, or at least the actual sun-blocking components of the sunscreen wasn’t the problem. It was 4 little things, that have pretty much turned my life upside-down and have me becoming a label reading maniac. Let me back up to the beginning.
For years, I’ve had itchy skin, mostly on my legs, but also on my back and arms. Sometimes I’d have little bumps, or what I thought was a severe itching feeling, but what I know now was more like burning (and now that I know that, when I come in contact with a ‘bad’ item, I can feel it.) A year and half ago we went on a summer vacation and stayed at an AirBnb on a lake. The lake had a good amount of seaweed/algae present. It was gross but we still swam because it was HOT! The day after I first put on sunscreen, I noticed that my legs were super itchy. Like I want to claw off my legs itchy and I ended up making them bleed a little because I had been itching in my sleep. Ew. I noticed little bumps and redness. It continued, and without really realizing what was going on, I continued to use the sunscreen thinking it must be a reaction to something in the lake water (I have pretty annoyingly sensitive skin.)
I continued to be itchy for another 7-8 days even after we returned to London. A couple of weeks after we were back home, I took my daughter to the park to meet a friend and it was a rare hot sunny day, so I put on sunscreen (it was even a sensitive skin brand).
The same reaction happened again with this new sunscreen. I went to a dermatologist (for rosacea treatment) and mentioned the sunscreen issue. She recommended cutting out two ingredients that can cause issues. I did. The next time I wore sunscreen, expensive free from sunscreen….the same thing happened.
A few years ago we went on holiday and after one night in the hotel I woke up with this terrible burning sensation on my face and it was red and full of bumps. I’ve always been sensitive to detergents, and we all know hotels don’t exactly use the most gentle detergents for obvious reasons like I do at home. I spent the rest of the trip with a t-shirt over my pillow.
After moving back to the US last summer I decided to finally have allergy testing done. And after months of waiting for the doctor to find the ingredients to test on my skin (which aren’t easy to get a hold of apparently), I had the testing done after we came back from Iceland.
The good news is I’m only allergic to 4 items. The bad news is that 3 of the 4 are so common in everything from detergent to shampoo to makeup to food, and the real kicker, commonly found in finishing dye on textiles. The dreaded 4:
The first two I can avoid pretty easily as long as I read every label, or look up every ingredient list on everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, I buy/own. Goodbye to my favorite shampoo Living Proof, and that mascara I loved, and that Tide Sensitive that always cleaned so well, and my favorite scent of the Mrs. Meyer’s cleaners. And let’s not forget my old deodorant and toothpaste while we are at it. Handsoaps too. And dish washing soap (I tried saying I should just never wash dishes again because of it. It didn’t work. Dang it.)
Basically, MI (as it’s commonly known) and propylene glycol are in lots and lots and lots of things. They are preservatives, and I have a very strong reaction to them. It explains why my underarms were always itchy (attractive) when I used Dove deodorant. Why my head itched even though I didn’t have any sort of scalp issue (my shampoo was to blame). These are the chemicals I can (relatively) easily avoid.
Avoiding formaldehyde is really, really hard. You wouldn’t think so, because who puts formaldehyde in makeup? or in other products? (lots of companies, though it is becoming less common.) The real problem is that it is used in the dyes for textiles to bind the color to the fabric (if I understand it correctly). There is little restriction on it’s use in US goods. There are bans in other parts of the world (mostly parts of Europe and Japan). How do you figure out if your clothes contain formaldehyde? It is not easy. If you already own it, it’s pretty difficult. (And you should always wash your clothes before you wear them, because they are COVERED in chemicals to keep them crisp during shipping and sale. But if you are sensitive like me, washing, even repeatedly won’t help. Wrinkle free/no iron clothes are huge culprits for formaldehyde. That’s what keeps them from getting wrinkles.) Even if it says ‘organic’ on the tag, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have formaldehyde in the finishing/dye.
Where has this led me? Since the reaction can last from 2-8 weeks after your last contact with the offending substance, I have done my best to eliminate everything I come in contact with so I don’t get re-exposed. (Including bringing my own sheets and towels when we go on vacation. Oh don’t mind me, I just travel with my own linens….) This also means spending hours and HOURS on the internet, researching at sites like GOTS and Bluesign and Oeko-Tex – places that certify brands that don’t use these chemicals. Have you ever looked at a clothing label though? Or tried to find the designation on a brand website, and then relocate it in the description of the item you might be thinking of buying? It’s like Where’s Waldo and not the fun version I remember as a kid. Even communicating with customer service reps – both brands who directly said on their websites that they carry Bluesign designation, and one who directly lists it in the description of the products they carry that are Bluesign – both reps said they didn’t even have Bluesign, nor had they heard of it. I actually had to send them the link to the page on their own websites.
So, imagine being the consumer trying to figure this out and buy all new clothing, just so you don’t spend your life itching and full of bumps and rashes.
It has been a long few weeks. A very long few weeks. I have spent way too much money on 17 pieces of clothing so I can stop itching (because of course these designations and qualifications and changes to manufacturing cost money, and of course the consumer gets to pay for it in the final price). I’ve never been one for thinking $100 for jeans was really okay, and now that’s the clearance price of the Bluesign pair that I’m hoping to buy. Jeans have been my daily uniform, and that’s quickly giving away to yoga pants and loose fitting linen. (Athletic brands seem to do very well in adopting these chemical limits for some reason, I’m not really sure why.)
I’m utterly exhausted from all this, and more than a little frustrated and down about this entire allergy thing. I didn’t always have this, though I’ve probably had it for at least the last 5 years without realizing it. The constant exposure to these chemicals caused me to become extra sensitive to them. It sucks. I really liked my previous closet, and starting over again has not been my favorite thing (especially since a lot of the Safe Brands aren’t exactly my style or in my price range).
I’m hoping to have all my new pieces in the next two weeks, and then spend a solid two months wearing them exclusively (and yep, that includes underwear and socks, they don’t get left out of the formaldehyde process either). I always wanted to try a really, really lean closet experiment.
Guess I’m getting my wish!
Brands that sell or are part of the Bluesign/Oeko-Tex/GOTS that I have purchased from
(I included a very small list, and you have to check every item you want to purchase because not all of them have the designation, I recommend calling CS asking about each item you’re interested in specifically):
- Prana – excellent customer service and sold in a lot of places, mostly athletic/yoga oriented, designation details page (one item I bought even had a Bluesign hangtag)
- The North Face – limited items, sports oriented, Bluesign designation page, VF banned chemicals list
- PACT Clothing – everything, selection isn’t huge but I found most of my items here including underwear and sleepwear, and prices are well within my budget! GOTS designation page
- Eileen Fisher – limited number of items, but gives Bluesign designation in description, Bluesign designation page