Allergen, Not An Allergen Featured

SALICYLIC ACID: Allergen or Not An Allergen?

Not An Allergen

Salicylic Acid

This popular, well-studied keratolytic and micro-exfoliant is the only BHA (Beta-Hydroxy Acid) used in skin, and it is a staple, from acne to various scaly skin conditions. In acne, blackheads, and whiteheads, it works by deep-cleaning the follicles’ inner walls to prevent clogging. It also softens keratin, loosening scaly skin, making its shedding and removal easier. Because salicylic acid penetrates the skin’s oiliest areas best and is a keratolytic, it reaches areas where some other actives or medicines may not be able to, helping them penetrate more effectively and possibly improving their overall efficacy.

While not a common contact allergen, almost all active ingredients are irritating, so practice care when using products with salicylic acid. Make sure to follow usage instructions carefully, slowly increasing application frequency over time. Because it can already be irritating, it is important to choose products that contain no allergens, and to avoid other products — cleanser, moisturizers, sunscreen, makeup, hair care, etc. — with allergens. Use pH-adjusted support products, and use a sunscreen daily.

Real allergies to salicylic acid are rare, but some have been reported. Also rare are overdoses to topical products, but they can occur and cause uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and tinnitus (noise, like a ringing or roaring, in the ears). As salicylic acid is absorbed through the mother’s skin, it is also not advised to use while pregnant or breastfeeding. It is also not advisable for use on children younger than 2 years.

If you have a history of sensitive skin, don’t guess: random trial and error can cause more damage. Ask your dermatologist about a patch test.

To shop our selection of hypoallergenic products, visit Need help? Ask us in the comments section below, or for more privacy (such as when asking us to customize recommendations for you based on your patch test results) contact us by email, or drop us a private message on Facebook.

For more:

On the prevalence of skin allergies, see Skin Allergies Are More Common Than Ever and One In Four Is Allergic to Common Skin Care And Cosmetic Ingredients.

To learn more about the VH-Rating System and hypoallergenicity, click here.

Main References: 

Regularly published reports on the most common allergens by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group and European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (based on over 28,000 patch test results, combined), plus other studies. Remember, we are all individuals — just because an ingredient is not on the most common allergen lists does not mean you cannot be sensitive to it, or that it will not become an allergen. These references, being based on so many patch test results, are a good basis but it is always best to get a patch test yourself.

1. Warshaw, E.M., Maibach, H.I., Taylor, J.S., et al. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012. Dermatitis. 2015; 26: 49-59

2. W Uter et al. The European Baseline Series in 10 European Countries, 2005/2006–Results of the European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (ESSCA). Contact Dermatitis 61 (1), 31-38.7 2009

3. Wetter, DA et al. Results of patch testing to personal care product allergens in a standard series and a supplemental cosmetic series: An analysis of 945 patients from the Mayo Clinic Contact Dermatitis Group, 2000-2007. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010 Nov;63(5):789-98.

4. Verallo-Rowell VM. The validated hypoallergenic cosmetics rating system: its 30-year evolution and effect on the prevalence of cosmetic reactions. Dermatitis 2011 Apr; 22(2):80-97

5. Ruby Pawankar et al. World Health Organization. White Book on Allergy 2011-2012 Executive Summary.

6. Misery L et al. Sensitive skin in the American population: prevalence, clinical data, and role of the dermatologist. Int J Dermatol. 2011 Aug;50(8):961-7.

7. Warshaw EM1, Maibach HI, Taylor JS, Sasseville D, DeKoven JG, Zirwas MJ, Fransway AF, Mathias CG, Zug KA, DeLeo VA, Fowler JF Jr, Marks JG, Pratt MD, Storrs FJ, Belsito DV. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012.Dermatitis. 2015 Jan-Feb;26(1):49-59.

8. Warshaw, E et al. Allergic patch test reactions associated with cosmetics: Retrospective analysis of cross-sectional data from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, 2001-2004. J AmAcadDermatol 2009;60:23-38. 

9. Foliaki S et al. Antibiotic use in infancy and symptoms of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, and eczema in children 6 and 7 years old: International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood Phase III. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009 Nov;124(5):982-9.

10. Kei EF et al. Role of the gut microbiota in defining human health. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2010 Apr; 8(4): 435–454.

11. Thavagnanam S et al. A meta-analysis of the association between Caesarean section and childhood asthma. Clin Exp Allergy. 2008;38(4):629–633.

12. Marks JG, Belsito DV, DeLeo VA, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch-test results, 1998 to 2000. Am J Contact Dermat. 2003;14(2):59-62.

13. Warshaw EM, Belsito DV, Taylor JS, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch test results: 2009 to 2010. Dermatitis. 2013;24(2):50-99.

Want more great information on contact dermatitis? Check out the American Contact Dermatitis SocietyDermnet New Zealand, and your country’s contact dermatitis association.

Featured Skin

Combining Actives: Customize Your Skincare Regimen Like A Pro

First, some basics.



Combining different actives in one regimen can give you multiple benefits but you up the risk of irritation and you can definitely over-treat. If you’re going to combine, keep the following in mind:

  1. Hypoallergenic: Choose products with minimal or no allergens to up the safety factor.
  2. Sensitive Should Simplify: For sensitive skin, less is more, period. Use fewer products and choose gentle but multi-beneficial ones.
  3. Date wisely. If you’re going to increase the risk of irritation by adding actives, add what’s proven to be good and reliable. Sexy, sci-fi-sounding claims that seem too good to be true probably are — big talk and broken promises are never fun. Stick to what’s backed up by studies published in peer-reviewed journals.



WHY: Not all skin types should use a toner. Very dry skin and sensitive conditions like rosacea, eczema and psoriasis do better with less cleansing overall.



WHY:  “Active ingredient” is often an alpha- or beta-hydroxy acid, another type of microscopic exfoliant (hastens the shedding of old cells), or a drug (like an antibiotic). While effective, too much of these good things can be too much for sensitive skin. There are excellent actives that are less irritating and some that are even anti-inflammatory such as virgin coconut oil (anti-aging, barrier repair, antimicrobial); monolaurin (anti-acne, antimicrobial), and green tea (antioxidant). As long as the rest of the ingredients in your products are free of allergens, combining anti-inflammatory actives may not only be ok but beneficial.

How to Combine Actives the Right Way

Think: Extra Slow, Extra Gentle. Protect.

1) GO SLOW. With any active product, start with once-a-week applications, then twice-a-week, very slowly increasing frequency to three times a week and so on until you achieve once- or twice-a-day usage, which should be no earlier than eight weeks after your first application.

Get to once- or twice-a-day usage of one active product before starting another. Do this for each new active product that you add. That’s eight weeks or more per new active product — for example, you would only be using three active products together by week 24, at the earliest.

2) BE GENTLE. It is crucial to use a pH-lowered cleanser (such as Id, Illuminants+, Re-Everything) to prevent irritations. Active treatments are more acidic, which the skin can easily adjust to (the skin’s natural pH is slightly acidic) but low-pH active treatments plus a high-pH cleanser can spell disaster.

3) PROTECT: Actives tend to make the skin more sensitive to sun and light. It is important to use an Armada Sun + Light Screen every day, indoors and outdoors, even if actives have not been applied on a given day.


Can I combine Id and Illuminants+ for my acne and dark spots? What about a Pore Minimizer? Presenting our most popular “how-do-I-combine…” regimens at VMV Hypoallergenics: