Yes, you should be patch testing skincare
Here’s why, when and how
Unboxing new skincare can be so exciting! We’re still like kids in a candy store when it comes to splurging on something special for ourselves.
But applying that new serum or cream to your entire face right away is not what the pros recommend. Especially if you have allergies, skin that gets irritated or tends to breakout.
Instead, you should patch test. That is, try out any new product on a small area of skin before you use it as directed.
A patch test is a low-risk way of testing out a skin product.
What products should be patch tested?
The short answer? Any new product you apply to your face should be patch tested. That includes:
With patch testing, you slowly introduce any of these in a limited way until you know the new product isn’t going to inflame your skin.
Note: at-home patch testing is not the same as clinical patch testing
There’s a difference between the patch testing we’re endorsing here and professional patch testing by medical professionals. In-clinic patch testing is a more formal way to diagnose allergies.
We’re talking about the DIY method of patch testing you’ll do at home.
We’ll explain how, below. But first…
Why patch test new skincare products?
One of our own team members shared this story:
“I have normal skin and cleanser is the least of my worries. But recently, I tried a new-to-me L’Oreal clay-based cleanser. My skin felt like it was windburned for the next few days. It had never occurred to me to patch test cleanser even though I’d made mistakes with treatment products before that burned my skin.”
So, even if you have a “normal” skin type, don’t dismiss patch testing.
Just pop over to Reddit and search for “skincare reaction” “didn’t patch test” or related terms. You’ll find more than enough stories to convince you it’s worth it to take the time.
There are so many ingredients out there, chances are, you haven’t tried them all.
And it’s not uncommon to develop new allergies over time. Botanical (“natural”) ingredients and lab-made can suddenly cause allergies where they didn’t, before.
In fact, Reddit “I forgot to patch test” stories feature products you might never imagine would cause red, raw skin — like 99% aloe vera jelly.
It also pays to remember, your skin isn’t like everyone else’s skin. What makes one reviewer glow and rave can lead to breakouts or redness and irritation for another.
Which brings us to the next question.
What exactly should you be patch testing for?
There are three main categories of adverse reactions to a skincare product. Some reactions are a combination of two or three of these.
The first two are reactions you can usually quickly identify from patch testing. The third is trickier… because acne doesn’t spring up immediately in response to a product.
When your immune system reacts against something you put on your skin, it’s called allergic contact dermatitis.
Symptoms can include red, raw, rashy skin, swelling, itching, and hives
These sound a lot like the symptoms of an allergic reaction to something you eat or drink because it’s the same response.
Skin in any area of the body can show signs of an allergic reaction. But it’s most common on the face, lips, eyes, ears, and neck.
Allergic reactions usually appear within minutes or hours.
Irritant contact dermatitis is what it sounds like — an irritation response to something that has come in contact with your skin.
If you’ve ever felt like a product “burned” your skin, it’s irritant contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis can make your skin feel like it’s burning and more sensitive.
You might experience redness and rawness, similar to allergic reactions, but contact dermatitis tends to be more painful where allergic dermatitis tends to be itchier.
That’s because with contact dermatitis, there has been some level of damage done to the skin.
If the damage is intense, you can experience blisters, scaling, oozing or weeping.
That’s why it’s so important to treat your skin carefully.
Irritation from a skincare product can be immediate or develop over hours, especially if it’s a leave-on product.
Sometimes the irritation comes from combining two products. Alone, either might not be irritating, but in combination, they become too harsh.
Blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules, nodules or cysts… you can have one type or several at once.
And it’s not always clear whether the acne is related to product use, hormones, diet, stress or another cause.
Patch testing for acne is more reliable than screening products by comedogenic labels, science shows.
The challenge is this: acne takes time to form. Which means you may need to patch test longer.
Early on, you can examine your skin for signs of congested pores, but acne isn’t usually evident until it’s on the verge of revealing itself — a process that often happens over weeks and even months.
So, patch testing for acne takes more patience.
How to patch test safely and easily ?
For extra certainty, introduce just one new product at a time. When you buy a kit of skincare, the temptation is to kick-off a completely new regimen immediately.
Instead, take time to patch test each product consecutively.
Use the product as directed, but apply only to a small, discreet area of skin.
If it’s a rinse-off product, rinse it as directed. If it’s a leave-on product, leave it on until the next application.
How many days do you need to patch test for?
Anywhere from one to three days is recommended. Whether you repeat every day for three days in a row depends on the product and directions for use.
Anyone new to retinol, for example, should start out by using it once a week.
If you’re patch testing Retinol Night Cream, you might apply it to the patch area once and then wait 24-hours before applying to the rest of your face. You would not reapply the retinol to the patch area multiple days in a row. Retinol is not intended to be used daily for most.
Alternately, you could patch test retinol in one area on Day 1, in another small area on Day 2, and in a third small area on Day 3.
Follow one of these approaches when patch testing any treatment products that aren’t meant to be used daily. (Or at least, not by new users.)
If there's no reaction, the product is probably safe for you to apply normally.
Anyone prone to acne should consider patch testing for longer. There’s no clear rule on how long you should patch test to eliminate the possibility that a product will promote acne, so use your best judgement.
Where should you patch test?
If you’re extra-sensitive, you can start by testing the product on an area of skin other than your face. The inside of the arm, for example, is fairly sensitive (like the face), but more discreet. Progress to testing on an area of your face if the first patch test goes well.
Where you test on the face depends on the reaction you’re testing for.
Apply the product behind your ear for allergic reaction testing.
To patch test for irritation, apply the product where you’re most sensitive. Not sure? Try the corners of your nose and chin.
To test for acne, apply the product to areas you tend to breakout. Most likely an area in the t-zone.
What to do if you have a reaction while patch testing?
That small area of skin that’s now irritated, peeling, itchy or otherwise reacting?
Wash, moisturize and — if necessary — treat the area with gentle products you’ve used before that are non-irritating.
Then return the product. Any good brand will have a money-back guarantee.
What a bad patch test means about the products you can use?
A bad patch test only means you shouldn’t use that particular product. It doesn’t mean you can’t use any products in the same category.
For example, if you patch tested niacinamide and had a reaction, that ingredient isn’t ruled out for you forever.
The poison is in the dose and the formulation. Sometimes the same ingredient in one formulation will cause a reaction and in another, be completely fine.
If you’ve had reactions to lab-made ingredients, exclusively natural products aren’t necessarily the answer. Products made from botanical ingredients are no less likely to cause allergies, irritation and acne.
Also, note that there are no federal standards or definitions regulating the use of “hypoallergenic”. So seeing that word on a label shouldn’t be your guide.
Stick with patch testing to reduce risk. And see our Essential Guide to Retinol Skincare to learn why your skin might be more sensitive — and what you can do about it.
Want to try retinol but not sure where to start?
Ready to try retinol in sensitive skin-friendly 0.5% micro-encapsulated form?
Try our Trial Set and get $10 off your first full-size purchase.