Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are largely touted as the most effective acne-fighting ingredients. You’ll find them in everything from cleansers to moisturizers to concentrated zit-zapping potions. But the FDA just announced that they’ve uncovered 131 reports of serious allergic reactions to the generally trusted ingredients over the last 44 years; nearly 50% of those people had to be hospitalized. And they don’t just mean a rash—symptoms include breathing problems, lightheadedness, swelling of the face, eyes, and lips, and a tightening of the throat.
If you’ve been using a product for years, you’re probably fine. But if you feel like trying something new, the FDA recommends testing tiny spots on your skin for three days. If nothing happens, you’re fine. If even that scares you, Dr. Harold Lancer, a Los Angeles-based board-certified dermatologist, says to look for ingredients like sulfur, glycolic acid, or a resorcinol cream like Acnomel’s Adult Acne Treatment ($10). Try Peter Thomas Roth’s Therapeutic Sulfur Masque Acne Treatment ($40) or Skinceutical’s Purifying Cleanser ($34). Dr. Ava Shamban, a Beverly Hills-based derm, suggests an over the counter retinol product, like Olay’s Regenerist Intensive Repair Treatment ($28).
But both dermatologists say that the FDA’s new findings aren’t actually so dramatic. “Those ingredients are used so widely that there are some formulations on the market the are not optimal, and these lower quality formulations can cause irritation,” says Dr. Lancer.
“Most allergic reactions in the skin are due to preservatives or fragrance,” says Dr. Shamban. While benzoyl peroxide is a common allergen, she attributes any rise in reactions to other ingredients. “It may be because they’ve added a preservative that more people are allergic to.” A good rule of thumb is to test a product on your arm and let it sit for 24 hours before rubbing it all over your face. Better safe than sorry!