Rachael Pontillo History of Skin Reactions

My History of Irritant Skin Reactions

Many people who elect to make their own skincare products do so because they’ve had an unpleasant encounter with chemically-based skincare products. Sometimes these encounters are allergies or irritant skin reactions, other times they’re a little different like hyper or hypo-pigmentation. Well, guess what, friends! They’ve all happened to me at varying stages of my skincare product-using life.

It all started when I was about 12.

I began getting small blackheads and blemishes around age 10, but I didn’t really do anything about it until I started reading magazines like YM (best teen magazine ever and I’m a little sad it’s not around anymore for my kids!) and Seventeen. Magazines like these weren’t only the go-to source of information for how to survive typical teen and pre-teen angst, but they were also the mecca of advertisements for teenage skincare and personal care products. Junior-sized maxi pads? Bought ’em. Natural Wonder cosmetics endorsed by my personal idol of the time Debbie (now Deborah) Gibson? You betcha. Caboodles? Got like three of them. Love’s Baby Soft perfume? Done. Teen Spirit deodorant? Had all three scents and rotated using them.

In this sea of ads, of course, were ads for skincare products that were available at the local drug store and were dirt cheap featuring models with perfectly clear skin and big, toothy, white smiles. Of course, I had no idea about the existence of photo retouching and airbrushing back then–and this was pre-Photoshop. So I begged my mom for products, like Noxema, Sea Breeze, and tinted Clearasil (which I figured was just practical since it could also serve as a concealer) and that was my very first “official” skincare regimen. I religiously scrubbed my face with a little scrubby brush and the Noxema until it was bright red, then applied Sea Breeze to my skin with fresh cotton balls over and over again until there was no dirt left on the cotton (as the ads instructed me to do), then applied the Clearasil to my entire face. Yes, the package said to use it as a spot treatment, but I figured more is more just like it was with the Sea Breeze.

As you can imagine, I had a reaction right away. My entire face and neck became red, swollen, and itchy. I figured it was overkill, so I cut back on the Clearasil and just kept the Noxema and Sea Breeze regimen for the next several years.

My skin gradually got worse…

Remember the old "Wipe on Stridex, wipe out pimples" commercials?"
Remember the old “Wipe on Stridex, wipe out pimples” commercials?”

But I just attributed it to puberty. I didn’t change my products, because I loved how they felt while I was applying them, and like many people, I believed the common skin myth that oily/acneic skin doesn’t need to be moisturized–it needs EXFOLIATION instead.

Brace yourself… because what I added to my already sensitizing regimen was good old St. Ives apricot scrub. You know–the kind with granules large enough and sharp enough to clean dirty grout? Yup.

From the ads I continued to see in magazines and on TV during Saved By The Bell, I now decided that since my skin was getting worse, I now needed to use a “medicated” product. So I added the super convenient Stridex pads. So now my twice-daily regimen was cleanse with Noxema, tone with Sea Breeze, exfoliate with St Ives, and then medicate with Stridex. Still no moisturizer (I guess those ads weren’t as compelling for me).

I eventually tried different drug store brands like L’Oreal, Neutrogena, Aveeno, and Olay–but all of them made no difference. My skin flip-flopped between painfully dry, red, and tight to super oily to the point that I had streaks in my makeup.

This continued until I began working in department stores in high school and had the luxury of an employee discount on cosmetics (it was a beautiful thing). So with my first paycheck, I went right to the makeup counters and let the ladies behind the counter school me on a proper skincare regimen and makeup application. I spent my entire check that first day (one of the reasons I won’t let my kids work a the mall when they’re old enough).

Though the products didn’t help my skin improve at all (it got worse), the fact that I was 17 years old wearing MAC, Chanel, Trish McEvoy, and Prescriptives (MAC and Trish were pretty exclusive back then) made me feel like I was hot stuff. And I will say that even though the makeup wasn’t anything I’d choose now in terms of ingredients, in terms of color selection and quality, my overall look was a big improvement over how I looked with drugstore makeup.

Then came my two most significant my irritant skin reactions.

To this day I don’t know exactly what ingredient or product caused it, but I woke up one day with my face covered with itchy red bumps and inflamed pustules. There was literally no part of my face that was flat or smooth. My mom took me to the dermatologist, where I promptly received eleven cortisone injections in my face (I think my mom almost passed out), and then prescriptions for antibiotics and Retin-A (with no recommendation for skincare products). Whatever the rash was went away, but it was then replaced by painfully dry skin that peeled off in sheets like a bad sunburn. I stopped using both and resumed my regular regimen.

This is similar to the reaction I had to the Clinique--only it was all over my face and neck.
This is similar to the reaction I had to the Clinique–only it was all over my face and neck.

Shortly after this reaction, I left for my freshman year of college at Syracuse University. I was very concerned about what I could possibly get for skincare and makeup without the availability of my beloved makeup counters but was somewhat relieved when I saw there was a Clinique counter in the bookstore. I say somewhat because my fancy, snobby thoughts were “well I’d prefer Chanel, but I guess this is better than the drugstore.” Not so much, it turns out.

I purchased their system for oily/acne-prone skin, brought it back to the dorm and applied it right away (I do that–I use new products the second I get them or make them whether I need to or not), and within an hour felt extremely tired and went to sleep.

I woke up feeling very itchy and found that had trouble opening my eyes. I looked in the mirror and was appalled to see that my face and neck were bright red, puffy, and covered with bumps and peeling scales from my hairline to my chest, even on my eyelids and lips.

I went right to the hospital, was put on a steroid drip, and was kept overnight for observation because they were afraid I’d go into shock or stop breathing. For days after that, I used nothing but water on my face until it healed, and then I resumed my old drug store regimen. Oh and by the way, when I worked in the cosmetics department years later, my co-workers and I used to use Clinique’s purple toner to remove nail polish when we were trying on different polishes during slow times. It’s easy to see how it could irritate the skin!

In the years following that, I tried various products–some natural, some chemical–but continued to have unpleasant reactions and acne because I think I was just so overloaded with chemicals and had done so much early damage to my skin with exfoliation and improper product use. I didn’t have any more acute reactions, but I did experience hypopigmentation from using Proactiv in my twenties.

Not only did the benzoyl peroxide in the products lighten my eyebrows, hairline, and pillowcases (and one of my mother-in-law’s pillowcases too–sorry Mom, that was me), it also lightened the skin on my face and neck to the point that I had to purchase darker foundation to match my chest and blend it in because my face was several shades lighter than my chest and it looked funny.

It took YEARS for my skin to recover from this, and I was lucky because on some people hypopigmentation is permanent. But at least it was effective for the acne which is why I used it for so long.

It wasn’t until I learned about natural ingredients in aesthetics school, started learning about herbs and essential oils, and began making my own products, and cleaned up my diet that I finally achieved clear skin and no freaky reactions.

In the early days of Holistically Haute when it was still just a blog, I used to do product reviews of products that claimed to be natural–but when I tried them I often experienced itchiness around the neck, bumps and swelling around the eyes, or other irritant reactions that sent the message to me loud and clear that my skin just can’t tolerate most chemicals in mainstream products. Whether it’s sulfates, parabens or other chemical preservatives, synthetic fragrances, or even lower quality botanical extracts–my skin always had its way of telling me no. So I stopped doing product reviews because I couldn’t in good conscience endorse products that I couldn’t use myself.

I have NEVER had allergic or irritant skin reactions to a product that I’ve made for myself.

Rachael Pontillo clear skinThat’s the honest truth. Sure there were products I made in my earlier days that weren’t ideal for my skin in terms of texture or efficacy because I hadn’t found the right ingredients or formulation for my skin, but because I used top-quality natural ingredients (even the natural preservatives and emulsifiers are naturally based and very gentle and I only use essential oils for fragrance) I never had another negative reaction.

Furthermore, since my skin was receiving such nourishment, hydration, and protection without a bunch of other ingredients getting in the way, I was able to undo much of the damage I did in my earlier years and my skin is now clearer and more resilient than ever.

I also found such a love for making my products. It’s much easier than I initially worried it would be, and I’ve been able to integrate it seamlessly into my lifestyle with very little effort. It’s truly become a passion in life and I am so grateful I took the leap–because it’s not only healed my skin, but it’s become an integral part of my own self-care. I recommend it for everyone, which is why I decided to teach others how to make products for themselves too.

Does your skin need help recovering from years of using the wrong skincare products?

I can help. I can teach you to make your own skincare products with top quality, natural ingredients just like I do for myself in my 6-week online course, Create Your Skincare. I can also work with you one-on-one if you need a little more TLC.

*Image 1 credit: “Flaking rash” by Pitke – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flaking_rash.jpg#/media/File:Flaking_rash.jpg

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