How aggravating it is to use a toiletry product that is supposed to make you look or feel better but instead gives you an itchy, unsightly rash!

Mainstream doctors often suggest treating allergic skin reactions with antihistamines, corticosteroid creams and/or oral prescription steroids—but those can cause undesirable side effects such as drowsiness, skin discoloration or increased blood pressure. Alternative: A natural approach can help you get rid of the rash quickly and safely, according to Laurie Steelsmith, ND, author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health and a naturopathic physician in Honolulu.

First, try to pinpoint the problem product…

This step comes first because you certainly don’t want to keep using whatever is provoking your reaction. Yet the ID process can be tricky because almost anything can trigger an allergic reaction, Dr. Steelsmith said. Helpful guidelines

List all the topical products used in the past 48 hours. If the rash appears only on a certain body part, you can focus first on products used on that area. For instance, for one of Dr. Steelsmith’s patients, it was easy to figure out that the rash on her wrist was caused by the essential oil she had applied there. But for a widespread rash, you need to consider all recently used products. Your list should include toiletries applied directly to the skin (cosmetics, lotions, cleansers, perfumes, etc.) as well as nontoiletry products that make indirect contact (laundry detergents, fabric softeners). Try to think of everything—for example, Dr. Steelsmith recalled a patient whose rash was traced to her toilet paper!

Consider which product is the most likely troublemaker. Concentrate first on products that are new to you, since these have the greatest probability of causing you problems. But also recognize that you can develop an allergy at any time, even to a product you’ve used for years. Clue: Check product labels for the following common allergens…

  • Myroxylon pereirae (Balsam of Peru), a fragrance in many perfumes and lotions.
  • Formaldehyde and quaternium 15, preservatives used in cosmetics.
  • Cobalt chloride, a metal in hair dyes and antiperspirants.
  • Thimerosal and neomycin sulfate, antibacterial ingredients used in antiseptic creams

Test yourself. If you feel fairly certain which product is causing your rash, of course you should avoid it in the future. If you’re not sure whether you’ve identified the culprit, conduct a “patch test.” Apply a small amount to your inner wrist. If you get a reaction, wash the area immediately and do not use that product again. If no reaction occurs within 24 hours, try using the product as directed. Still no reaction? Repeat the patch test with a different product. If you still cannot identify the allergen, discontinue use of all toiletries for several days, then reintroduce them one at a time to see whether one provokes a rash.

Meanwhile, to relieve those itchy, ugly symptoms…

Dr. Steelsmith’s first piece of advice: Don’t scratch! “Scratching aggravates the problem by releasing more histamine from the skin and causing you to itch even more,” she explained. Scratching also can open a wound that invites infection. Instead, try any or all of the following…

Take an oatmeal bath. Here is Dr. Steelsmith’s home recipe. Pour two cups of instant oats into a sock, and close the end with a rubber band. Put the sock into an empty tub and fill the tub with warm (not hot) water. Soak for 20 minutes.

Apply aloe vera gel to the skin. Several times daily, use enough gel to cover the affected area with a thin veneer. Continue until the rash is gone.

Use ice packs as needed. The cold numbs the area, eases inflammation and temporarily halts itching.

Go on a three-day hypoallergenic diet. The idea is to consume only organic foods that are unlikely to exacerbate an allergic reaction and that help detoxify your body, Dr. Steelsmith explained. Eat only brown rice…lamb, peas and/or lentils for protein…and vegetables, including plenty of greens such as kale, chard and spinach. Drink filtered water, squeezing the juice of one-quarter of a lemon into each eight-ounce glass. Rule of thumb: Divide your body weight (in pounds) in half—whatever number you get, drink that many ounces of water per day.

Consider supplements that fortify your immune system and make it less reactive. Consult a naturopathic physician for a regimen tailored to your needs. For her own patients, Dr. Steelsmith typically recommends…

  • Quercetin, an antioxidant, at 1,000 mg twice daily to stabilize the cell membranes that release histamine.
  • Reishi (also called ganoderma lucidum), a medicinal mushroom that modulates the immune system, at 2,000 mg per day.
  • Vitamin C at 3,000 mg per day for overall immune support.

When to seek medical help…

See your doctor if you can’t discover the cause of your rash or if it is spreading, covers more than 30% of your body, is accompanied by any other symptoms, lingers for more than a week or recurs even after you’ve discontinued use of suspected products. Your doctor may want to investigate other possible causes of your skin problem, such as a reaction to medication…scabies (a parasite that can live in the skin)…skin infection…liver or kidney disease…or skin cancer.

You also may be given a blood test that looks for allergies to foods, chemicals and other substances. It was this, Dr. Steelsmith said, that helped her identify the cause of a patient’s vulvar rash. The patient thought she had recurrent yeast infections—but the problem turned out to be an allergy to the cinnamon in her stimulating vaginal lubricant!

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