Five Signs a Skin Care Product Isn't Working for You

Use a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer and hydrocortisone cream if you experience irritations.

woman applying skincare routine in mirror
Photo: Sergey Mironov / Getty Images

Does your skin feel irritated? If the answer is yes, figuring out which product led to your complexion's distress can be a confusing process. "Once our barrier has been affected, until our skin heals, mostly anything we put on will feel irritating," says Dr. Anna Karp, a dermatologist and Bio-Oil partner. The easiest way to get to the root of the issue is by simplifying your routine for the time being. "You can go down to a basic mineral sunscreen on your face in the morning and a gentle moisturizer at night before slowly adding your products back in," she adds. "One way to see if you have an allergy to a product is to do an at home patch test; I recommend putting a little bit of the product on your inner forearm for 24 hours and seeing if a reaction develops." If you notice a flare up, then you likely have developed an allergy. Here, experts share several signs that indicate that a formula isn't working—and walk us through product cessation and healing in the aftermath.


"Stinging with application of any product, including those that are not the culprit of the irritation to begin with, is a result of the skin's acid mantle having been stripped, which can be due to using too many harsh products or too much of a singular product with potential for irritation," says Dr. Rachel Maiman, a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical. Disclaimer: Dr. Karp says that our skin does get more sensitive as we age, so certain products—even ones we have used for decades—can feel more irritating once applied. Another reason for sudden stinging? A beloved formula could have undergone a formulation change, and the new ingredients are not reacting well with your complexion.

Dryness and Peeling

If you are experiencing dryness, peeling, or general rough texture, Dr. Maiman notes that your skin's barrier could be compromised. "The skin barrier (stratum corneum) can be thought of like a wall of brick and mortar, where the bricks are skin cells (keratinocytes) and the mortar is made of lipids (fats) that intercalate between them," she says. "When a product is too harsh for skin, overused, or used with other products that render the skin irritated, the healthy lipids important for preserving the integrity of the skin barrier are lost, which increases insensible loss of water." In turn, this creates a dehydrated barrier that leads to flaking, peeling, and dryness. Unfortunately, this can also allow microorganisms, pollution, and more to enter the dermis. "In a similar vein, the porosity of the barrier increases absorption of those irritating products so they are even more irritating," adds Dr. Maiman. "The end result is a snowball effect that worsens irritation, dryness, and sensitivity." One particularly formula to utilize with particular caution? Beware retinol and its derivatives, Dr. Karp says. If used incorrectly, it can cause redness and peeling. She says to apply it with a moisturizer underneath and at a maximum of three times each week in the evening if you have sensitive skin or are just beginning.


Some makeup and skin care formulas have allergenic inactive ingredients (these contribute to texture and smell), which can prompt rashes, especially eczema or swelling (particularly around the eyes), to develop. "If this starts with the introduction of a new product, consider getting allergy patch testing at your dermatologist's office to determine the offending agent to know which ingredients to look out for and avoid in the future," Dr. Maiman advises. "It's also important to remember that allergies can develop over time, so a history of a newly introduced product is not necessarily required for the diagnosis to be an allergic contact dermatitis." The issue could be from a product you've used before, even if you didn't have a problem previously.

Oiliness and Breakouts

Since skin has a natural layer of oil, when harsh products strip this, a feedback mechanism immediately kicks into gear; this triggers oil glands to ramp up production in an attempt to compensate for the dryness. "If your skin is oilier than usual, this can induce new-onset acne or worsening zits and can also give the sensation of the skin being simultaneously dehydrated and oil-slicked," Dr Maiman says.


"Hives are a more extreme manifestation of allergy to a skin care product that tends to form quickly after application, usually within 30 minutes," Dr. Maiman shares. "Hives appear like swollen, red, and itchy welts."

Heal Your Skin

When you confirm a skin reaction to a specific product, first things first: toss it. From there, use mild, hypoallergenic products until your skin is back to normal. Dr. Maiman recommends steering clear of exfoliants, both chemical and physical, and using a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizing product twice a day to help the skin heal. "Another helpful tip is to reach for a low-potency, over-the-counter-strength hydrocortisone one-percent cream and apply this to affected areas twice daily for up to a week to alleviate symptoms quicker," she says. "If the culprit product is unclear from the get-go, one's skin care regimen should be simplified to the absolute basics—a gentle, hypoallergenic cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen—and then each product that is a candidate should be introduced one at a time and assessed for reactions." Dr. Karp suggests anything from petrolatum jelly to a lightweight oil, like Bio-Oil Natural ($24.89,, which boasts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant plant oils and extracts that help with the healing process.

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