Beauty 101: The Necessary Evil of Patch Testing

Deciding whether or not a product works for you is obviously an important part of establishing a routine. Before you can figure out if it will help improve your skin, you need to be certain it won’t cause an allergic reaction or make skin problems worse. The best and safest way to do this is to follow a process called patch testing.

Colored flasks with test tubes
It’s not this scientific, I promise.

The patch testing steps I’m going to outline might seem tedious, but if you’re someone with sensitive or picky skin, it can save you a lot of time and headache in the long run. Fixing the damaged caused by a bad reaction takes way longer than patch testing, trust me.

The process involves testing a bit of product on other, sensitive areas of skin before using them on your full face. Patch testing can also be helpful if your skin is having a bad reaction but you aren’t sure which product or specific ingredient is causing the problem.

Remember, the timeline I’m going to lay out in the steps below isn’t law! The amount of time you need to take with each step of the process is totally dependent on your skin. The steps I’m going to outline for you are general guidelines that work for a majority of people, but don’t be afraid to play around with them to find what fits for you.

How to Spot a Bad Reaction

You may not have ever experienced a bad reaction to a beauty product, so you may not know how to tell if what you’re seeing is a product reaction.

Spoiler alert: If you experience any kind of bumps or breakouts from a regular product, this is not purging.

Of course, everyone’s skin is different, so pay attention to how yours looks and feels, but these signs generally mean your skin isn’t happy with a new product:

  • Tightness or redness
  • Tiny white bumps under the surface of your skin
  • Painful, cystic breakouts
  • Unusually clogged pores
  • Burning or itching during or after application (even uncomfortable warmth counts here)

If you feel burning, itching or tightness after application, usually you can gently rinse the product off of your skin right away.

Let me repeat: Bad reaction. Not purging. Purging only happens when you are using AHA, BHA, vitamin C or some form of retinol. Anything else is just your skin being mad.

Step One: Inner Elbow

Before you put any products on your face, you should apply them to an inconspicuous area that is more sensitive than most of your other body skin. For me, the best and easiest place to start is the skin on the inside of my elbow. Places like the inside of your elbow, the back of your knee or even the inside of your wrist tend to have thinner, more sensitive skin that is similar to the skin of your face.

hitchhiking forearm
Use the crook of the elbow or inside your wrist. Like this.

This means if you’re going to have any kind of allergic reaction, using the product on skin that’s similar to your delicate face skin (but not your face!) can help you avoid triggering a nasty reaction on your face. After all, it’s much easier to cover up itchy, angry red spots on your body than on your face!

If you don’t have very sensitive skin, usually patch testing for 2-3 days in a row is plenty of time to gauge how your skin will react. If you have concerns about the ingredients or if your skin tends to have problems, you may want to stretch your testing to 5-7 days.

Step Two: Behind the Ear

fluffy beige bunny
No bunny testing here. Just shamelessly plying you guys with cute pictures to keep you interested.

So, once you’ve made it through the first stage, it’s time to move on to the second. I know you’re probably thinking, “Seriously? Another step?” Testing behind your ear is as close to your face as you can get while still being inconspicuous in case it goes badly.

This step works exactly the same as the first, but you typically don’t need to take as long for testing. Usually you will know within a day or two if your skin can tolerate the product. If not, you’ll notice redness, itching, hives or closed comedones.

Step Three: The Split-Face Test

If you don’t have particularly sensitive skin and/or you just like living dangerously (YOLO!), you can skip the split-face all together and just go ahead and slather whatever it is all over your face. You made it through two steps, right? Good enough.

I usually don’t go this far in my patch testing simply because I’m very impatient and I have pretty non-reactive skin. If you have sensitive skin or you’re just starting out, DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO!

sad cat face
Split face…cat face…potato…potahto. Keep testing!

Split-face is pretty straightforward. Typically, you’ll vertically divide your face and apply product to one side, but not the other. Alternatively, if you know that certain parts of your face tend to be more sensitive – for me, if I ever have a reaction it’s always around my cheekbones – you can just test on those parts of your face instead. Do what works for you.

This part of testing is generally also only a day or two for me. By now, if you haven’t had a seriously bad reaction, you most likely aren’t going to.

Step Four: Enjoy!

happy sleeping kitten
See how happy this cat is that he finished patch testing? THIS COULD BE YOU.
If you’ve made it this far without any crazy skin catastrophes, you’re free to add the product into your routine. I like to wait at least a few days and up to a week before I start testing a new product, just to give my skin a break.

If you have any patch testing tips or tricks I didn’t mention, leave me a comment below and share your wisdom!

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