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Is medicine making your skin itchy?

Itchy skin is a common complaint for people with naturally dry and sensitive skin, but sometimes the side effects of some medicines can make our skin itch too.

There are many medicines that can cause itching from general over the counter pain relievers to prescription medicine given to you by your doctor.

While itchy skin can be annoying, in most cases it’s nothing to worry about and can be relieved by keeping your skin cool, avoiding hot baths and hot showers, relaxing in an oatmeal bath, and applying a soothing body lotion.


It’s important you check the label of your body wash, bath products and body lotions to make sure the ingredients don’t aggravate your itching even more.

Key ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate, PPGs, PEG, petroleum jelly and artificial fragrances can dry out the skin, upset its moisture balance and even cause atopic dermatitis.

For example, some of the common skincare ingredients and their effects include:

PPGs (propylene glycol or 1, 2 propanediol) is manufactured from propylene oxide, a petroleum-based raw material. PPG absorbs water and maintains moisture and is commonly used as an antifreeze, a solvent and an excellent penetration enhancer or so called “active ingredient” that can help shuttle soluble ingredients into deep layers of skin. Many foods, drugs and personal care products contain PPG. It is also used in pet food and has been associated with anaemia and other health effects in cats due to clumping of haemoglobin. Prolonged skin exposure has caused irritation, possibly due to its dehydrating effect on the skin, despite being used in skin care products that advertise to do the opposite. PPG can also cause an allergic response on contact with the skin (allergic contact dermatitis), particularly in people that suffer with eczema, fungal infections and in people with lower sun exposure and vitamin D stores.

BG (butylene glycol or 1,4 butanediol)
 is also made from the petroleum-based raw material propylene oxide. BG is a solvent and plasticiser and used as a solvent in cosmetics and as a humectant in pharmaceutical products. Exposure has been known to cause slight skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation and acute oral toxicity. Studies on the effects of people using repeated doses have reported neurotoxicity as BG’s most hazardous effect. Nevertheless, there is no data to indicate that BG may lead to cancer, cause genetic alterations within cells, sensitize the skin or have an effect on the reproductive system.

PEG (polyethylene glycol) 
is a petroleum-based polymer made by joining molecules of ethylene oxide and water together in a repeating pattern. This water soluble polymer is used in laxatives, a lubricant, medications (as a binding agent), sexual lubricants and a stabiliser. In skin care products and cosmetics PEG is used as thickener, solvent, softener, emulsion stabilizer, surfactant, fragrance ingredient, skin conditioning agent, a penetration enhancer and moisture–carrier. Repeated or prolonged skin contact may lead to irritation and contact dermatitis and will have a degreasing action on the skin. If it’s used on broken skin PEG could produce irritation and systemic toxicity. Due to its penetration enhancing properties, PEG increases the skin’s permeability allowing greater penetration of the ingredients in the skin care product.
Depending on the manufacturing process of PEG, it is possible that traces of ethylene oxide or PEG polymers of low molecular weight may remain in the final product. These have been associated with allergies, cancer, neurotoxicity, immunogenicity (where the body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance) and with reproductive and developmental toxicity – which by definition includes effects on women who are pregnant.

If your skincare product lists ethyl, butyl, methyl and/or propyl on its
ingredients label, you may want to return the product to the shelf. Known more commonly as parabens, these ingredients are found in 99% of leave-on products and in 77% of rinse-off products with concentrations up to 0.8% of the product. They are used as low-cost, synthetic preservatives and microbial agents for personal care, pharmaceutical and food industry products to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus. Parabens are considered xenoestrogens, a type of synthetic compound that imitates oestrogen even though they differ chemically from the natural hormone
made in the body. Research has shown that parabens play a role in stimulating cell proliferation of human breast cancer cell lines, and they have been indicated in precocious (early) puberty in children, infertility, disorders of the reproductive system and even skin cancer.

Toluene is derived from crude oil and the tolu tree is used to make products such as paint thinners, detergents, glues and adhesives. It’s also commonly used in nail polish to create a smooth looking finish. The primary route of exposure is through inhalation and skin and eye contact. It is a known irritant and can cause headache, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, pain, redness and swelling, and may even cause effects in unborn children. Toulene can also be found on ingredients lists as benzene, methylbenzene, toluol and phenylmethane.

Fragrance or parfum
They might sound harmless enough but did you know that these ingredients may actually comprise several potentially harmful chemicals that are labelled together under the banner of fragrance or parfum? This is all thanks to a legal loophole that enables companies in Europe to avoid listing the presence of allergens in their products when concentrations exceed 0.001% in leave-on products and 0.01% for those that are rinsed off. This sure does make it difficult to make an informed judgement about your personal care product, so it’s probably best to avoid anything with fragrance or parfum in the ingredients list, just to be sure.

Polyethylene glycol (PEG)
PEG is a petroleum-based polymer used in skin care and cosmetics, among other things as a thickener, solvent, softener, emulsion stabilizer, surfactant and fragrance ingredient. Repeated or prolonged skin contact may lead to irritation and contact dermatitis and will have a degreasing action on the skin. It is possible that during the manufacturing process traces of ethylene oxide may remain in the final product. These have been associated with allergies, cancer, neurotoxicity, immunogenicity and effects on pregnant women.

These dangerous preservatives may be listed on your ingredients label as DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, Bronopol, 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1, Hydroxymethylglycinate and should be avoided where possible. Formaldehyde is best known for its use in embalming chemicals, however it is found widely in nail polishes and hardeners, eyelash glues, hair gels, soaps, makeup, shampoos, body lotions and deodorants. Formaldehyde is released slowly in small amounts thanks to preservative action, and helps fight against product contamination from bacteria. Unfortunately, the chemical and its preservative helpers have been strongly linked to leukaemia, pancreatic and skin cancer, skin irritation and cirrhosis.


As we said earlier, it’s important that consumers are able to make informed decisions about the skincare products they purchase, for while education is the first step towards responsible consumption, it can also help to put pressure on skin care product manufacturers to create products that are safer and better for our bodies.

To reduce itching as much as you can, stick to body products that use natural ingredients that won’t inflame and aggravate your skin. Explore our range of natural body products at our online shop here.

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