By Erika Ross, Reverie Beauty Co., Nashville, Tennessee
The technical term for an allergy to lash extensions is contact dermatitis, which is a skin reaction in response to exposure to an allergen or a chemical irritant.
With lash extensions, contact dermatitis causes both eyelids to become swollen within 12-24 hours of application — more swollen than if you spent the night crying. Unlike atopic dermatitis, there is not necessarily a predisposition to allergic disease. With lash adhesive, there isn’t a way to tell if a person is allergic beforehand, even with patch testing.
It is not an infection, it isn’t the eyeball itself reacting, and it is not contagious. If someone is allergic, the allergy will present after three exposures. These can be over any period of time, including months or years. It can even present in a client after long repeated use. It can develop at any time, not unlike many allergies.
The Chemistry of Curing
If you like to get nerdy, the process of curing is actually really interesting. When any amount of moisture is present, the molecules in the cyanoacrylate glue will react with the moisture on the lash and in the air to form tight chains between the natural lash and the extension.
In the bottle, it exists as single molecules in a liquid form. Once those single molecules make contact with water, which essentially happens once it leaves the bottle, the process of anionic polymerization begins. When it comes into contact with this moisture, or hydrolyzed/hydroxide ions, it links up to form long polymer chains that cure into a hard, yet flexible solid.
This material, bonding the natural lash and the extension together, is virtually weightless when applied expertly, as a tiny yet powerful amount is used causing the extensions to bond and last.
The point is that it often does not present after the first or second exposure. If a client has had lashes applied once or twice, they may still be allergic. The reason it takes at least three exposures isn’t fully understood. The idea is that since the exposure is to such a tiny amount of adhesive each time, it takes a while for the body to have an allergic response.
The allergy is the skin reacting to the solvent in the cyanoacrylate, which is the main adhesive ingredient in the lash adhesive. The fumes from the adhesive can be irritating if a client opens their eyes during the application, but it is not the fumes — or vapors — we are allergic to.
Deep Dive into Cyanoacrylate
Cyanoacrylates have been around since the early 1940s and were initially found to work well in closing and containing soldiers’ wounds on the battlefield. Today, they exist as a family of strong, fast-acting adhesives used in the industrial, medical, and household realms.
In the simplest terms, there are industrial cyanoacrylates and cosmetic cyanoacrylates. The most common type of cyanoacrylates used in the beauty industry has been made safe for use with lash extensions.
Cyanoacrylate adhesive is composed of acrylic resin. The main ingredient in cyanoacrylate adhesives is cyanoacrylate itself, which is an acrylic monomer that transforms — in a process called anionic polymerization — to a flexible, plastic state after being exposed to moisture and curing. Once cured, it becomes inert and is waterproof.
Cyanoacrylates can only bond with a natural lash when there is moisture present, which is why I perform a lash bath and use a sensitive saline solution at the end of every service to speed up that process and wash away any remaining solvent, as well as any residual makeup, dirt or debris.
For the Allergic, What Next?
If your client has the allergy, your skin is allergic to the solvent in the cyanoacrylate. Some people believe we can be allergic to either the cyanoacrylate or the carbon black pigment used to make the adhesive black. However, as of this writing, there is no study found outlining a carbon black allergy. Because of this, any lash adhesive, including sensitive and clear, that is used on a client who is allergic will produce some degree of allergy. I have seen minimal to severe reactions. It just depends on their allergy level.
Roughly 3-5% of the population is allergic. Doctors agree with this percentage and studies have confirmed the figure. The good news is there is relief and a client can continue getting lash extensions when following the proper protocol.
I am not a doctor and cannot give medical advice. However, I can recommend what has been successful throughout my years of lashing and dealing with the allergy. I do advise you have your client contact their doctor, an ophthalmologist or optometrist while having the reaction. They can prescribe a topical steroid, typically dexamethasone ointment. I refer clients to a physician who specializes in cosmetic and reconstructive eyelid and facial surgery and knows the allergy well. I suggest clients tell the doctor they think they have contact dermatitis on their eyelids as a result of exposure to the cyanoacrylate in the lash adhesive. Dexamethasone is safe for the eye area. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment or creams are NOT safe for the eye area and can cause cataracts.
The best results in using dexamethasone have been seen when the ointment is applied the night before the appointment, and immediately after. I rinse clients’ eyes, give them a good lash bath, and apply it directly after. Some clients can use it for one to three additional days, depending on how severe their reaction is.
There has been additional relief seen when a client also takes an antihistamine the night before or the day of the appointment as well. However, there haven’t been any studies proving this can help mitigate contact dermatitis.
It’s also important to note that typically the allergy doesn’t go away. However, in certain clients, it has been known to lessen over time. It’s possibly just their body getting into formation with what your mind wants to do, but more likely it’s just the body getting used to it.
Regarding Patch Testing
An allergy is not immediately known upon first exposure. Because it takes repeated exposure, the only way to do a patch test is to apply a few extensions to each eye a month apart, three separate times. This, however, is not foolproof because the tiny amount of adhesive used to do this would unlikely cause any reaction unless the client was severely allergic.
Patch testing on the arm or behind the ear is also not advised. The skin on our eyelids is different from the skin on the rest of our bodies. It is more fragile and is anticipated to be easily irritated. A patch test in another area would likely provide a false-negative result.
Practices to Avoid if You Have the Allergy
It is not advised to have the lashes removed after an allergic reaction. This is because a solvent is needed to break down and dissolve the bond. In essence, the solvent melts the adhesive and can cause a secondary reaction. It will get worse before it gets better.
Here are some other options to consider:
Let the allergy run its course. The swelling may get worse, but it will dissipate. Note that a reaction will still occur at every fill. If this option is desired, it is recommended to wash lashes twice daily.
Lashes can be physically removed without the use of a solvent. However, this is not recommended. It is uncomfortable to have new lashes removed manually because the adhesive bond is strong after a new set or fill. The eyelid skin is also swollen from the allergy making it especially difficult to provide a comfortable removal process.
With that said, a prescription will always be the first recommendation.