Don't Rub It In: Lotions, Creams, And Gels Can Hurt You

If the product’s available without a prescription, it can’t hurt you, right? Wrong.

Lidocaine, methyl salicylate, hydrocortisone. You probably dont think twice about using over-the-counter (OTC) creams with these ingredients when you need to soothe a sore muscle or bug bite, prep your legs before hair removal, or combat that vaginal itch. If the products available without a prescription, it cant hurt you, right? Wrong.

Take Arielle Newman, for instance, a New York City–area high school track star who died last year from a sports-cream overdose. Shed used large amounts of popular OTC pain-relieving ointments like Icy Hot and Ben-Gay on her sore muscles. The key ingredient in such products is methyl salicylate, which built up in Newmans body, may have interacted with other aspirin-based meds she was using, and caused her to go into cardiac arrest.

Another case: In 2005, Shiri Berg, 22, of North Carolina died of a lidocaine overdose. Following the instructions shed been given by the staff at a local hair-removal clinic, she generously applied a numbing gel to her legs, then covered them in plastic wrap. On her way to the clinic to get hair lasered from her legs, Berg passed out. She went into convulsions, then a coma. Eight days later, she was dead.

Women dying in the name of hair removal? Athletes putting themselves at risk by using mentholated muscle soothers? Extreme situations, to be sure. But with all the stuff each of us slathers on our skin (one study estimates that women apply 175 chemicals a day from cosmetics, creams, and toiletries alone), its no surprise that potential hazards are lurking.

Your skin is designed to protect you from countless insults: from air pollution to murky lake water, from dirty gasoline-pump handles to staph. Skin cells provide a physical barrier, sort of like bricks and mortar, to keep the bad stuff out—most of the time, says Francesca J. Fusco, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. “The cells arent as tightly packed as real bricks, though, which means things can squeeze by and pentrate.” Thats good news if you want, say, an antiaging wrinkle cream to wage war against your crows-feet or an anti-itch product to tackle that exercise-induced rash on your inner thighs. Bad news when strong chemicals meet sensitive or thin skin, cause an allergic reaction, or dangerously flood your bloodstream. Here, we investigate 14 ingredients commonly found in products you may be using right now—and we tell you how to stay safe.

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Leslie Goldman
Last Updated: March 20, 2008

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