Am I really allergic to wool?

And other common misconceptions those of us with sensitive skin must endure. Let me start by saying that I spent most of my life thinking that I was allergic to wool and cashmere. I would wear it and eventually my skin would start to tingle, then itch, then burn. If I kept it on long enough tiny red bumps of eczema would begin to sprout in the danger zones (tops of the breasts, outer arms, sides) and then it was a chain of misery that knows no bounds.

So I assumed the logical thing - that I was allergic to wool - and spent my temperate 67-degree San Francisco life avoiding the stuff like the plague. Instead of wool I would choose synthetics, instead of cashmere I would endure acrylic.

But then I moved to a city with the most horrifying winter stories you can imagine. I began to prep my skin for winter - stocking up on hydrating creams (cold > dryness > cracks in skin > eczema > misery) and experimenting with treatments that would help prevent the dryness. That's when I found lano multipurpose super balm. I loved it from use. It made my skin super silky and even cured up a bought of scent-induced eczema.

Now some of you at home are probably shaking your head and thinking, "why did I ever take beauty advice from this girl?" You would be right. This is a clear misdiagnosis/putting something on your skin you probably shouldn't situation. The main ingredient in lano products is lanolin. Lanolin comes from sheep. It's actually such a great moisturizer because it so closely resembles our own natural lipid structure. That, however, is not the point. You know what else comes from sheep? WOOL.

So if I really and truly did have a wool allergy, how could it be that this product wasn't making me break out in a rash and/or hives and/or some other horrible side effect?

Because I'm not actually allergic to wool.

Sensitive skin strikes again. Some wool (and even cashmere) has tiny fibers that stick out from the shaft. Like hair, some wool is coarse and some is smooth. Some of it has to do with the sheep and some with how they turn the natural fibers into thread and then create garments from them. So when you have sensitive skin like mine, the tiny fibers that poke out from the threads will physically abrade the skin, which in turn causes the irritants to have access below the lipid layer. Et voila - eczema.

So what's the takeaway here? Well A, if you really are allergic to wool avoid products made from lanolin. But if you have sensitive skin like me, look for products with smooth fibers. Try blends, which will be smoother because they integrate silk or cotton. (I love this layering piece which is 85% cotton and 15% cashmere, it causes no irritation but is an awesome temperature adapting base layer for when it's cold outside and warm inside...)

 I will test a sweater by holding it in arms against bare skin for 30 minutes while I'm walking through a store - if it doesn't start to tingle by then I'm usually safe. This sweater is from Rag & Bone via Nordstrom Rack and the weave is smooth enough not to cause irritation.

And if you do get some irritation? Avoid everything but hydrocortisone cream and scent-free sensitive moisturizer applied frequently until it heals. Absolutely NO scratching.

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