From makeup to skincare to growth serums - if your eyebrows are inexplicably red and flaking, this could be why

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We don't want to start you scratching, but it seems a bit of an itchy, flaky eyebrow epidemic has taken hold of late. It’s not the first area where you’d expect issues, but consultant dermatologist Dr Mia Jing Gao says that she sees “a significant number of patients with this problem and their number appears to be increasing.”

I find myself scratching at my brows regularly; some days, they seem to itch more than others. It's why the few ‘brow soothing’ products that have recently been launched have caught my eye. Are they really something I need in my arsenal? Do you? And why would eyebrows itch and flake in the first place? Let’s ask the derm.

What causes itchy, flaky brows?

"If brows are red and flaking and you find yourself scratching them, it’s often due to a skin condition called seborrhoeic dermatitis,” says Dr Jing Gao, who takes a special interest in hair-related conditions at her various NHS and private practices. It's very common and normally shows up as itchy flaky skin on the face and on the scalp as dandruff she says. It can also manifest as flaky, itchy brows. It's an inflammatory reaction to a harmless yeast that lives on the skin, and some people are just genetically more prone to it. (For how to treat, see below)

You could also, like me, be prone to dermatitis, meaning your skin will easily go red or produce a rash in response to certain products. To find out the main culprits, read on...

Why are flaky brows on the rise?

Brow makeup and treatments that irritate

Our love of brow mascaras, pomades, pencils, inks and professional tints might have something to do with increased instances of seborrhoeic dermatitis that Dr Jing Gao is seeing. Inflammatory skin issues such as dermatitis and eczema, are also on the rise, she says, and "can be triggered or worsened by irritants in brow products such as fragrance, alcohol, dye, or detergents."

Formaldehyde-based preservatives in your brow makeup can cause irritation as well, so avoid those, advises ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon Dr Rachna Murthy.   

Not cleansing your brows properly 

"We don't remove our eyebrow makeup like we do our eye makeup, and that can cause issues, " says Murthy. "Make sure to take your eye makeup cleansing routine right up to your brows."

Using retinoids and acids on your brows 

Do you slap it all over when it comes to serums and toners? We've heard of retinol lip (dry, flaky lips caused by retinol)  but the same principle can apply to the skin beneath our brows if we're overzealous with our actives on delicate areas. Dr Murthy points the finger at retinoids, "which are quite pro-inflammatory in the way they speed up cell turnover." Dr Jing Gao adds that exfoliating acids are prime culprits for irritation too. 

Skincare 'dumping' 

Skin creams and serums can get caught under your eyebrows in greater amounts than elsewhere, says Murthy.  This may exacerbate the drying, potentially irritating effects of retinoids. Especially if you're already prone to dry skin issues, this can become a problem.

Too much Vaseline

Dr Jing Gao is not a fan of over-using occlusive petrolatum or mineral oil-based products (such as Vaseline, which is sometimes tipped as a brow conditioner). "They make the skin too oily, which can contribute to seborrheic dermatitis,” she says. For that reason, a mineral-oil-based cold cream, for example, is a bad idea too. 

Brow-growth serums with PGAs

Can brow-growth serums make your eyebrows itch? Yes they can. Like lash growth serums, they can contain something called prostaglandin analogues or PGAs, proven to cause a growth spurt in both lashes and brow hairs. But they can be very irritating to some skins. Check your INCI (ingredients) list for any words containing 'prost'.

You're prone to ingrown hairs

If you have thick hair, you may feel the itch when your hair grows back after an eyebrow wax or threading. Says GTG design manager Jemma: “Whenever I see my brow technician, I’m always reminded that I should be exfoliating my brows in between monthly waxing treatments, as I get ingrown hairs which give me spots and itchy, flaky skin.”

Jemma uses Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, £31 with salicylic acid once a week to prevent clogging. This works for her oily skin type, but is obviously a big 'no' if acids are the cause of your brow irritation.  If you don’t have oily skin but still suffer from this issue, try using a gentle exfoliant instead, such as Indeed Laboratories No Acid Pads, £10 for 30 pads.

What can I do about my itchy, flaky brows?

Cut out any brow products containing any of the above ingredients - mineral oils, retinoids, PGAs, acids and any other irritants - until the situation settles. Dr Jing Gao recommends stripping back your whole skincare regime and avoiding potentially irritating actives such as acids and retinoids. Once things have calmed down, go back to your previous routine, but avoid using irritants on the brows themselves. 

“A soothing moisturiser is helpful to improve the skin barrier function," she adds.  Cultured Biomecare Biome One Serum, £55 for 60ml is a good overall moisturising serum with a milky texture that you can use for face and brows.

For seborrhoeic dermatitis, she prescribes anti-inflammatories "such as a mild topical steroid or non-steroid alternative, alongside an anti-yeast product such as ketoconazole shampoo to reduce yeast production,” she says. 

 For me, if my brows itch more than usual, I know that the latest brow product I favour probably has some irritants in it. I will reach for an anti-inflammatory and barrier-building cream or gel (see below for suggestions) to remedy the situation, and may or may not cut out the brow product, depending on how bad the irritation is.

Want to soothe your own itchy flaky brows, fast? Check out these soothing and brow-boosting solutions.

The fire extinguisher: La Roche Posay Dermallergo Soothing Serum, £22.40 for 20ml

A weightless, water-based serum designed to quell allergic reactions, it has a patented ingredient that quickly settles flaring skin anywhere, including your brows.

Buy now

The cooling skin milk: Cultured Biomecare Biome One Serum, £55 for 60ml

A soothing milk with prebiotics and soothers to re-balance your skin-protecting healthy bacteria - your brows can use some as well.

Buy now

The original brow soothing serum: Hydrosil HydroBrow Serum, £8.50 for 7ml

The first of its kind, this is a transparent brow gel with an anti-inflammatory passionfruit extract and inulin, a brow microbiota-balancing prebiotic made form chicory. Apply twice a day to treat and prevent flaring brows.

Buy now

The hair mask for your brows: Revitalash Lash & Brow Masque, £40 for 5ml

A sort of antidote to the possible irritation of the PGAs in the Revitalash lash and brow conditioners, this is packed with anti-inflammatories, hydrators, waxes and vitamins but doesn't have alcohol or other irritants.

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The irritant-free growth serum: The Ordinary Multi-Peptide Lash & Brow Serum, £12.40 for 5ml

A growth serum not with PGAs but with peptides which, says Dr Murthy, are basically conditioning agents that won’t irritate. It also has anti-inflammatories and no alcohol or other irritants.

Buy now