Racing for the kitchen, I swung open the freezer door and plunged my hands inside.
That’s better, I thought, as the cool air crept up my arms.
Sadly, the relief was only brief. It was soon replaced by the familiar burning feeling that had taken over my life. I didn’t know how much more I could take. Each day was unbearable!
It all started in April last year when I went on holiday to Thailand with my friend Sarah, 26. Arriving in Bangkok, we had an amazing time seeing the sights.
But on the third day, I woke up to a prickly feeling on the back of my neck.
Looking in the mirror, I noticed angry, red patches had appeared.
It’s probably just heat rash, I figured. My skin wasn’t used to the humid weather and I’d been sweating more than usual.
But as the day wore on, the blemish spread across my face, chest, back and legs. It soon felt like my whole body was on fire and every muscle ached.
What was going on?
Hoping it was just a virus, I tried to ignore the fever and constant itching. Cool showers helped soothe my fiery skin at first but eventually the pressure of the water, or even a wash cloth, became too painful.
I had no choice but to use the wet wipes I’d packed to keep myself clean in the muggy weather.
A few days later, I felt worse than ever so Sarah called a doctor to our hotel.
He suspected it was an allergic reaction but I hadn’t used any products or eaten anything I hadn’t tried before.
I was given an antihistamine injection and steroid tablets to stop the irritation.
While it helped ease the itching, I was still burning up and my rash kept getting worse.
When we moved on to Phuket, I was too ill to even leave the resort and spent hours laying on the bathroom tiles to keep cool.
Calling my dad Rob, in tears, I felt helpless. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I sobbed.
Sarah did her best to comfort me but flying home two weeks later, my skin was so red and swollen I could barely bend my arms and my mouth cracked whenever I spoke.
Racing straight to hospital, doctors suspected it was an infectious disease or a tick-bourne virus.
But all my test results were clear.
Puzzled, doctors prescribed me antibiotics and steroids.
Spending the next four days in hospital, my skin started to peel and the tomato colour finally faded.
I hoped that would be the end of it but it was just the beginning...
For the next year, my skin got worse and I was constantly seeing specialists.
Without warning, my entire body would flare up in a rash and my muscles constantly ached. It felt like I was on fire.
One day I went for a walk on the beach and when I got back, my skin was so swollen I could barely open my eyes.
Doctors suspected I might have solar urticaria – a rare condition where sufferers are allergic to sunlight. But again my tests showed nothing.
I tried endless creams and medications and even swapped to using all-natural products at home but nothing worked.
After a few months, the rash spread to my hands and blisters would pop beneath the surface, splitting my palms and fingers in every crack and crevice.
The wounds were so deep I could see my veins and I’d have to coat them in steroid ointment and cover them with cotton gloves to stop infections.
The only relief I got from the itching was putting my arms in the freezer.
While I’d always loved dealing with clients at my job in a bank, I was too sick to go to work. How could I shake someone’s hand when mine looked so horrible?
I became a recluse and on the rare times I ventured out, I completely covered my body. I was so embarrassed by my appearance.
By June, mentally and physically exhausted from 14 months of pain, I’d had enough.
When I went back to hospital, the dermatology team decided to do patch testing.
They’d booked me in for the procedure a few months earlier but I’d cancelled because I couldn’t afford to take any more time off work.
Doctors carefully applied 60 different patches on my back, testing for reactions to different products and chemicals.
Over the next week, it finally revealed the shocking truth.
‘You’ve had a reaction to a preservative called methylisothiazolinone,’ the doctor explained. I’d never even heard of it.
How could I have been exposed?
The preservative, more commonly known as isothiazolinone or MI, is in many moisturisers, soaps, shampoos, washing detergents and even baby products sold in Australia.
While it’s banned in the majority of products overseas, it’s still common here.
That’s when doctors finally concluded what had caused my reaction – the wet wipes.
I’d used them many times in the past and never had a problem but it was likely my increased use in Thailand had triggered an allergic reaction.
Unable to shower, I’d used them even more once I got sick!
I couldn’t believe something so seemingly harmless had caused so much pain. Doctors explained that reactions often occur one or two days after contact so many people don’t realise their beauty products are to blame.
I was devastated to think the problem had been staring me in the face but I was thrilled to finally have an answer.
At home days later, I felt like I was walking on air. Sorting through my collection of face wipes and cosmetics, I was shocked by how many had the preservative present.
My moisturiser, shampoo and conditioner all had to be thrown out.
Even the natural products I used to wash my sheets and clothes had MI in them. No wonder my condition kept getting worse!
Incredibly, the rash soon cleared up but it left behind nasty scarring on my legs. Still, I felt like my old self again and life could get back to normal.
Now I’m sharing my story to warn others about the dangers of this hidden preservative.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve spoken to countless people suffering from unexplained skin irritations and they’ve found that cutting out MI has helped them, too.
We often turn a blind eye to the contents of products we use every day but there’s no telling how they could harm us.
Do you know what you’re putting on your skin?
Methylisothiazolinone, commonly known as MI, is a preservative commonly found in moisturisers, shampoos, sunscreens and facial wipes. MI is present in around half of disposable baby wipes on the market in Australia.
According to the latest research, rates of allergic reactions to MI have risen from under 4 per cent to 11 per cent in two years.
Experts believe this rise in cases is due to increased exposure to MI, with many mums suffering reactions after using wipes on their infants.
These allergies cause red, itchy rashes on the face and hands.
In 2013 a European commission recommended that MI be removed from leave-on cosmetics.
The Occupational Dermatology Research and Education Centre now recommends the preservative also be removed from Australian hygiene products.
Originally published in that's life! issue 36 - September 10, 2015