Have you ever used a new type of skincare product or detergent, only to have your skin become red and irritated? If so, you may have experienced contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when chemicals you come into contact with cause an undesired reaction.
Most contact dermatitis reactions aren’t severe, but they can be rather unpleasant until the itching subsides.
There are three types of contact dermatitis:
- allergic contact dermatitis
- irritant contact dermatitis
- photo-contact dermatitis
Photocontact dermatitis is less common. It’s a reaction that can occur when the active ingredients in a skin product are exposed to the sun, resulting in irritation.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin develops an allergic reaction after being exposed to a foreign substance. This causes the body to release inflammatory chemicals that can make the skin feel itchy and irritated. Even if you have been exposed to a chemical or product for many years, your body can still become allergic at any time.
Common causes of allergic contact dermatitis include:
- jewelry made from nickel or gold
- latex gloves
- perfumes or chemicals in cosmetics and skincare products
- poison oak or poison ivy
Irritant Contact Dermatitis
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis. This happens when the skin comes in contact with a toxic material.
Toxic substances that can cause irritant contact dermatitis include:
- battery acid
- drain cleaners
- pepper spray
Also known as ‘hand eczema,’ irritant contact dermatitis can occur when the skin comes in contact with less irritating materials like soap — or even water — too often. People whose hands are frequently exposed to water, such as hairdressers, bartenders, and healthcare workers, often experience irritant contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis symptoms depend upon the cause and how sensitive you are to the substance that causes the rash. Symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include:
- dry, scaly, flaky skin
- oozing blisters
- skin redness
- skin that appears darkened or leathery
- skin that burns
- extreme itching
- sun sensitivity
- swelling, especially in the eyes, face, or groin areas
Irritant contact dermatitis may cause slightly different symptoms, such as:
- cracking skin due to extreme dryness
- skin that feels stiff or tightened
- open sores that form crusts
Contact your doctor if your symptoms are severe or not improving with time. Your doctor will take a thorough medical history and examine your skin. Questions they may ask you include:
- When did you first notice your symptoms?
- What makes your symptoms better?
- What makes your symptoms worse?
- Did you go hiking just before the rash started?
- What products do you use on your skin every day?
- What chemicals do you come in contact with on a daily basis?
- What do you do for a living?
Your doctor may refer you to an allergy specialist or dermatologist to pinpoint the cause of your contact dermatitis. This specialist can perform allergy testing (called a ‘patch test’), which involves exposing a small patch of your skin to an allergen. If your skin reacts, the allergy specialist can determine the likely cause of your contact dermatitis.
Avoid scratching your irritated skin if you think you may be experiencing contact dermatitis. Scratching can make the irritation worse or even cause a skin infection that requires antibiotics.
Instead, clean your skin with mild soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants. Discontinue any products you think might be causing the problem. Applying bland petroleum jelly to soothe the area can be helpful.
Other anti-itch treatments include calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. You can purchase these items at most drugstores. Your doctor can prescribe a more potent steroid cream if these creams don’t soothe your skin.
Taking an antihistamine drug such as diphenhydramine can help to cut down on itching and reduce your allergic response.
Most cases of contact dermatitis will go away on their own once the offending chemical or product is no longer in contact with the skin. Most aren’t cause for concern. However, seek medical attention if your rash is close to your eyes or mouth, covers a large area of your body, or doesn’t improve with at-home treatment.
Avoiding initial exposure to irritants can help prevent contact dermatitis symptoms. Try these tips:
- Purchase products labeled hypoallergenic or unscented.
- Refrain from wearing latex gloves if you have a latex allergy. Opt for vinyl gloves if you do need to wear gloves to protect your skin.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when hiking in the wilderness.
- If you notice irritation from a new product, discontinue use immediately.
If you know you tend to have sensitive skin, do a spot test with any new products first. You can apply the new product to one place on your forearm. Cover the area and do not expose to water or soap. Check for any reaction at both 48 and 96 hours after application. If there is any redness or irritation, do not use the product.