What Is Contact Dermatitis?

Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN | Published on February 24, 2015
Medically Reviewed by The Healthline Medical Team on February 24, 2015

What Is Contact Dermatitis?

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 foreign substances or excess exposure to water makes your skin itchy, red, and inflamed.

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Most contact dermatitis reactions aren’t severe, but they can be rather unpleasant until the itching subsides.

What Causes Contact Dermatitis?

There are three types of contact dermatitis:

  • allergic contact dermatitis
  • irritant contact dermatitis
  • photo-contact dermatitis

Photocontact dermatitis is very uncommon. It’s a reaction that can occur when the active ingredients in sunscreen are exposed to sunlight.

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.

Common causes of allergic contact dermatitis include:

  • jewelry such as 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
  • bleach
  • drain cleaners
  • kerosene
  • detergents
  • 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.

What Are the Symptoms of 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
  • hives
  • oozing or dry blisters
  • skin redness
  • skin that appears darkened or leathery
  • skin that burns with or without sores
  • extreme itching
  • sun sensitivity
  • swelling, especially in the eyes, face, or groin areas

Irritant contact dermatitis may cause slightly different symptoms, such as:

  • blistering
  • cracking skin due to extreme dryness
  • swelling
  • skin that feels stiff or tightened
  • ulcerations
  • open sores that form crusts

How Is Contact Dermatitis Diagnosed?

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?
  • Are the symptoms triggered by certain activities?

Your doctor may refer you to an allergy specialist 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.

How Is Contact Dermatitis Treated?

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 soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants. One way to soothe the rash is to mix two tablespoons of baking soda in cool water. Soak a washcloth in the cool water, wring it out, and apply it to the skin. 

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 and 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.

How Can I Prevent Contact Dermatitis?

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.
  • Apply water-repellent petroleum jelly before putting on latex gloves to further protect your skin.
  • Apply hand lotions or creams to prevent your skin from drying out. 

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