Overview

Your laundry detergent may smell like morning dew or spring rain, but chances are, it’s packed with some pretty serious chemicals. It’s not uncommon for people to experience adverse skin reactions to the ingredients in standard detergents.

Fragrances, preservatives, dyes, and other chemicals in laundry detergent can cause rashes in both children and adults.

Laundry detergents can trigger a condition called contact dermatitis, which presents as a red, itchy rash that may be widespread or confined to specific areas like the armpits and groin.

Allergies or sensitivities to laundry detergent can develop the first time you’re exposed or after repeated exposures. Most people can prevent laundry detergent rashes by using fragrance- and dye-free detergents.

Common causes

Allergens

Laundry detergents contain a variety of potentially irritating ingredients.

Like most soaps, detergents contain some type of surfactant, or surface-acting agent. Surfactants work by loosening dirt and oil particles and allowing them to be washed away. Harsh surfactants can be irritating for people with sensitive skin.

Artificial fragrances are another broad category of chemicals that can cause skin rashes and irritations. Companies that make laundry detergents typically use proprietary blends of fragrances, making it difficult for customers to know exactly what’s in them.

Other common allergens found in laundry detergents include:

  • preservatives
  • enzymes
  • parabens
  • colors and dyes
  • moisturizers
  • fabric softeners
  • thickeners and solvents
  • emulsifiers

Allergies to mild allergens, like those found in laundry detergents, typically develop slowly after repeated exposures. Once you develop an allergy, however, it only takes small amounts of the offending substance to produce a reaction.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a skin condition caused by something that you come into contact with, such as soaps, plants, or metals. There are two types: irritant and allergic contact dermatitis.

If you have irritant contact dermatitis, you can develop a rash even though you aren’t allergic to anything in your laundry detergent.

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common form of nonallergic skin rashes. It occurs when an irritating substance damages the top layer of your skin, causing an itchy rash. You may have a reaction after the first time you’re exposed to a detergent or after repeated exposure.

Allergic contact dermatitis happens when you have an allergic reaction to a substance. When you have an allergic reaction, your body produces an immune response.

What are the symptoms?

If you’re allergic or sensitive to something in your laundry detergent, you may experience symptoms immediately after touching freshly washed clothes or many hours later. Symptoms may include:

  • red rash
  • mild to severe itching
  • blisters that may ooze or crust over
  • bumps
  • dry, cracking, or scaly skin
  • tender skin
  • burning skin
  • swelling

Typically, contact dermatitis occurs in specific areas that come into contact with strong irritants, such as the skin beneath a piece of jewelry. When symptoms are widespread, however, you should consider laundry detergent as a possible cause.

Because your entire body comes into contact with washed clothing and linens, symptoms can appear anywhere. Some people find that symptoms are worse in areas where clothing gets wet with sweat, such as the armpits and groin. A freshly washed pillowcase may cause irritation to the sensitive skin on your face.

If your baby or toddler is experiencing rash-like symptoms, consider which areas of their body has not touched freshly washed clothing. Typically, this would be the face or head and the area underneath their diaper.

How it’s treated

Most rashes can be treated at home with simple remedies and lifestyle changes. If you’re allergic or sensitive to a chemical irritant, such as a specific brand of detergent then the most important thing you can do is to identify it. Then you can take steps to avoid it. To ease your symptoms, consider taking the following steps:

  • Apply a steroid cream. An over-the-counter steroid cream containing at least 1 percent hydrocortisone can help relieve itching and inflammation.
  • Try an anti-itch lotion. Calamine lotion can soothe the skin and prevent scratching.
  • Take an antihistamine. Antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can stop allergic reactions.
  • Take an oatmeal bath. A cool oatmeal bath can reduce itching and soothe inflamed skin.
  • Apply a wet compress. A towel soaked in cool water can soothe inflamed skin and reduce tenderness.

Prevention tips

Use a fragrance- and dye-free detergent

Many people are sensitive to the chemicals in artificial fragrances and dyes. Try a natural alternative, such as Seventh Generation Free and Clear, which is a vegetable-based, dye- and fragrance-free detergent.

Shop for more natural detergents.

Rinse your load twice

An extra run through the rinse cycle may be all you need to keep detergent residue from building up on your clothes. Use the hottest possible water to help kill allergens.

Use dryer balls instead of fabric softener and dryer sheets

Cut down on the number of chemicals you use by skipping fabric softener and dryer sheets. Dryer balls, which are usually made of wool, plastic, or rubber, can help soften clothes and reduce static without adding irritants.

Use baking soda and vinegar

Baking soda and vinegar make a great natural cleaning solution. Use them instead of detergent or during a second wash cycle. These non-irritating products can help brighten and soften clothes naturally.

Make your own detergent

You can make your own detergent with washing soda and borax. This solution is fragrance- and dye-free and can even save you money. For extra cleaning power, consider adding olive oil-based Castile soap.

Wash your washing machine

If you have one family member with chemical sensitivities, make sure you wash the machine after loads using standard detergents. A hot water cycle with baking soda and vinegar can help clear soap scum and chemical buildup from the machine.

Pretreat stains naturally

Avoid chemical stain removers by pretreating stains with a combination of water, washing soda, and baking soda.

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