Some people have a favorite wool sweater while others may itch just looking at it. Being sensitive to wool clothing and materials is very common. People report runny noses, watery eyes, and especially, a skin irritation when they wear wool.

Beginning in the 1930s, doctors considered wool an allergen. However, as testing for allergies became more common, many people had negative results for wool. This frequent finding led some researchers to propose that wool allergy was a myth and to begin to look for other factors that might be causing the symptoms.

It’s easy to see why people feel allergic to wool. Even though some researchers still consider wool an unlikely allergen, recent data has identified a specific component of lanolin that may be the actual cause of many people’s discomfort when wearing wool. They also found wool allergy has increased over the past decade making it more common than first suspected.

Allergy or sensitivity?

  • It can be difficult to know if you have an allergy or a sensitivity to wool. While an allergy is a genetic condition, a sensitivity is more loosely defined. If you’re allergic to something, your body identifies it as an unwanted invader and reacts specifically to fight back.

Response to an allergy can develop quickly and may progress to more severe symptoms. Meanwhile, with a sensitivity, any number of things could cause a surface-level irritation that easily goes away once the irritant is removed.

What are the symptoms of wool allergy? | Symptoms

People who are sensitive to wool might become itchy when wool rubs on their skin.

Symptoms of wool allergy

  • itchy skin and rashes (these are the most common symptoms)
  • irritated eyes
  • runny nose
  • cough

Babies are prone to skin irritations because their skin barrier is thinner, and therefore, more sensitive. They may get contact dermatitis from chemicals or fibers in their clothing and blankets.

Contact dermatitis usually appears on the skin right where it was touching the irritating material. It can appear red, dry, cracked, or blistered.

Parents may shy away from using wool on their children because they’ve heard it’s an allergen. However, one small study found that superfine merino wool actually produced less irritation in infants than cotton clothing.

Two other studies found that superfine Merino wool did not cause reactions in children or any age group.

At any rate, unless allergies run in the family, superfine wool is probably safe for children, and it can be very helpful for keeping winter babies warm. Always consult with your pediatrician if you have specific concerns.

If you consistently react to wool, a doctor can confirm whether or not you’re allergic. Based on your medical history, you could have an increased risk of wool allergy. People who have allergies or asthma may be allergic to multiple things.

One way you can test for wool allergy yourself is to continue wearing the same wool garment but put a thick underlayer between the wool and your skin. If you don’t react, then you likely aren’t allergic. You might just have sensitive skin.

If you suspect a wool allergy, see your doctor. Allergists (doctors who specializes in the treatment of allergies) use a number of tools to understand your symptoms and make a proper diagnosis.

Allergy test

  • Your allergist will record your medical history, ask about your symptoms, and may conduct a variety of allergy tests. Some tests involve taking a sample of your blood, and some tests (called patch tests) introduce tiny amounts of allergens to your skin to look for a reaction.

If you do have a wool allergy, your doctor can tell you how severe your allergy is and how to prevent and treat it.

Lanolin

Wool allergy is believed to come from lanolin — a protective, waxy layer that covers every strand of sheep hair. Lanolin is a complex substance and is often added to cosmetics and ointments for its moisturizing properties.

What is lanolin?

  • Lanolin is specific to sheep, but it’s likely that all mammals have their own version of a protective wax on strands of hair. Wool allergy is specifically linked with the lanolin from sheep.

Lanolin allergy is rare. A 2001 review of more than 24,000 people with high risk for allergies showed only 1.7% of them actually reacted to lanolin.

It’s possible that people who react to wool are actually reacting to something used in the garment-making process. However, that same review found very low levels of irritants in the chemicals and dyes in wool products. So, it’s possible that wool causes a skin reaction because it’s naturally such a thick fiber.

A retrospective review looked at people who were referred for allergy treatment and found that very few of them reacted to wool. Since this was a group of people who already have allergies, the general public likely has even less of a chance of being allergic to wool.

What else could be causing your symptoms? | Other explanations

Wool can be more or less irritating depending on how coarse it is and the size of its fibers. Larger, coarse fibers will be rougher on the skin and more irritating. Since wool can come from a variety of animals, you might notice that you react more to the coarseness of a wool garment depending on which animal it comes from.

If you’re using a new laundry detergent, it’s possible that your skin is reacting to that product and not the wool you’re wearing.

Of course, wool is also very warm. So, if you sweat while wearing wool, you may develop an irritation where it rubs your skin.

All allergies have potentially serious complications. They include:

  • anaphylaxis (most likely to be caused by food, medication, and insect sting allergy):
    • narrowed airways
    • trouble breathing
    • dropped blood pressure
  • asthma
  • sinusitis
  • ear and lung infections

Whenever you think you’re having an allergic reaction, it’s important to see a doctor to get personalized diagnostics and help. Allergies can develop and change over your lifetime and can become more severe over time.

Always see a doctor if you develop a rash on your face or genitals.

If you’re allergic to wool, you should avoid using or wearing it. Or, you can try wearing a thick underlayer to keep your skin from touching the wool. You may also need to avoid products such as moisturizers and cosmetics that contain lanolin.

If you develop an allergic reaction, you can take antihistamine medication, such as Benadryl, to help your body recover.

As with any allergic reaction, if you have difficulty breathing, immediately seek medical attention. Never give babies or children any medication without first consulting their doctor.

Babies and wool

  • Keep the skin clean and moisturized with a gentle, fragrance-free lotion.
  • Let the skin be exposed to air as much as possible.
  • Avoid hot baths or showers, which may further irritate the skin.
  • Try to stop scratching, which can make the rash worse.

The takeaway | Takeaway

Wool is a natural fiber useful for warm clothing and many other garments. Some people may react to it because of its coarse fibers, while some people may actually be allergic.

Wool allergy is rare, but never hesitate to see a doctor if you think you have any kind of allergy.