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.
Most contact dermatitis
reactions aren’t severe, but they can be rather unpleasant until the itching
What Causes Contact Dermatitis?
There are three types of contact
- 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
- jewelry such as nickel or gold
- latex gloves
- perfumes or chemicals in cosmetics and skincare
- poison oak or poison ivy
Irritant Contact Dermatitis
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.
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
- 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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
- Refrain from wearing latex gloves if you have a
latex allergy. Opt for vinyl gloves if you do need to wear gloves to protect
- 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.