What is Contact Dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance or an allergic reaction to it. The rash isn't contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable. Many substances can cause such reactions, including soaps, cosmetics, fragrances, jewelry, and plants.

Let’s dive right into what exactly causes Contact dermatitis and how you can avoid coming in contact with the chemicals that cause these allergic reactions.

Contact dermatitis results in 5.7 million doctor visits each year in the United States, and all ages are affected. Females are slightly more commonly affected than males, and teenagers and middle-aged adults seem to be the most common age groups affected.

How is the Cause of Contact Dermatitis Determined?

It may be difficult to determine the cause of contact dermatitis, since some common chemicals that cause contact dermatitis are found in many substances. For example, many perfumes, lotions, creams and other toiletries may contain various fragrances which cause contact dermatitis.

It must be realized that a reaction can develop to a cosmetic, hair dye, toiletry or any other trigger even if the substance has been used for years without problems.

Common allergens include:

  • Nickel, which is used in jewelry, buckles and many other items

  • Medications, such as antibiotic creams and oral antihistamines

  • Balsam of Peru, which is used in many products, such as perfumes, cosmetics, mouth rinses and flavorings

  • Formaldehyde, which is in preservatives, disinfectants and clothing

  • Personal care products, such as deodorants, body washes, hair dyes, cosmetics and nail polish

  • Plants such as poison ivy and mango, which contain a highly allergenic substance called urushiol

  • Airborne substances, such as ragweed pollen and spray insecticides

  • Products that cause a reaction when you're in the sun (photo-allergic contact dermatitis), such as some sunscreens and oral medications

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type. This nonallergic skin reaction occurs when a substance damages your skin's outer protective layer.

Some people react to strong irritants after a single exposure. Others may develop signs and symptoms after repeated exposures to even mild irritants. And some people develop a tolerance to the substance over time.

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when a substance to which you're sensitive (allergen) triggers an immune reaction in your skin. It usually affects only the area that came into contact with the allergen. But it may be triggered by something that enters your body through foods, flavorings, medicine, or medical or dental procedures (systemic contact dermatitis).

How is Contact Dermatitis PREVENTED?

  • Avoid irritants and allergens. Try to identify and avoid substances that irritate your skin or cause an allergic reaction. We recommend eliminating the use of synthetic perfumes and any beauty products that contain fragrance within its ingredients list.

  • Wash your skin. Clean your skin with mild soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants.

  • Protect the skin. Apply our All-Purpose Ointment to soothe the effected area.

If you know you have sensitive skin, do a spot test with any new products. You can apply the new product to one place on your forearm. Cover the area, and don’t expose it to water or soap. Check for any reaction at 48 and 96 hours after application. If there’s any redness or irritation, don’t use the product.

Central Coast Allergy and Asthma 4/29/2008 | Daniel More, MD & Steven Prager, MD

When To Call a Professional

Call your doctor whenever you are troubled by red and very itchy skin. Also call if your skin is cracked, blistered or painfully dry. Even if you are certain that your skin problem is "just a case of poison ivy," call your doctor's office for advice.


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