Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that develops as a reaction to a chemical or other substance. This condition is usually not serious but can be uncomfortable. Treatment typically depends on what caused your dermatitis.
Have you ever used a new type of skin care product or detergent only to have your skin become discolored and irritated? If so, you may have experienced contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when chemicals you come into contact with cause a reaction.
Experts typically classify contact dermatitis as either allergic or irritant.
Allergic contact dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your skin develops an allergic reaction after exposure to a foreign substance. This causes your body to release inflammatory chemicals that can make your skin feel itchy and irritated.
Common causes of allergic contact dermatitis include contact with:
- jewelry made from nickel or gold
- perfumes or chemicals in cosmetics and skin care products
- poison oak or poison ivy
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis. It happens when your skin comes in contact with a toxic material.
Toxic substances that can cause irritant contact dermatitis include:
Irritant contact dermatitis can also occur when your skin comes in contact with less irritating materials like soap too often. For example, people who frequently wash their hands, such as hairdressers, bartenders, and healthcare workers, often experience irritant contact dermatitis of the hands.
A less common type of contact dermatitis is photocontact dermatitis. It’s a reaction that can occur when sun exposure causes active ingredients in a skin product to irritate your skin.
Doctors and other healthcare professionals classify photocontact dermatitis as either allergic or irritant.
Contact dermatitis symptoms depend on the cause and how sensitive you are to the substance.
Allergic contact dermatitis
Symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include:
- dry, scaly, flaky skin
- a bumpy, itchy rash
- oozing blisters
- skin that appears darkened
- skin that burns
- sun sensitivity
- swelling, especially in your eyes, face, or groin areas
Another common symptom is skin discoloration. Light skin may turn red, while dark skin may turn purple, dark brown, or gray.
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis may cause slightly different symptoms, such as:
- cracking skin due to extreme dryness
- skin that feels stiff or tight
- open sores that form crusts
Irritant contact dermatitis symptoms may worsen if your skin encounters:
- extreme temperatures
- friction (such as rubbing against the irritant)
- dry air
Most cases of contact dermatitis go away on their own, but symptoms can still be uncomfortable. Here are some tips you can try at home:
- Avoid scratching your irritated skin. Scratching can make the irritation worse or even cause a skin infection that requires antibiotics.
- Clean your skin with mild soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants.
- Stop using any products you think might be causing your symptoms.
- Apply bland petroleum jelly like Vaseline to soothe the area.
- Try using anti-itch treatments such as calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream.
- If needed, take an antihistamine drug such as diphenhydramine to cut down on itching and reduce your allergic response.
You can purchase these items at most drugstores or online.
Most times, contact dermatitis isn’t a cause for concern. But get medical attention if your rash:
- is close to your eyes or mouth
- covers a large area of your body
- doesn’t improve with home treatment
A doctor can prescribe a stronger steroid cream if home treatments don’t soothe your skin.
Contact a doctor if your symptoms are severe or don’t improve with time. A 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 or worse?
- Did you go hiking just before the rash started?
- What products do you use on your skin every day?
- What chemicals do you come in contact with on a daily basis?
- What do you do for a living?
A doctor may refer you to an allergist or dermatologist to pinpoint the cause of your contact dermatitis. This specialist can perform allergy testing called a patch test. It involves exposing a small patch of your skin to an allergen.
If your skin reacts, the allergist can determine the likely cause of your contact dermatitis.
Anyone can experience contact dermatitis, but some people may be at greater risk. Your risk is higher if you work in an occupation with frequent exposure to allergens or irritants.
Other risk factors include:
Occupations with a high risk of contact dermatitis
- agricultural workers
- construction workers
- healthcare workers
Avoiding initial exposure to irritants can help prevent contact dermatitis. Try these tips:
- Purchase products labeled “hypoallergenic” or “unscented.”
- Refrain from wearing latex gloves if you have a latex allergy. Opt for vinyl gloves instead.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when hiking in the wilderness.
- If you notice irritation from a new product, stop using it immediately.
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 then 96 hours after application. If there’s any redness or irritation, don’t use the product.
Is contact dermatitis contagious?
The rash from contact dermatitis isn’t contagious. You might transmit traces of the allergen or irritant to someone else, and they might develop a rash if they have a similar reaction. But people vary in their reactions to these substances.
How quickly does contact dermatitis go away?
It can take as long as 2–4 weeks for allergic contact dermatitis to go away. Irritant contact dermatitis usually improves more quickly.
How long does it take for symptoms of contact dermatitis to develop?
Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis typically take
Irritant contact dermatitis usually causes symptoms within minutes.
Is contact dermatitis hereditary?
Your genetics may play a role in developing contact reactions to specific allergens or irritants.
According to the British Skin Foundation, families with a history of eczema, asthma, and hay fever may develop irritant contact dermatitis more easily.
Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin reacts to an allergen or irritant. It usually goes away on its own, but symptoms can be bothersome.
You can manage most cases of contact dermatitis with over-the-counter treatments and by avoiding the allergen or irritant that’s causing your symptoms. More severe cases, or if your rash develops an infection, may require a doctor’s help.
An allergist or dermatologist can help you understand how your skin reacts to certain substances and provide guidance on how best to avoid symptoms.