Your skin is your outermost protective layer and provides a protective barrier between your body and the the surrounding world. Sometimes, when you come into contact with irritating substances, you’ll notice a skin reaction, often in the form of a rash. This reaction actually has a name: contact dermatitis. It’s one of the seven types of eczema, and it’s related to other skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and neurodermatitis.
What Is Contact Dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis appears when you come into direct contact with a substance that irritates the skin or causes an allergic reaction. Contact dermatitis can appear as raised bumps, blisters, or swelling. On darker skin, it may appear as a leathery patch that’s darker than your normal skin tone. On lighter skin, it may look scaly and dry. Contact dermatitis can look red, brown, purple, gray, or pink, depending on your skin tone.
Types of Contact Dermatitis
Whether the substance causes an irritation or allergic reaction in the skin, the resulting rash is still referred to as contact dermatitis, but it is important to distinguish between the types.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis
When an allergic reaction takes place after coming into contact with a substance, you’re dealing with allergic contact dermatitis.
Poison ivy is one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis.
Irritant Contact Dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis involves exposure to an irritant that doesn’t create an allergic reaction in the immune system.
Detergents, shampoos, deodorants, soaps, household cleaners, nickel-containing jewelry, and cosmetics are common causes of irritant contact dermatitis.
People who work with chemicals daily, like mechanics, hairdressers, chemists, healthcare workers, custodians, etc., are at a higher risk of irritant contact dermatitis.
What Is Photocontact Dermatitis?
Photocontact dermatitis is another version of the skin condition, and it’s also divided into two subtypes: phototoxic and photoallergic.
Photocontact dermatitis also appears as a rash on the skin; however, this form of contact dermatitis occurs when specific chemicals or substances are applied on the skin and are then exposed to the sun.
Common products that cause this interaction with the sun include sunscreens containing oxybenzone, certain fragrances, insecticides, and coal tar products.
Phototoxic reactions occur because of direct damage to the skin tissue as a result of the chemicals’ exposure to UV rays. Photoallergic reactions create an immune response. Both result in a rash that appears similar to a bad sunburn.
Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis
Common signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis include:
- Blisters (could be oozing)
How Long Does Contact Dermatitis Last?
Contact dermatitis appears within minutes to hours of exposure (although sometimes takes days to form) and can last two to four weeks. If exposure continues to the allergen or irritant, however, you run the risk of dealing with a rash continually until exposure ends.
How to Treat Contact Dermatitis
Contact dermatitis isn’t contagious or typically life-threatening, so you just need to worry about managing symptoms while you heal — and avoiding irritants and allergens in the future to avoid recurrence.
1. Determine the Cause and Avoid Future Contact
The most important part of treating contact dermatitis is identifying and eliminating exposure to the cause of your skin rash.
If you’re having trouble narrowing down the trigger of your skin condition, try journaling your daily activities and the status of your skin.
The location of your rash should also help you narrow down the irritant or allergen. Contact dermatitis typically only appears on the small part of skin that’s been directly exposed.
Consider whether you’ve been in contact with:
- Poison ivy
- Nickel (sometimes found in jewelry)
- Household cleaners
- Latex rubber
- Hair dyes
These are common culprits you may want to start evaluating first.
And remember, if you work as a mechanic, hairdresser, chemist, healthcare worker, or custodian, you may be exposed to chemicals in the workplace that are contributing to these itchy flare-ups.
If you’re struggling to determine the cause of your contact dermatitis, visit a dermatologist or allergist. Your doctor may recommend allergy testing or patch testing in order to determine the specific substances causing your rash.
2. Avoid Scratching
Let’s face it: When your skin itches, you want to scratch! However, it’s important to refrain from scratching your inflamed rash. You can actually irritate the skin more and cause small cracks and openings.
To help minimize scratching, keep your nails trimmed short. Cover the affected area if needed by wearing long sleeves, long pants, socks, etc. If your itch doesn’t go away, talk to your doctor, who may recommend antihistamines for short-term itch relief.
3. Apply a Cool Compress
Run a washcloth under cold water until moistened. Remove any excess water, and apply the homemade compress to your contact dermatitis rash to help minimize itching. You can repeat this process several times per day as needed. You can also apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel to itchy skin. It can be helpful to take a cool shower or bath.
4. Contact Your Dermatologist or Allergist
When in doubt, contact your dermatologist, allergist, or primary healthcare provider, especially if your rash worsens or doesn’t go away. They can help you determine what’s causing your rash, recommend a treatment plan, and suggest strategies for avoiding triggers in the future.
The best way to prevent a contact dermatitis flare-up is to be aware of common allergens and which irritating substances your skin reacts to.
If you tend to have a hypersensitivity to contact allergens used in cosmetics, be sure to perform an at-home patch test before adding any new products to your skin care routine.
This type of patch testing isn’t the same as professional patch testing, where a healthcare provider will test for reactions to multiple substances at once.
An at-home patch test won’t tell you if you have irritant contact dermatitis vs. allergic contact dermatitis, but it can help you avoid certain ingredients or triggers and give you a clue as to what your sensitivities or allergies might be.
To patch test new products, apply a small amount to the skin on your wrist or behind your ear. Wait 24 hours and monitor for any signs of reaction to the product, including redness, swelling, itching, etc.
If you notice any of these symptoms, immediately wash off the product. Don’t wait the whole 24 hours! If you don’t see any symptoms after a full day has passed, you’ll likely be okay to use the product.
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