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Surprising Household Irritants

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In less than a month, three patients walked into the dermatology office of Lisa A. Garner, MD, complaining of red, irritated skin that later developed brown streaks. Garner quickly figured out the cause. After accidentally spilling lime juice on themselves — “Margaritas, anyone?” — each patient developed a case of sun-induced dermatitis after going outdoors. 

Many of us know that harsh cleaning products are common skin irritants around our homes. But what about the odd culprits—not just lime juice, but tulip bulbs, hand sanitizers, antibiotic ointments, and even metal zippers or snaps?

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If your skin flares up after touching something, the resulting contact dermatitis takes one of two forms, says Garner, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

First, in a true allergic reaction, your immune system responds to an offending substance and your skin may turn red and itchy. Second, you might not have an allergy at all, but rather, irritation, which typically causes pain, stinging or burning.

A wide range of substances can cause contact dermatitis, but not in everyone. “Irritation is an interesting concept,” Garner says. “It’s exceedingly variable from person to person and really has to do with a threshold response to some particular ingredient.”

Some surprising offenders:

Hand sanitizers: When swine flu fears were in full swing, Garner saw lots of patients with irritant hand dermatitis after rubbing on way too much hand sanitizer.

“Everyone’s afraid of germs, but our skin can’t tolerate [hand sanitizer] as much as some people are using it,” she says.

In most cases, the active ingredient, ethyl alcohol, is probably causing the irritation, but it’s possible that some people are sensitive to other ingredients in the product, she says.   

Personal care products: Hair removal products, antiperspirants, and eye cosmetics top Garner’s list of potential troublemakers in the bathroom cabinet.

“Hair removal products can be very irritating. It’s truly an individual thing, and it depends on what part of the skin you’re doing,” she says. “If you do hair removal on your face or bikini line, you’re much more likely to have irritation than if you do your legs.”

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