If you have sensitive skin, you know that a new soap or cosmetic can trigger an outbreak of redness, itching, or stinging.
But are you aware that your home also might harbor other common skin irritants, including triple-antibiotic ointments, bandage adhesives, and jewelry that contains metals such as nickel? When your skin becomes inflamed after coming in contact with one of these substances -- or many more -- the condition is called contact dermatitis.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask our experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics. In our May 2010 issue, we turned to WebMD's Skin Care Expert, Karyn Grossman, MD, to get advice on dealing with those pesky little bumps that so many of us have on our upper arms.
Q. I have lots of little bumps on my upper arms -- I don't like going sleeveless. What are they? Can I get rid of them?
A. Those little bumps are caused by keratosis pilaris, a common skin condition...
This form is more common, accounting for 80% of contact dermatitis cases. When an irritating substance touches your skin, you’ll often get a reaction that resembles a burn with red, chapped, and dry skin. This skin reaction tends to be more painful than itchy.
Irritant contact dermatitis is typically triggered by common substances that we are repeatedly exposed to, including:
Acetone in nail polish removers
People vary widely in their sensitivity to irritants. Some with sensitive skin can develop irritation from even mild soaps and detergents that they use frequently.
Also, if you do a lot of housework that exposes your skin to cleaning products, ranging from detergents to waxes, you can wear down your skin’s protective barrier enough to develop irritant dermatitis.
This less common form is a true allergic reaction. In allergic contact dermatitis, the immune system responds to a substance that touches the skin. You can become allergic to the substance after one exposure or many. In fact, people can be exposed to a substance for long periods, even years, before developing an allergy.
Common sources of allergic contact dermatitis include:
Some people are also allergic to over-the-counter topical triple-antibiotic ointments. All told, thousands of substances can cause allergic dermatitis.
When a person who has become sensitized to an allergen becomes exposed by touching the substance, symptoms, such as itching and skin inflammation, are often delayed. They can show up anywhere from a few hours to as many as four days after contact.