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Combating Common Skin Irritants

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.

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People with sensitive skin can get two types:  

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

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:

  • Strong soaps
  • Detergents
  • Drain cleaners
  • Acids
  • Acetone in nail polish removers
  • Plants

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. 

Typical irritant contact dermatitis symptoms include:

  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Mild skin swelling
  • Blisters or painful ulcers on the skin
  • Stiff, tight-feeling skin  

Allergic Contact 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:

  • Fragrances
  • Preservatives
  • Cosmetics
  • Poison ivy
  • Topical antibiotics
  • Rubber or latex
  • Metals in jewelry, such as nickel

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.

Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis include:

  • Reddened skin
  • Darkened, leathery, cracked skin
  • Dry, scaly patches of skin
  • Burning or intense itching
  • Blisters that ooze
  • Hives
  • Sun sensitivity
  • Swelling in the eyes, face or genital area

In addition, some people get a form called photoallergic contact dermatitis. This type happens only after the skin touches certain substances and then comes in contact with sunlight. These substances may include:

  • Lime juice
  • Sunscreens
  • Aftershave lotions
  • Antibiotics and some perfumes

WebMD Medical Reference

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