Common Causes of Skin Allergies

Did you break out in a rash after you put on latex gloves or wore some jewelry made out of nickel? Your allergist has the final call, but it's possible you've got a skin allergy.

A bunch of things can cause an allergic reaction when you brush up against them. Whether your allergy trigger is a plant like poison ivy or a chemical in your makeup, your best defense is to keep your distance.

Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

When parts of the leaves of these plants are damaged or bruised, they release an oil called urushiol. And if that gets on your skin, it causes an itchy red rash with bumps or blisters.

You can treat the rash with wet compresses, calamine lotion, oatmeal baths, or hydrocortisone cream. But see a doctor right away if your reaction is severe or if you breathed in the oil, perhaps from burning plants.

Nickel

It's used to make everything from jewelry to belts to eyeglass frames to paper clips -- and it's the leading cause of skin allergies. You're most likely to be at risk for a reaction if you're a hair stylist, retail clerk, caterer, house cleaner, or you work with metal.

If you're allergic to nickel in something you eat, you'll get bumps on the sides of your fingers, called dyshidrotic hand eczema or pompholyx.

There's no treatment for a nickel allergy, so you'll have to stop wearing or using anything with it. You could try painting a coat of nail polish on jewelry, which puts a barrier between the metal and your skin.

Latex or Rubber

The sap from rubber trees is mixed with a chemical and used to make products like:

  • Rubber gloves
  • Condoms
  • Erasers
  • Elastic waistbands and bras
  • Balloons

Your allergy might be mild, like a rash on your hands when you take off gloves, or it could be life-threatening. A severe reaction, called anaphylaxis, might quickly spread throughout your body and make it hard to breathe.

Health care workers and people who've had a lot of surgeries are at greatest risk.

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Clothing

A rash on your trunk after you wear a shirt, or on your feet when you wear certain shoes or socks, could be from an allergy. You might have a reaction after you try on a new outfit, too.

The trigger could be the dyes or other chemicals used to process the fabric (like making it wrinkle-resistant), or even the fibers of the clothing itself.

To avoid reactions, wash your new clothes before you wear them. You may also need to switch to cotton or organic cotton blends. you may want to avoid wool or mohair.

Preservatives

Chemicals called formaldehyde releasers and parabens make beauty products last longer. You'll see them on labels with names like bromonitropropane, diazolidinyl urea, isothiazolinone, PABA, and quaternium-15. They're found in:

  • Shampoos and conditioners
  • Sunscreens
  • Lotions and moisturizers
  • Makeup
  • Hair dye
  • Fake tattoos

Try mild soaps, and skip anything that causes a rash.

Fragrances

These are the heart of perfume, cologne, and deodorant. They're added to face and body soaps. They're also used in cleaning products and to mask a bad smell.

It's hard to pinpoint a fragrance allergy, because specific ingredients aren't always written on labels. Even "unscented" and "hypoallergenic" products could have a bit.

Massage and physical therapists tend to be more at risk for becoming allergic to these.

Medications

Some meds in over-the-counter creams and ointments might make your skin problems worse. Look for these drugs on labels for products that treat cuts, scrapes, burns, itching, insect bites and stings, cold sores, toothaches, and earaches, as well as cough drops:

Ultraviolet Light

You may get a rash or hives if you've used certain products or combinations of them on your skin, and then go outside in the sun or use a tanning bed. This isn't a sunburn, but it can look like one. These chemicals only cause a reaction in that kind of light.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on October 10, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Nelson, J. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, October 2010.

Columbia University Department of Dermatology: "Skin Allergies: Contact Dermatitis and Patch Testing."

CDC: "Poisonous Plants."

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Nickel Allergy."

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: "Latex Allergy," "Contact Dermatitis."

World Allergy Organization: "Contact Dermatitis."

Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. "Clothing Dermatitis and Clothing-Related Skin Conditions," August 2001.

DermNet New Zealand: "Contact allergy to preservatives," "Allergy to imidazolidinyl urea."

Handa, S. Indian Journal of Dermatology, Nov-Dec. 2011.

Cleveland Clinic: "Drug Eruptions."

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Contact Dermatitis."

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