Allergies on Skin
Most of us have bumpy, itchy, scaly, or red skin at some point in our lives. One of the most common culprits? A skin allergy.
That’s when you encounter something your body thinks is dangerous, called an allergen. Your immune system overreacts, and releases antibodies to fight off these “invaders.” That fight triggers symptoms like a rash or swelling.
Types of Skin Allergies
They come in different forms. Here are the most common kinds:
Contact dermatitis. If you’ve ever gotten a rash after wearing a new ring or using a different soap, you’ve probably had this condition.
Your skin touches an allergen, like nickel or a chemical in a soap, lotion, or sunscreen.
Particles in the air, such as pollen, can also trigger dermatitis when they land on the skin. Your doctor may call this “airborne contact dermatitis.”
In some cases, you’ll have a reaction only after you’ve been in the sun. This is sometimes called “photoallergic contact dermatitis.” It’s brought on by some chemicals, such as those in sunscreens, shaving lotion, and perfumes.
Symptoms range from mild to severe. They include:
- Scaly patches
You usually don’t get a reaction right away. It can take anywhere from a few hours to 10 days. Typically, it takes from 12 hours to 3 days.
Even with treatment, symptoms can last 2 to 4 weeks.
Hives. These are raised, itchy red welts or bumps. Contact dermatitis can trigger them, but allergic reactions to insect bites, medications, and foods can also bring on a reaction. Hives tend to appear right away, and they fade within a few hours or days.
Read more on what you need to know about hives.
Eczema. You may hear this called “atopic dermatitis.” It’s a chronic allergic condition that usually begins in childhood. About 11% of Americans have it. Experts aren’t certain what leads to it. They do know certain triggers can make your skin itchy, red, and dry. They include:
- Animal dander
- Cleaning products
What Causes a Skin Allergy?
Narrowing down a cause can be tricky. There are more than 3,700 potential allergens.
Here are a few usual suspects.
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac
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.
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
- Elastic waistbands and bras
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.
Read more on the symptoms of latex allergies.
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.
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
- Lotions and moisturizers
- Hair dye
- Fake tattoos
Try mild soaps, and skip anything that causes a rash.
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.
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:
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.
How Can I Prevent a Skin Allergy?
The best way to avoid that rash is to steer clear of the allergen. Your doctor can help you figure out exactly what the cause of your allergy is.
You may get a patch test. Tiny amounts of allergens are put on your skin. You’ll be asked to keep that area dry. After a few days, those areas are checked to see if you get a reaction.
If you do touch a potential allergen, wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible. Get details on common skin irritants to avoid.
How Do I Treat It?
Most skin allergies fade on their own. In the meantime, relieve the symptoms. Here’s how:
- Wear loose clothing.
- Put cool compresses on the area or take a cool shower.
- Use calamine lotion and hydrocortisone creams.
- Soak in an oatmeal or milk bath.
If your allergy really bothers you or hangs around for more than few weeks, see your doctor. They can prescribe stronger antihistamines or steroids to help you feel better faster.
In rare cases, skin allergies can lead to a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. If you -- or someone around you -- is wheezing, has chest tightness, or has trouble breathing, get medical care immediately.