Am I Allergic to My Clothes?

If a wool sweater makes you itch, or if polyester pants give you a rash, you may have what’s called textile or clothing dermatitis. It’s a form of contact dermatitis. Your skin is reacting to the fibers in your clothes, or to the dyes, resins, and other chemicals used to treat what you wear.

What Causes It?

Since clothing is in close contact with your skin most of the day, it’s no surprise that your shirts, pants, and undies can cause skin problems.

Any kind of fiber can bring on a rash, but you’re more likely to get textile dermatitis from clothes made with synthetics such as polyester, rayon, nylon, spandex, or rubber. They don’t breathe as well as natural fibers, and they make you sweat more.

Often the source is the dye or other chemicals in the clothing. Formaldehyde resins used to make garments wrinkle-free or dirt-repellent can cause problems. So can dyes, glues, and chemicals used to tan, or create, leather. If you’re allergic to nickel, you might get a red, itchy reaction where your blue jeans button touches your skin. It has its own name: nickel dermatitis. Jewelry with nickel can cause it, too.

The combination of tight-fitting fabric and sweat can irritate your skin as it rubs against you. Doctors call this less common condition irritant dermatitis. It may look a lot like textile dermatitis, but the cause is different.

What Are the Symptoms?

Look for redness, scaly skin, or itchy areas. Sometimes they pop up within hours after you put on your clothes, or they may take days or weeks to appear. Some people can wear the same item for years before a rash breaks out.

Symptoms often begin in the folds of your skin or other areas that make contact with your clothes and what’s in them. That includes:

  • The crooks of your arms
  • Behind your knees
  • Armpits
  • The groin
  • Any place where your clothing is tight

Who Gets It?

Women are more likely to have it because they more often wear tight-fitting clothes. So are obese people when they overheat and sweat. People with atopic dermatitis, a skin disease that affects mostly children, are also more likely to get textile dermatitis.

Where you work also matters. People with jobs in hot and humid places, like a bakery, have greater odds of dermatitis. If you wear latex gloves on the job, your hands may get irritated (which would be irritant dermatitis) or you may become allergic to the latex itself. That’s allergic contact dermatitis.

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How Can I Prevent It?

The first thing is to stop wearing the item that bothers you. Your skin will most likely clear up within a few weeks. You can also:

  • Wear natural fibers and loose clothes to help cut how much you sweat.
  • Choose light-colored garments with less dye in them.
  • Avoid items labeled “wash separately.” They’re more likely to bleed dye.
  • Don’t wear clothes that say wash and wear, permanent press, no-iron, or dirt repellent. They’re likely to have chemicals that irritate your skin.

How Do I Know What Causes My Rash?

It isn’t easy to figure out if your skin problem is caused by irritation or an allergy, if it’s your clothes or the chemicals on them. Some clothes are made from a mix of fibers. They may be treated with several kinds of dyes and chemicals. But in general, the rashes and redness look alike and are hard for most people to tell apart. The location of the rash can be a clue to what’s causing it. If it’s on your waist, you could be allergic to the latex in your underwear elastic.

Your doctor may use a special skin patch to test these sources and find out which ones bother your skin.

When Should I See My Doctor?

If your skin doesn’t clear up in a few weeks, or if the problems come and go, it’s time to talk to your skin doctor. Also check with the doctor if the rash covers a large area, is really painful, raw or intensely itchy, or seems to be spreading instead of getting better. She can make sure you don’t have an infection on top of the dermatitis.

How Is It Treated?

If you know what clothing causes your rash and you stop wearing it, the rash usually goes away by itself and you don’t need medications.

But if you’re miserable, the doctor may treat you with antihistamines, moisture creams, or steroids to give you some relief while your rash goes away. Try an oatmeal bath to soothe your skin. More severe cases of dermatitis may be treated with oral steroids like prednisone and wet dressings.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on July 17, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

DermNet New Zealand: “Irritant contact dermatitis,” “Intertrigo,” “Textile Contact Dermatitis.”

Current Allergy and Asthma Reports: “The Role of Textiles in Dermatitis: An Update.”

Washington State Department of Labor and Industries: “Clothing Dermatitis and Clothing-Related Skin Conditions.”

American Academy of Dermatology: “Atopic dermatitis,” “Contact dermatitis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Heat rash.”

UpToDate: “Common allergens in allergic contact dermatitis.”

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Latex Allergy.”

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