Scrubbing toilets and doing laundry aren't most people's idea of a good time, but for some of us, cleaning house is irritating. Literally.
Many of the products that keep our homes clean and germ-free can be rough on skin -- and not just the super-powerful cleaners. Even a gentle cleaner can dry out and irritate your skin if you're sensitive to it or if you use it often enough.
Sensitive skin that's been exposed to cleaning products can develop a red, swollen, itchy rash that dermatologists call contact dermatitis. In people of color, contact dermatitis might show up as patches of leathery skin that look darker than usual. Sometimes they might appear purple, brown, or gray.
Identifying and avoiding the cleaning chemicals that inflame your skin can at least reduce your irritation when you have to do it.
Chemical Skin Irritants
The most notorious chemical irritants are usually easy to spot. The government requires the makers of toxic cleaning materials to label their products with words like, "DANGER," "POISON," or "USE IN A WELL-VENTILATED AREA." These warnings let you know that the product contains chemicals that can be harsh to the skin.
Protect your skin from contact with these irritants, especially if you have sensitive skin:
|Ammonia||Disinfectants, floor cleaners, window and glass cleaners, all-purpose cleaners|
|Chloride and alkyl ammonium chloride||Mold and mildew removers|
|Ammonium hydroxide||Spot removers|
|Hydrochloric acid||Drain cleaners|
|Lye||Oven cleaners, drain cleaners|
|Petroleum distillates||Furniture waxes and polishes|
|Petroleum solvents||Floor cleaners/waxes|
|Phenol||Antibacterial cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, furniture polishes|
|Sodium bisulfate||Toilet bowl cleaners|
|Sodium hypochlorite||Disinfectants, spot removers, all-purpose cleaners|
|Sodium or potassium hydroxide||Drain cleaners, oven cleaners|
Other Common Skin Irritants
A lot of hand washing with soap and water strips the skin of its natural oils. This can cause "dishpan hands." At first, your skin may look dry and chapped. But if it lasts a long time and is not treated, it can crack and bleed.
Dishwashing soap, bubble bath, and body washes might also have this effect.
Fabric Dryer Sheets
Fabric softener and dryer sheets can cause itchy, irritant reactions.
"You see rashes in places that are covered by clothing and relative sparing where the clothing is not," says Amy Newburger, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in Scarsdale, NY, author of Looking Good at Any Age, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). "That's a big giveaway."
Donald V. Belsito, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, recommends sticking with fragrance-free liquid fabric softeners to fight static cling.
Clothing, especially rough fabrics like wool, can cause problems if you have a skin condition called atopic dermatitis. It’s the most common form of eczema. The AAD estimates that 10% to 20% of children and 1% to 3% of adults get atopic dermatitis.
If you think your clothing fabric is causing itching, irritation, or a rash, Belsito suggests wearing clothes made of cotton and cotton poly fabrics.
Hot weather – especially during summer months – can make skin problems related to sweating flare up. You might notice redness or chafing in certain areas, like the underarms, belly folds, and groin, Belsito says.
Some people are very sensitive to latex, a natural rubber found in everything from gloves to condoms. If you are sensitive to latex, you may get welts under a bra strap or elastic waistband. Also, some people who are allergic to latex may also have reactions to some tropical fruits such as avocados, bananas, and kiwis. That’s because the fruits have proteins that are like those in latex. It’s called “latex-fruit syndrome.”
Fragrance allergies are really common, Newburger says. But there are some 5,000 fragrances that use many different combinations, so it may be tricky to weed out the offending chemical. Some people might develop a skin rash or hives from musk, while others react to vanilla scents.
The skin on your face, with its deep pores, is easily affected, Newburger says. So it makes sense to take extra care with your creams and skin care products if you have stinging or burning when you put it on. These products may include wrinkle creams, cleansers, and skin peels.
Check the labels for some common irritants such as ascorbic acid, paraben preservatives, and alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, malic acid, and lactic acid.
Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are three of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis in the U.S. They all contain an oil called urushiol, which triggers an allergic reaction, usually an itchy rash.
A mild reaction might last 5 to 12 days. A more serious reaction can last 30 days or even longer. Most people don't come into contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac on purpose. But you need to learn how to spot them to avoid contact.
Food allergies can cause skin reactions from hives to rashes. But you don’t have to eat the foods – even handling them can irritate your skin. If you happen to have cuts or cracks on your hands – even tiny ones you can’t see – handling acidic foods or spices can be irritating.
Something that might surprise you: Lime juice on the skin can react with sunlight and cause severe blistering burns. You might see this in the summer months when people are mixing up margaritas with lime on the beach, Belsito says.
Nickel can be found in costume jewelry, watchbands, zippers, and other everyday items. Newburger says if you have serious allergies, it’s possible to even have reactions to vitamins and the hardware used to repair a broken limb.
Of course, doctors recommend you use sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB radiation. But certain chemicals in sunscreens can cause a rash or allergic reaction. The most common reactions happen with sunscreens that have PABA-based chemicals. So you may want to find a PABA-free alternative if you get an allergy.
Cleaning Tips: Preventing Irritation
You can come up with a whole list of reasons to avoid cleaning your house, but sensitive skin shouldn't be on it. You just need to be careful when you clean.
Here are a few tips for avoiding skin irritation:
1. Read labels. Know exactly which chemicals are in the product you're using. Try to avoid products that include ingredients you've had a reaction to in the past. Follow directions on the label so you know you're using the cleaning product safely.
2. Use alternatives. "Green" cleaners won't necessarily prevent dermatitis, but they are generally gentler on the skin, not to mention on the environment. Look for cleaning products labeled "fragrance- and dye-free" or "all natural," or try an old fashioned cleaner like baking soda.
3. Be smart about storage. Leave all cleaning products in their original, labeled container so you don't accidentally come in contact with a chemical that irritates your skin. Keep the lids tightly sealed to prevent the product from spilling on you.
4. Don't mix. Combining cleaning products is never a good idea. Cleaning products can produce dangerous fumes when mixed with certain substances.
5. Cover up. Protect your sensitive hands and arms by wearing waterproof gloves and long sleeves when you clean. If you're really sensitive, be careful about which type of gloves you buy. Latex gloves themselves can cause a skin reaction. Plastic and vinyl are better options if you have a latex sensitivity.
6. Clean up. Washing after you've just used a cleaning product sounds like a waste of time, but it can help protect your skin. Wash your hands or any other skin that's been exposed to the cleaning product with warm water and a gentle soap.
Cleaning Tips: Treating Irritated Skin
The best way to stop skin irritation is to avoid the substance that causes it. But if you do come in contact with an unfriendly cleaner and get a rash from it, call your dermatologist or other doctor. A prescription ointment or cream can help relieve the itching and discoloration. If the cream hasn't worked after about a week, your doctor might put you on a steroid medication.
No matter how much the rash itches, don't scratch. Scratching may give you a few seconds of relief, but it can make your skin even itchier and it could cause an infection. Instead of scratching, apply a gentle moisturizing cream daily to soothe the itch and protect your skin.