Contact Dermatitis: Facts About Skin Rashes

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on April 26, 2022
6 min read

Contact dermatitis is a rash that crops up on your skin when you touch or have a reaction to a certain substance. It’s red, itchy, and uncomfortable, but it’s not life-threatening.

The rash could be caused by an allergy or because the protective layer of your skin got damaged. Other names for it include allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.

Symptoms of a contact allergy usually show up near where you touched the thing you're allergic to.

 You’ll notice your skin may be:

  • Red

  • Itchy

  • Dry, cracked, or scaly

  • Covered in bumps or blisters. Blistering is rare. If you see blisters, contact your doctor.

  • Swollen

  • Burning

  • Tender

On Black or brown skin, you may have leathery patches that are darker than usual.

Irritant contact dermatitis (skin damage) tends to burn and be more painful than itchy. When something is irritating or damaging your skin, you'll probably see a rash right away. With an allergy, it may be a day or two before the rash shows up.

Many of the symptoms can be the same. In both cases, your skin may blister, or you may get a raised red rash. Your skin will itch and may burn.

Where does contact dermatitis start?

Contact dermatitis can form anywhere on your body. It depends on what part of your body touches the irritant.

Contact dermatitis on hands

On your hands, you can have two types of dermatitis. Irritant contact dermatitis usually happens in the dry winter months or when you wash your hands too much. This can lead to cracking due to lack of moisture. You can also get allergic contact dermatitis from contact with irritants such as poison ivy. This will lead to itchy rashes or red bumps.

Contact dermatitis on lips

On your lips, an allergic reaction usually results in cracks and peeling. You can also have itching and some pain. 

Contact dermatitis on feet

You could have an allergic reaction due to materials in your socks or shoes. It can be very uncomfortable and sometimes serious. 

Allergic contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis caused by an allergy involves your immune system. When you touch something you're allergic to, your immune system reacts as though your body is under attack. It springs into action, making antibodies to fight the "invader." This chain of events causes a release of chemicals, including histamine. That's what causes the allergic reaction – in this case, an itchy rash. 

Usually, you won't get a rash the first time your skin touches something you're allergic to. But that touch sensitizes your skin, and you could have a reaction the next time. If you get an allergic rash, chances are you've touched that trigger before and just didn't know it. 

Allergic contact dermatitis causes include:

  • Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac
  • Hair dyes or straighteners
  • Nickel, a metal found in jewelry and belt buckles
  • Leather (specifically, chemicals used in tanning leather)
  • Latex rubber
  • Citrus fruit, especially the peel
  • Fragrances in soaps, shampoos, lotions, perfumes, and cosmetics
  • Some medications you put on your skin

Irritant contact dermatitis

Some rashes look like an allergic reaction but aren't, because your immune system wasn't involved. Instead, you touched something that removed the surface oils shielding your skin. The longer it stayed on your skin, the worse the reaction. 

Things that can cause irritant contact dermatitis include:

  • Acids
  • Some drain cleaners
  • Urine, saliva, or other body fluids
  • Certain plants, such as poinsettias and peppers
  • Hair dyes
  • Nail polish remover 
  • Paints and varnishes
  • Harsh soaps or detergents
  • Resins, plastics, and epoxies

If you have eczema, you're more likely to get this kind of rash.

Photocontact dermatitis

Another, less common, form of contact dermatitis is photocontact dermatitis. This is a rash that can form when you use certain products, such as sunscreen, on your skin and then spend time in the sun. The combination of the sun and the allergen or irritant causes a reaction.

Depending on how bad your symptoms are, you may be able to treat your contact dermatitis at home, or you may need to see your doctor.

Your doctor may prescribe steroid creams or ointments. When applied to the skin, these treatments can help soothe the rash. Your doctor can tell you how often and for how long you should use these medicines.

If you have a severe case of contact dermatitis, your doctor may prescribe pills to treat it. These can relieve itching, reduce swelling, or fight infection. 

 

To help soothe your skin, you can try these home remedies:

  • Wash your skin with mild soap and cool water right away.
  • Remove or avoid the allergen or irritant that caused the rash.
  • Apply hydrocortisone cream over small areas.
  • For blisters, use a cold moist compress for 30 minutes, three times a day.
  • Put moisturizers on damaged skin several times a day to help restore the protective layer.
  • Take an oral antihistamine for itching.
  • Soak in a cool bath for 20 minutes.
  • Trim your nails to avoid scratching. 
  • Keep your hands dry after washing, moisturize, and wear gloves.

Don't use an antihistamine lotion unless your doctor suggests it, because it could cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction, too.

It's very important not to scratch your contact dermatitis. Scratching can cause it to become oozing and wet, making the perfect environment for bacteria or fungi to grow. This could lead to an infection.

Call your doctor if your rash is:

  • Painful 
  • Keeping you from sleeping or distracting you during the day
  • Sudden 
  • Spreading over a large part of your body
  • On your face or genitals
  • Not better after a couple of days
  • Oozing or infected
  • Affecting your eyes, nose, or lungs

Your doctor will take a look and ask you questions to help figure out what's going on.

Depending on how severe it is, they may prescribe:

  • Steroid pills, creams, or ointment
  • Antihistamines 
  • Immunosuppressive medications for severe cases

Your doctor can do skin tests to find out what you are allergic to.

If you can't avoid what's bothering your skin, talk to your doctor about wearing gloves or using creams to keep it safe.

The best way to avoid getting contact dermatitis is to know what makes you break out and stay away from it. If you do come into contact with an allergen or irritant, wash it off as soon as possible to reduce your reaction.

If you’re not sure what’s causing your rashes, take these steps:

  • Use only fragrance-free, dye-free lotions, detergents, and soaps.
  • Wear protective gear if you might come into contact with an irritant or allergen, such as long sleeves and pants near plants or in the sun, or goggles and gloves when using cleaning products.
  • Use a barrier cream to keep your skin’s outer layer strong and moisturized.
  • Test any new product on a small patch of your skin before using it.
  • To avoid reactions to things such as jean snaps, add iron-on patches to cover metal fasteners near your skin.
  • Regularly use moisturizing lotion to keep your skin's outermost layer at its best.
  • If you think your pet may have gotten into an allergen, make sure to bathe them before letting them on furniture. 

Contact dermatitis is a reaction your skin has to certain substances. It's uncomfortable but not serious. It can be caused by an allergy or an irritant. You may be able to treat contact dermatitis at home. But if it becomes a distraction in your daily life, contact a doctor. 

  • How do you get rid of contact dermatitis?

Depending on how severe your contact dermatitis is, you may be able to use over-the-counter treatments, or you may need prescriptions from your doctor.

  • Can contact dermatitis spread?

Contact dermatitis can spread to other parts of your body. 

  • What is the main cause of contact dermatitis?

Contact with an allergen or irritant will cause contact dermatitis.

  • What is contact dermatitis and what does it look like?

Contact dermatitis is a rash that appears in response to a certain substance. It is typically red with bumps or leads to cracked skin.