Chemicals to Avoid When You Have Severe Eczema

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on March 06, 2024
5 min read

Although more than 30 million Americans have eczema, there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. One thing we’re learning is that eczema seems to be more complex than we thought.

That’s partly because each person’s eczema is unique -- chemicals that bother you may not bother someone else. Another challenge is the number of common chemicals we come across daily. They’re in everything from the air we breathe to the shampoo we use.

As research uncovers more triggers, the list of chemicals that can worsen severe eczema grows. If you limit your exposure to them, you’ll be better able to manage symptoms like itchy, dry, and broken skin.

We think of air pollution as a danger to the lungs, but chemicals in the air can also affect eczema. Pollutants include:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide compounds
  • Toxic metals
  • Radioactive pollutants
  • Particulate matter

Particulate matter is a mix of toxic substances like:

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Smoke from tobacco and other materials
  • Metals and more chemicals

When those pollutants mix with other elements in the atmosphere, they create a second group of pollutants:

  • Ground level ozone
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Sulfuric acid
  • Smog

One study found that doctor visits for eczema went up when ozone levels were high for 1 week.

Heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury in air pollution often come from paint, cigarette smoke, and vehicle exhaust. The chemicals released in tobacco smoke are risk factors for eczema and can worsen it. So can other types of smoke, like that from wildfires. Research shows that the chemicals in wildfire smoke can trigger eczema flares.

What to do: Try to limit time spent outside on days when smog or ozone levels are high. You can usually find this information on weather apps. You can also search online. When exercising outdoors, try to steer clear of car exhaust.

Many irritating chemicals can find their way into your home. They’re in:

  • Fabrics, like curtains, clothes, and carpets
  • Home appliances
  • Wall paints and wallpapers
  • Construction materials
  • Turpentine and other solvents and adhesives

These items can give off VOCs and add to indoor air pollution. Paints, varnishes, adhesives, and cleaning solutions in particular are often very high in VOCs. VOCs to avoid include:

  • Benzene
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Formaldehyde
  • Methylene chloride
  • Tetrachloroethylene
  • Toluene

Even short-term exposure can trigger symptoms, especially in kids. They cause more water loss in skin, and that makes it drier and itchier.

What to do: Check for VOCs before you buy paint and other products. Read labels or research the item’s material safety data sheet (MSDS) on the manufacturer’s website. It lists the concentration of specific harmful chemicals. “Low-VOC” can mean something different from manufacturer to manufacturer. Use sites like to find products with truly low amounts.

Eczema can be especially hard to manage if you have a job that requires wet work. Wet work is when your hands are constantly in contact with irritants or allergens. Examples include contractors, dishwashers, and hair stylists.

Chemicals you often come into contact with in these types of jobs include:

  • Acids
  • Detergents and disinfectants
  • Gasoline and other fuels
  • Glues
  • Hair dyes and chemical solutions
  • Paints, dyes, varnishes, and stains
  • Solvents

Exposure to heavy metals, like copper, is another on-the-job hazard when you have severe eczema. Copper compounds affect people differently. Cadmium and lead are toxic and build up in the body over time. This can lead to changes in your immune system, triggering eczema and asthma. Exposure to cadmium during pregnancy is a risk factor for eczema in the baby.

What to do: Ask your doctor about the best barrier methods to protect your hands and lungs. If you’re constantly exposed to irritating chemicals or allergens, ask your employer for a chemical Safety Data Sheet. Along with testing, this information can help you and your doctor figure out which chemicals are at the top of the list to avoid.

Soaps, laundry detergents, skin care products, and even water bottles have chemicals that can ramp up the burning, itching, and redness of severe eczema. While some may give off fumes that can cause irritation, most are more likely to cause a reaction when they physically touch your skin or scalp.

The most common culprits are cosmetics and hair and skin care products because of these chemical ingredients:

  • Fragrances, including balsam of Peru and cinnamic aldehyde
  • Urea and retinoids found in many anti-aging creams and sloughing products
  • Propylene glycol, a humectant
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine, a foaming agent
  • Ethanol/alcohol, drying to already dry skin
  • Paraphenylenediamine and other active ingredients in hair and nail care products and temporary tattoos

Dyes can also spark symptoms. Most commonly:

  • D and C yellow #11
  • F, D, and C blue #1
  • F, D, and C yellow #5 (also listed as tartrazine)

So can preservatives. These include:

  • Parabens
  • Isothiazolinones
  • Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers (quaternium-15, 2 bromo 1-3 nitropropane diol, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin)
  • Methyldibromo glutaronitrile and thiomersal, found in common cosmetics and eye products

One specific isothiazolinone-based preservative of concern is Kathon CG. It’s a combination of methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone. Kathon CG is in many cosmetics, as well as home cleaning products and industrial paints and glues.

Many household cleaners are loaded with chemicals and preservatives that can worsen severe eczema. Laundry detergents, dryer sheets, and other fabric conditioners may leave an irritating residue on clothes and linens. It’s even important to avoid swimming pools that use chlorine to kill germs, especially during an active flare.

Nickel is one of the most common metals in everyday items that cause and worsen eczema when it comes into contact with skin. Nickel is in:

  • Costume jewelry
  • Clothing fasteners like snaps and zippers
  • Keys
  • Kitchen utensils

Phthalates and bisphenol A are chemicals in many plastics. They’re already known to disrupt the body’s endocrine system. They’re also linked to eczema symptoms. Styrene is a petroleum-based product used to make Styrofoam. It’s in things from packing peanuts, drinking cups, and food containers to plastics, rubber, resins, and home building materials like fiberglass and insulation.

What to do: Carefully read labels on personal care products to avoid the most risky chemicals. It’s not enough to look for “all-natural” products because some botanicals can be irritating. Essential oils, even popular tea tree oil, can irritate skin. So can lanolin, a natural emollient from sheep’s wool. The National Eczema Association also includes herb extracts on its list of ingredients not allowed in products it gives a “Seal of Acceptance.” Ask your doctor about patch testing to narrow down the list of chemicals to avoid and make safe products easier to find.

Wash all new clothes before wearing them to get rid of any formaldehyde and other irritating chemicals that might have been part of their manufacturing.

Choose fragrance-free and dye-free liquid detergent. A second rinse may help remove leftover irritants. If you like the effects of fabric softeners, try fragrance- or perfume-free dryer sheets.

For household cleaning, switch to simple solutions like white vinegar to clean glass and baking soda to clean bathroom and kitchen fixtures.

When you’re not in a flare and want to swim in a pool, prep skin with moisturizer or petroleum jelly. When you get out, immediately rinse off with a warm shower and apply moisturizer to damp skin.

Choose jewelry and household items that don’t have any nickel. Also look for clothes with plastic or plastic-coated fasteners.