The Dirty Dozen: The 12 Most Common Skin Irritants

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 13, 2011

Admit it. Are your cabinets teeming with cleaning supplies (whether you like to clean or not)? Are your drawers overflowing with personal care products (some way past their expiration dates)? Are you juggling a zillion chores without enough hours in the day to finish them?

Don't worry, you're not alone. Most of us are too busy in our everyday lives to examine every product, chemical, or ingredient that enters our doors. So you don't beat yourself up if you don't have a clue which things lying around your home are common skin irritants.

To help you solve that mystery, WebMD made a list of the top culprits that trigger skin reactions, or contact dermatitis. Some cause symptoms like redness, itchy skin, or inflammation. Others cause a stinging or burning sensation. Some are triggered by an individual's allergy (contact allergic dermatitis) while other chemicals affect everyone (contact irritant dermatitis).

By identifying the common offenders, you can take the proper precautions to protect yourself in your own home. Here are the dirty dozen:

1. Soap

Excessive hand washing, using soap and water, strips the skin of its natural oils and can result in "dishpan hands." At first, it may look like dry, chapped skin. But if it's prolonged and not treated, the skin can actually crack and bleed.

Plain soap and water is at the top of the list, says Donald V. Belsito, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. "It's particularly problematic in today's germaphobic society because people feel they have to be clean and make no attempt to protect their skin."

Other related irritants include dishwasher soap, bubble bath, and body washes.

2. Household Cleaners

Most people are aware that household cleaners are not intended for the skin and the chemicals used in them can have an irritating effect on the body. These including all-purpose cleaners, dish detergents, laundry detergent, window cleaners, furniture polish, drain cleaners and toilet disinfectants.

Wearing protective gloves before handling such substances is recommended, suggests Belsito.

3. 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, N.Y., author of Looking Good at Any Age and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). "That's a big giveaway."

Belsito recommends sticking with fragrance-free liquid fabric softeners to fight static cling.

4. Clothing

Clothing, especially rough fabrics like wool, can be problematic for individuals who suffer from a skin disorder called atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 10% to 20% of children and 1% to 3% of adults develop this condition.

If you suspect that your clothing fabric is causing itching, irritation or a rash, Belsito suggests keeping cotton and cotton poly fabrics in your wardrobe.

5. Heat

Hot weather, especially during summer months, can aggravate skin problems related to sweating. You might notice redness or chafing in certain areas, like the underarms, belly folds and groin, says Belsito.

6. Latex

Some people are hypersensitive to latex, a natural rubber found in everything from gloves to condoms. If you are sensitive to latex, you may experience welts under a bra strap or elastic waistband. Also, people who are allergic to latex may cross react to tropical fruits such as bananas and kiwis.

7. Fragrances

Fragrance allergies are really common, says Newburger. 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.

8. Facial Creams

Facial skin with its deep pores is very easily breached, says Newburger. That's why you should take extra care with your creams and skin care products if you experience stinging or burning when applied. These products may include wrinkle creams, cleansers, and skin peels.

Check the labels for some common irritants such as ascorbic acid, paraban preservatives, and alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, malic acid, and lactic acid.

9. Plants

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, typically an itchy rash.

A mild reaction might last 5 to 12 days, while a more severe reaction can last 30 days or longer. Most people don't deliberately expose themselves to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, but you need to learn how to recognize them to avoid contact.

10. Food

Food allergies can certainly cause skin reactions ranging from hives to rashes. But even handling certain foods can cause skin irritations. If you happen to have cuts or cracks on your hands, handling acidic foods or spices can be irritating.

One lesser known phenomenon is when lime on the skin reacts with sunlight and causes severe blistering burns. You'll see this in the summer months when people are mixing up margaritas with lime on the beach, says Belsito.

11. Nickel

Nickel is a common allergy. It can be found in costume jewelry, watchbands, zippers, and other everyday items. Newburger says some individuals with severe allergies even have reactions to vitamins and the hardware used to repair a limb fracture.

12. Sunscreen

Sunscreen usage is recommended to protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB radiation, but certain chemical agents in sunscreens can cause a rash or allergic reaction. The most common allergic reactions occur with sunscreens that contain PABA-based chemicals, so you may want to find a PABA-free alternative if you develop an allergy.

Show Sources


Donald V. Belsito, MD, clinical professor of medicine, University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Amy Newburger, MD, dermatologist in private practice, Scarsdale, N.Y.; author, Looking Good at Any Age; spokeswoman, American Academy of Dermatology.

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