Combating Common Skin Irritants

10 min read

If you have sensitive skin, you know that a new soap or cosmetic can trigger an outbreak of redness, itching, or stinging.

But are you aware that your home also might harbor other common skin irritants, including triple-antibiotic ointments, bandage adhesives, and jewelry that contains metals such as nickel? When your skin becomes inflamed after coming in contact with one of these substances -- or many more -- the condition is called contact dermatitis.


There are two types of contact dermatitis. 

Irritant contact dermatitis

This form is more common, accounting for 80% of contact dermatitis cases. When an irritating substance touches your skin, you’ll often get a reaction that resembles a burn with red, chapped, and dry skin. This skin reaction tends to be more painful than itchy.

Irritant contact dermatitis is typically triggered by common substances that we are repeatedly exposed to, including:

  • Strong soaps
  • Detergents
  • Drain cleaners
  • Acids
  • Acetone in nail polish removers
  • Plants
  • Hand sanitizers especially since COVID

People vary widely in their sensitivity to irritants. Some with sensitive skin can develop irritation from even mild soaps and detergents that they use frequently.

Also, if you do a lot of housework that exposes your skin to cleaning products, ranging from detergents to waxes, you can wear down your skin’s protective barrier enough to develop irritant dermatitis.

Typical irritant contact dermatitis symptoms include:

  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Mild skin swelling
  • Blisters or painful ulcers on the skin
  • Stiff, tight-feeling skin
  • Redness and itching

Allergic contact dermatitis

 This less common form is a true allergic reaction. In allergic contact dermatitis, the immune system responds to a substance that touches the skin. You can become allergic to the substance after one exposure or many. In fact, people can be exposed to a substance for long periods, even years, before developing an allergy.

Common sources of allergic contact dermatitis include:

Some people are also allergic to over-the-counter topical triple-antibiotic ointments. Thousands of substances can cause allergic dermatitis.

When you've been sensitized to an allergen and then exposed by touching the substance, symptoms, such as itching and skin inflammation, are often delayed. They can show up anywhere from a few hours to as many as 4 days after contact.

Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis include:

  • Reddened skin
  • Darkened, leathery, cracked skin
  • Dry, scaly patches of skin
  • Burning or intense itching
  • Blisters that ooze
  • Hives
  • Sun sensitivity
  • Swelling in the eyes, face or genital area

In addition, some people get a form called photoallergic contact dermatitis. This type happens only after the skin touches certain substances and then comes in contact with sunlight. These substances may include:

  • Lime juice
  • Sunscreens
  • Aftershave lotions
  • Antibiotics and some perfumes

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 yourself from contact with these irritants, especially if you have sensitive skin: 

IngredientFound in
AmmoniaDisinfectants, floor cleaners, window and glass cleaners, all-purpose cleaners
Chloride and alkyl ammonium chlorideMold and mildew removers
Ammonium hydroxideSpot removers
Hydrochloric acidDrain cleaners
LyeOven cleaners, drain cleaners
Petroleum distillatesFurniture waxes and polishes
Petroleum solventsFloor cleaners/waxes
PhenolAntibacterial cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, furniture polishes
Sodium bisulfateToilet bowl cleaners
Sodium hypochloriteDisinfectants, spot removers, all-purpose cleaners
Sodium or potassium hydroxideDrain cleaners, oven cleaners

Many things around your household can irritate skin. 


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, your skin 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 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 about 5,000 fragrances that use many different combinations, so it may be tricky to find out the offending chemical. Some people might develop a skin rash or hives from musk, while others react to vanilla scents.

Facial creams

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.


If you suspect that a certain product or substance is causing your dermatitis, avoid it and watch whether your rash improves.

But it’s not always easy to pinpoint a specific cause. For example, your eyelids may be chronically dry, red and flaky, but what’s to blame: your eyeshadow, eyeliner, makeup remover, or overnight eye cream?

Sometimes, people have no clue at all -- they get a rash, but they can’t recall the substances that have touched their skin. Or their facial skin becomes inflamed, leading them to suspect a face product. In fact, they might have unwittingly transferred a substance from their hands to their face. The substance doesn’t affect the hands, but the more sensitive facial skin will react.

If you can’t figure out the source of irritation, see a dermatologist. They will quiz you about your job, household chores, hobbies, drug and cosmetics use, and other factors in order to gain clues about the root of the problem.

Your doctor may also do testing. No test can be performed for irritant contact dermatitis. But your doctor may do patch testing to see if you’re sensitive to various types of allergens that are known to cause dermatitis. Small patches of these substances are placed on your skin for 1 to 2 days so that your doctor can check if a rash develops.

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.

Cleaning tips to prevent irritation

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.

Contact dermatitis prevention

You can also take steps to protect your sensitive skin from developing contact dermatitis. For example:

  • Once you’ve identified an offending substance, avoid it. Wear gloves or protective clothing to prevent exposing your skin to cleansers, weeds, and other substances during housework or yard work. If your skin makes contact, wash the substance off right away with soap and water.
  • Learn to recognize poison ivy and poison oak.
  • Use mild, unscented laundry detergent.
  • If you have sensitive facial skin, consider using gentle, soap-free, liquid cleansers. Or use a moisturizing soap that’s free of fragrance and dyes.
  • Don’t scrub your face vigorously with a rough washcloth or buff puff. Instead, cleanse gently and pat dry.
  • Avoid deodorant or antibacterial soaps.
  • Choose moisturizers, sunscreens, and cosmetics that are fragrance-free and don’t contain acids or botanical ingredients. Physical sunblocks that contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide are less likely to cause skin problems than chemical sunscreens.
  • Test cosmetics and personal care products before using. Apply a small amount of the new product twice a day to a small patch of skin near the inside of your elbow. If no irritation occurs in that spot after a week, you can try using the product.

Protect your skin by applying petroleum jelly or a thick, moisturizing cream two or three times a day.

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.

Contact dermatitis is commonly treated with:

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. 

Once you’re no longer exposed to the irritant or allergen, redness usually vanishes after a week. But itching, scaling, and temporary skin thickening may go on for days or weeks.