Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that develops as a reaction to a chemical or other substance. This condition is usually not serious but can be uncomfortable. Treatment typically depends on what caused your dermatitis.

Have you ever used a new type of skin care product or detergent only to have your skin become discolored and irritated? If so, you may have experienced contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when chemicals you come into contact with cause a reaction.

Most contact dermatitis reactions aren’t severe, but they can be unpleasant until the itching goes away.

Experts typically classify contact dermatitis as either allergic or irritant.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your skin develops an allergic reaction after exposure to a foreign substance. This causes your body to release inflammatory chemicals that can make your skin feel itchy and irritated.

Common causes of allergic contact dermatitis include contact with:

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis. It happens when your skin comes in contact with a toxic material.

Toxic substances that can cause irritant contact dermatitis include:

Irritant contact dermatitis can also occur when your skin comes in contact with less irritating materials like soap too often. For example, people who frequently wash their hands, such as hairdressers, bartenders, and healthcare workers, often experience irritant contact dermatitis of the hands.

Photocontact dermatitis

A less common type of contact dermatitis is phytophotodermatitis dermatitis. It’s a reaction that can occur when sun exposure causes active ingredients in a skin product to irritate your skin.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals classify photocontact dermatitis as either allergic or irritant.

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Contact dermatitis symptoms depend on the cause and how sensitive you are to the substance.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include:

  • dry, scaly, flaky skin
  • a bumpy, itchy rash
  • oozing blisters
  • skin that appears darkened
  • skin that burns
  • sun sensitivity
  • swelling, especially in your eyes, face, or groin areas

Another common symptom is skin discoloration. Light skin may turn red, while dark skin may turn purple, dark brown, or gray.

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis may cause slightly different symptoms, such as:

  • blistering
  • cracking skin due to extreme dryness
  • swelling
  • skin that feels stiff or tight
  • ulcerations
  • open sores that form crusts

Irritant contact dermatitis symptoms may worsen if your skin encounters:

  • extreme temperatures
  • friction (such as rubbing against the irritant)
  • dry air

Most cases of contact dermatitis go away on their own, but symptoms can still be uncomfortable. Here are some tips you can try at home:

  • Avoid scratching your irritated skin. Scratching can make the irritation worse or even cause a skin infection that requires antibiotics.
  • Clean your skin with mild soap and lukewarm water to remove any irritants.
  • Stop using any products you think might be causing your symptoms.
  • Apply bland petroleum jelly like Vaseline to soothe the area.
  • Try using anti-itch treatments such as calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream.
  • If needed, take an antihistamine drug such as diphenhydramine to cut down on itching and reduce your allergic response.

You can purchase these items at most drugstores or online.

Most times, contact dermatitis isn’t a cause for concern. But get medical attention if your rash:

  • is close to your eyes or mouth
  • covers a large area of your body
  • doesn’t improve with home treatment

A doctor can prescribe a stronger steroid cream if home treatments don’t soothe your skin. However, people should not use steroid creams such as hydrocortisone, for more than 2 weeks at one time to avoid side effects.

Contact a doctor if your symptoms are severe or don’t improve with time. A doctor will take a thorough medical history and examine your skin. Questions they may ask you include:

  • When did you first notice your symptoms?
  • What makes your symptoms better or worse?
  • Did you go hiking just before the rash started?
  • What products do you use on your skin every day?
  • What chemicals do you come in contact with on a daily basis?
  • What do you do for a living?

A doctor may refer you to an allergist or dermatologist to pinpoint the cause of your contact dermatitis. This specialist can perform allergy testing called a patch test. It involves exposing a small patch of your skin to an allergen.

If your skin reacts, the allergist can determine the likely cause of your contact dermatitis.

If you need help finding a dermatologist, then check out our FindCare tool.

Anyone can experience contact dermatitis, but some people may be at greater risk. Your risk is higher if you work in an occupation with frequent exposure to allergens or irritants.

Other risk factors include:

Occupations with a high risk of contact dermatitis

According to 2020 research, the highest risk occupations for allergic contact dermatitis are:

  • agricultural workers
  • construction workers
  • hairdressers
  • healthcare workers
  • machinists
  • mechanics
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Avoiding initial exposure to irritants can help prevent contact dermatitis. Try these tips:

  • Purchase products labeled “hypoallergenic” or “unscented.”
  • Refrain from wearing latex gloves if you have a latex allergy. Opt for vinyl gloves instead.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when hiking in the wilderness.
  • If you notice irritation from a new product, stop using it immediately.

If you know you have sensitive skin, do a spot test with any new products. You can apply the new product to one place on your forearm. Cover the area, and don’t expose it to water or soap.

Check for any reaction at 48 and then 96 hours after application. If there’s any redness or irritation, don’t use the product.

What are 3 signs of contact dermatitis?

Symptoms of contact dermatitis occur when your skin comes into contact with a substance that triggers an allergic reaction. You may experience:

  • an itchy rash
  • irritated, inflamed skin with lesions
  • crusty, oozing blisters, particular in more severe cases

What clears up contact dermatitis?

Moisturizing ointments applied to the skin can help relieve itchy, dry, and scaly skin associated with contact dermatitis. These ointments can also provide a protective layer and help reduce water loss.

A doctor may also prescribe a topical corticosteroid cream depending on the severity of your dermatitis.

What is the first stage of allergic contact dermatitis?

The first stage of allergic contact dermatitis is called the “sensitization stage.” This is when your skin first comes into contact with a foreign substance, such as a type of metal, rubber or latex, perfume, or a poisonous plant.

Your body recognizes this substance as a foreign antigen and the next time you come into contact with it, your body will produce an immune response designed to remove this antigen.

Is contact dermatitis contagious?

The rash from contact dermatitis isn’t contagious. You might transmit traces of the allergen or irritant to someone else, and they might develop a rash if they have a similar reaction. But people vary in their reactions to these substances.

How quickly does contact dermatitis go away?

It can take as long as 2–4 weeks for allergic contact dermatitis to go away. Irritant contact dermatitis usually improves more quickly.

How long does it take for symptoms of contact dermatitis to develop?

Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis typically take 1–3 days to show up. The allergy itself tends to develop gradually over time.

Irritant contact dermatitis usually causes symptoms within minutes.

Is contact dermatitis hereditary?

Your genetics may play a role in developing contact reactions to specific allergens or irritants, but research is mixed. A 2019 study suggests that a mutation in the FLG gene may increase your risk of allergic contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin reacts to an allergen or irritant. It usually goes away on its own, but symptoms can be bothersome.

You can manage most cases of contact dermatitis with over-the-counter treatments and by avoiding the allergen or irritant that’s causing your symptoms. More severe cases, or if your rash develops an infection, may require a doctor’s help.

An allergist or dermatologist can help you understand how your skin reacts to certain substances and provide guidance on how best to avoid symptoms.