Contact Dermatitis: An Introduction

For many people with sensitive skin, contact dermatitis is a regular occurrence. This condition causes red, itchy blotches to appear on the skin and can be highly irritating. But what causes it? Contact dermatitis typically develops when your skin is exposed to a chemical that causes a reaction.

Most of the time, these reactions are minimal and only present a mild annoyance. However, contact dermatitis can be a troublesome and painful condition that requires medical intervention.

What is Contact Dermatitis?

Contact Dermatitis is an inflammation of your skin caused by exposure to some foreign substance. This can be the result of an irritant or an allergic reaction. Or both! Countless substances contain ingredients that may spur such reactions, and those with sensitive skin seem to experience it the most.

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common form of this skin condition. It’s typically marked by a reaction with a foreign chemical that damages the outer layer of your skin. Some people with more sensitive skin react immediately to exposure to irritants, while others seem to develop over repeated exposures.

Irritant reactions are often caused by contact with:

  • Acids
  •  Caustic chemicals like bleach and ammonia
  • Cleaners featuring harsh chemicals
  • Kerosene and petroleum products
  •  Detergents
  • Soaps and body washes

Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by an immune reaction in your skin. This generally occurs when a person is exposed to an allergen of some form. Typically, it only affects the exposed area. However, in some cases, it can be spread beyond the initial contact zone when spurred by contact with foods, medicine, or even medical equipment.

These reactions can also be caused by:

  • Jewelry or buckles fashioned from nickel or gold
  •  Perfumes, dyes, or chemicals in clothing
  •  Poison oak, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, or other irritating plant species
  • Foods like shellfish and peanuts that are known potential allergens
  • Cosmetic products like makeup and chemical exfoliants

Additionally, patients may become more sensitive to particular allergens after a single exposure. After this first introduction, subsequent flare-ups can occur with minimum exposure to the same irritant.

How Common is Contact Dermatitis?

Regardless of its cause, contact dermatitis is a common skin condition that millions of people suffer from daily. There are countless chemicals, irritants, and allergens in our everyday lives that can spur such reactions, and avoiding them can be difficult. And those with sensitive skin might experience contact dermatitis more often than others.

Symptoms and Causes of Contact Dermatitis

The symptoms of contact dermatitis can range from minor to severe in some patients and can appear on the skin anywhere from a few minutes to several days after exposure to an irritant. It can also easily be confused with chronic skin conditions like eczema or atopic dermatitis. This can often make it difficult to determine the root causes of skin irritation. Symptoms of this condition often include:

  • Reddened, irritated skin
  • Swelling
  •  Itching
  • Raised bumps, or even blisters
  • Tender, warm skin
  • Burning skin
  • Sun sensitivity

Risk Factors

We encounter countless irritants in our everyday lives, making it quite difficult for people to avoid exposure. Dyes, cleansers, foods, and even makeup products can cause symptoms. This is often made worse for individuals working in certain professions where exposures to chemicals and irritants are even more commonplace.

  • Construction Workers

Contractors and construction crews are often exposed to harsh chemicals and aerosolized particles that can irritate the skin.

  • Food Handlers

Chefs and those that prepare food are often subjected to products, like shellfish, that can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation.

  • Hair Stylists

Beauticians and hair stylists often find themselves using products that contain harsh, caustic chemicals. These chemicals can easily irritate the skin if it is exposed.

  • Healthcare Providers

Doctors, nurses, and just about every medical professional in between are repeatedly exposed to chemicals or medical equipment that can irritate. Even latex gloves can cause breakouts!

  •  Mechanics

Mechanics often find themselves covered in various chemicals and automotive cleaning solutions that inflame the skin and cause contact dermatitis.

Treatment and Prevention

There are several different methods of treating contact dermatitis, depending on the root cause. However, even after taking steps to treat the issue, spots and rashes can take anywhere from hours to days to dissipate. A few of the best treatments for this skin condition are:

  • Anti-Itch Creams

Corticosteroid creams can help reduce inflammation and itching.

  • Oral Steroids

This treatment can reduce symptoms in patients that don’t respond well to antihistamines or other techniques.

  •  Immunosuppressive Medication

Sometimes patients will require treatment with immunosuppressants, where other treatments fail to stifle repeated breakouts.

  • Avoidance

If you can discern which irritant is causing the inflammation, taking steps to avoid that chemical or allergen can significantly reduce flare-ups.


Taking steps to avoid known allergens and chemicals is the best way to reduce or prevent contact dermatitis. After identifying the root causes of your skin inflammation, you will want to:

  • Avoid known reactive substances
  • Refrain from scratching
  • Use fragrance-free moisturizers and products that are labeled as “unscented” or “hypoallergenic.”
  • Wash new clothes before wearing them as they may harbor unknown cleaning agents in the fabric
  •  Cover or remove metal fasteners made of metals that are known to cause irritation
  • Avoid pets
  • Refrain from touching or consuming food products that are known to cause allergic reactions.


Contact dermatitis is a common skin condition that affects millions of individuals around the world. It shows up more often with people that have sensitive skin or have severe allergic reactions. Treatment and prevention are relatively simple despite the itchiness and irritation that these red, splotchy patches cause.

More often than not, this skin condition is just an annoying occurrence and not a cause for major concern. However, individuals who experience skin irritation regularly will want to consult with a dermatology specialists or trained medical professional to help identify the root causes and determine the best treatment options.

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