What Is Contact Dermatitis?

Throughout their life, a person may experience different inflammatory skin reactions. Therefore, contact dermatitis isn't uncommon. We'll tell you the most important information about it here.
What Is Contact Dermatitis?

Written by Maite Córdova Vena, 22 August, 2021

Last update: 22 August, 2021

Sometimes we want to try new products and, without putting much thought into it, we just go ahead and buy them. However, how many times have you tried a cosmetic that caught your attention (such as a hair dye, an enamel remover, a lotion, a skin cream etc.), and then it seemed to cause your skin to go red or get inflamed. Well, this is what is known as contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis is an inflammatory skin reaction that, as the name implies, is caused by direct contact with an irritant or allergen. For the latter, it can be classified as allergic contact dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis.

While anyone can suffer from contact dermatitis at some point in their life, those with a history of allergies (of any kind) are at higher risk, experts say.

Symptoms

Contact dermatitis causes bothersome symptoms
Contact dermatitis can affect virtually any part of the skin, including large folds.

Contact dermatitis isn’t a life-threatening disease, but it can be very annoying and distressing, especially because of the aesthetic impact it has.

Generally speaking, it affects the parts of the body that were exposed to the offending substance. For example, if the cause was a lotion, it’ll affect the places where it was applied (arms, legs, torso, etc.) and if the cause was a lipstick, it’ll affect the lips.

Among the first symptoms that may appear (within minutes or even hours after contact) are redness and a rash. These can last 2 to 4 weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Other of the more common symptoms of contact dermatitis are the following:

  • Pruritus
  • Dry skin
  • Inflammation
  • Itching, burning, or tenderness
  • Blisters and lumps (in more severe cases)

Because of the types of symptoms it produces, we often call what may be contact dermatitis a “rash.”

Causes

As Mayo Clinic experts explain, “the offending substance can be one of thousands of known allergens and irritants.” At this point, we need to take into account that what can cause the reaction in one person, might not cause it in another. However, that doesn’t mean that at some point it won’t affect them.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology tells us that contact dermatitis can be one of two types, depending on the type of substance that causes it. They’re the following:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) is usually caused by cosmetic products (including nail polish), sunscreen, medications (antibiotic creams, oral antihistamines, etc.), clothing dyes, nickel (present in costume jewelry), food, rubber, and poison ivy.
  • Irritant contact dermatitis (INN) is commonly caused by soaps, hair products, rubbing alcohol, sawdust, wood dust, detergents, acids, bases, solvents, plants, fertilizers, pesticides, saliva, urine, and fecal matter.

According to a recent study, although parabens and fragrances in cosmetic products have been identified as common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, these aren’t the only ones that should be considered. Cosmetics that have natural ingredients aren’t exempt from causing skin reactions.

“Among patients with suspected ACD due to cosmetics there’s a high prevalence of sensitization to plant extracts, the most frequent being an allergy to tea tree oil and derivatives of the Compositae or asteraceae family“.

Diagnosis

To arrive at a diagnosis of contact dermatitis, the doctor needs to do an interview and a physical examination. Most likely, they’ll ask you several questions about the type of products you use regularly, what you think caused the reaction, if you have a history of allergies, etc. All the information you can provide will be helpful.

Although sometimes the diagnosis can be reached through the consultation and physical examination, in others it may be necessary to request some tests, such as an allergy test, for example.

Treatment

Contact dermatitis can be treated
In addition to avoiding exposure to the suspected trigger for dermatitis, the use of creams with anti-inflammatory medications may be necessary.

Treatment for contact dermatitis varies depending on its cause. However, in both cases, it means avoiding having contact with the irritant or allergen again, as well as avoiding scratching and manipulating the area (to avoid further injuring it and later scarring).

Looking after yourself is important for getting relief and preventing further discomfort. In this sense, washing the area with fresh water and the soap or product that the doctor recommends, drying yourself gently with a clean towel, and applying cold compresses are some measures that can be beneficial.

Before trying any natural remedies or over-the-counter products for rashes or skincare in general, you should ideally consult with your dermatologist. Failure to do so may expose you to adverse reactions instead of getting relief.

Keep in mind that not all rashes are the same nor do all skin types react the same, and it’s preferable to first find out which are the most appropriate options to treat them, than to just try some and make it worse.

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The Causes of Contact Dermatitis

Here, we'll tell you everything you need to know about the causes of contact dermatitis, be it irritative or allergic.