Does your skin feel dry, itchy, red and burning? If so, you could have contact dermatitis. Find out why it happens and how to manage your symptoms
Written by Victoria Goldman on March 8, 2019
Reviewed by Dr Nicole Chiang on March 15, 2019
Every day we come into contact with mild irritants and allergens, but for some people these can trigger contact dermatitis. It’s one of the most common work-related skin conditions, affecting 8% of people across Europe, according to a 2016 review in The BMJ.1
Luckily, there are ways you can help prevent and treat contact dermatitis.2 Find out how below.
What is contact dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis is actually a form of eczema <link to: What is eczema?>. It’s caused by irritants or allergens damaging the surface of your skin, which then triggers inflammation. It isn’t contagious, so you can’t catch it from anyone else.
There are two main types:3
Irritant contact dermatitis – this happens when irritant substances strip your skin of some of its natural oils, which usually protect it against damage and infection. You can develop symptoms after just one exposure to a strong irritant, like a harsh chemical, or repeated exposures to a milder irritant, like soap.
Allergic contact dermatitis – this occurs when an allergen, such as a specific chemical or substance, triggers an immune reaction in your skin. The next time you are in contact with it, your skin develops an allergic reaction, causing your symptoms.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis
Both types of contact dermatitis cause similar symptoms, usually on your hands, arms, neck or face. Your skin can be:4
The severity of your skin problems will depend on how long, or how often, the substance was in contact with your skin.5
What are some common triggers?
Specific triggers can vary from person to person,6 but the following are most common for both types:
Irritant contact dermatitis
- frequent hand-washing, or having your hands in water for longer than normal
- detergents, for example soap, washing-up liquid and bleach
- solvents, like petrol, and chemicals
- fertilisers and pesticides7,8
Allergic contact dermatitis
- nickel, found in bra straps, jean studs and jewellery, including watches – this is the most common cause of allergic contact dermatitis
- preservatives in creams and cosmetics
- hair colourants
- plants, for example daffodils, chrysanthemums and sunflowers9
Be aware that the allergen isn’t always obvious straight away; it can take several hours, or even days, for symptoms to appear after exposure. Also, it may not develop the first few times you come into contact with the allergen – some people can develop an allergic reaction to something they’ve been exposed to for years without previous problems.10
Who’s at risk of contact dermatitis?
We all are, but you’re more likely to develop contact dermatitis if your job or pastime means you’re in regular contact with an irritant or allergen. For example, hairdressers, nurses, florists and caterers have a greater risk of developing irritant contact dermatitis because of frequent handwashing and exposure to potential allergens.11
How to manage contact dermatitis
At the first sign of a reaction, rinse with a mild soap and water and press a cool, wet compress, such as ice cubes or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel, against your affected skin.12 Rinsing with water can also help prevent a flare-up after contact with an allergen.
For dryness and itching, apply a thick emollient moisturiser to your skin several times a day, especially after contact with water. Avoid scratching the affected area as this can lead to an infection.13
If your skin is red or sore, if your symptoms aren’t improving or seem to be getting worse, see your GP. You may need a stronger treatment, such as steroid cream. It can take two to four weeks for your symptoms to settle down after a flare-up.14
Help prevent contact dermatitis
Avoid any triggers – this isn’t always possible, especially at work, so wear gloves, masks and any other protective clothing you need.15 If you’re not sure what’s causing your symptoms, your GP may be able to arrange an allergy test to identify your allergen.
Use emollients and mild skin cleansers – these will help keep your skin’s outer layer moisturised, protecting the skin barrier. In turn, this reduces the chance that irritants and allergens can enter the skin and cause contact dermatitis.16
Check the labels on hair dyes – try to use hair dyes that are free from common irritants, especially paraphenylenediamine (PPD), but always patch-test first before you colour your hair, to be safe.17
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies
1. Rashid RS, Shim TN. Contact dermatitis
2. National Eczema Society. Contact
3. British Skin Foundation. Contact dermatitis
4. Dr Oliver Starr. Patient
5. As Source 2
6. As Source 3
7. Mayo Clinic. Contact dermatitis
8. As Source 4
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10. As Source 2
11. Behroozy A, Keegel TG. Wet-work Exposure: A Main Risk Factor for Occupational Hand Dermatitis
12. As Source 7
13. As Source 4
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16. As Source 7
17. NHS. Hair dye reactions