Skin allergies aren’t like regular allergies: They turn up unexpectedly and are caused by a lot of weird things. Here’s what skin experts want you to know.
Only a small number of things cause skin allergies
The number of potential skin allergens is endless: People react to soaps, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, shampoos, metals (nickel, cobalt, chromium, and zinc), adhesives, nail polish, topical medications, and plants, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. What’s more, some skin allergies are on the rise.
Most rashes are a sign of skin allergies
Make sure you know the medical conditions that may be mistaken for allergies. If your skin comes into contact with nickel in jewelry and you develop red, bumpy, scaly, itchy or swollen skin at the point of contact in a few days, that’s most likely a skin allergy. If, however, the reaction happens quickly, you may have irritant dermatitis—which isn’t an allergic reaction. “If someone has a skin reaction to something in a matter of hours it is not likely an allergic contact dermatitis, rather an irritant dermatitis,” says Adam Friedman, MD, associate professor of dermatology and director of the Supportive Oncodermatology Clinic at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC. The only exception is hives (officially, contact urticaria), which may occur immediately after contact at the site of contact. When in doubt, check in with your dermatologist or allergist for a definitive explanation.
Medical ointments are non-allergenic
Not true: The active ingredients in Neosporin and other ointments can cause skin allergy, says dermatologist Matthew Zirwas, MD, in Bexley, Ohio. “If you have a rash or irritation and use these products, you may feel better initially and then the itchiness or irritation will get worse and worse,” he says. Your best bet? See a specialist to make sure you are not doing more harm than good. Neosporin is actually one of the 10 products never to use on your baby!
Sunscreen allergies are always caused by the ingredients
Although some people are allergic to sunscreen ingredients, others react to the combination of UV rays hitting the sunscreen. “If you are not in the sun, there’s no problem, but if you are out in the sun, you will have a problem,” says Dr. Zirwas. Avoid this by choosing and using sunscreens that have titanium oxide and/or zinc oxide and nothing else, he suggests. Check out this list of sunscreens dermatologists use on themselves.
Natural, essential oils are safe for your skin
ssential oils are all the rage, but some—including frankincense, lavender, tea tree, and peppermint—can trigger skin allergies, Dr. Zirwas says. “Once we figure out it’s the essential oil and they stop using it, their rash gets better.” Read about this woman’s scary experience using essential oils.
Identifying the culprit is easy
Allergists can quickly narrow down the common foods are responsible for almost all food allergies, but skin allergies are much tougher to ID, Dr. Zirwas says. The list of potential offenders is nearly infinite, and skin allergy reactions are delayed as opposed to immediate. “If you are allergic to shrimp or peanuts or other allergens such as cats, dogs, or pollen, you tend to have an immediate reaction, but reactions to skin allergens don’t start for 48 hours,” he says. “If you are exposed on a Tuesday, for example, the rash may not occur until Thursday or Friday and can last two to three weeks.” This involves a lot more backtracking to identify the possible culprits. Don’t miss these other weird things you can be allergic to.
Testing for skin allergies is just like testing for regular allergies
For most skin allergies, doctors rely on patch testing so there is no puncturing of the skin. “We place a drop of a suspected allergen on a disc, tape the disc to the person’s back for 48 hours, and then we wait four days to see if there is a reaction,” Dr. Zirwas explains. Most reactions occur in two days, but some take longer. “We can use anywhere from 40 to 100 of these discs at a time.”
Often, switching your shampoos or body wash will help
The preservatives and fragrances in shampoos and body wash are common skin allergy triggers, Dr. Zirwas says. The real issue is that most of the products on the market contain the same ingredients. Common culprits are methylisothiazolinone (a preservative), cocamidopropyl betaine, and decyl glucoside (lathering agents), though those are just a few of the potential troublemakers. “Switching doesn’t work, and it’s much more difficult to find fragrance-free shampoos and body washes than to find fragrance-free cleansers, laundry detergents, and creams,” he says. Fragrances are actually one of the top toxic ingredients found in your beauty products.
If you don’t have skin allergies yet, you’re probably safe
Sorry: You could use the same shampoo or soap for decades when all of a sudden you get red, bumpy, scaly, itchy, or swollen skin. “People will say, ‘It couldn’t be anything I am using because I didn’t change anything,’ but skin allergies can occur with cumulative exposure,” Dr. Zirwas warns. The longer you use a product, the more likely you are to become allergic to it. And once you react, the skin allergy is with you for life. “Each time you are exposed to the allergen, your immune system gets better and better at reacting to it,” he says.
Latex skin allergies are a big concern
Latex allergy was once one of the more common types of skin allergy, but times are changing, says Dr. Zirwas. “It is basically nonexistent nowadays as the companies that make medical products have taken most of the latex out,” he says. That said, some people may react to another chemical in rubber gloves or products that traditionally used latex, and mistakenly blame it on latex.
You can be allergic to your cell phone
We swear this isn’t a trick to break your cell phone addiction (here’s how to do that). Electronics that contain metals like nickel or cobalt can cause skin allergy if they touch your ear, hand, or cheek.
Any allergist or dermatologist can deal with your skin allergies
Sure many could, but most are generalists: Dermatologists treat a variety of skin issues, like cancer, psoriasis, and eczema; allergists address all types of problems, including potentially life-threatening food and respiratory allergies. Because skin allergies are so tricky, you may want to find a skin allergy specialist near you through the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
Here’s how to recognize the most common skin irritations.
You can treat skin allergies with shots
Allergy shots are the best fix for seasonal allergies, but there is no such thing as exposure therapy for skin allergy, Dr. Zirwas says. The only “cure” for skin allergy is avoidance. Over-the-counter steroid creams can help the itching and inflammation as can Sarna Original Anti-Itch Lotion and creams made with pramoxine hydrochloride such as CeraVe Itch Relief Moisturizing Cream.
There is a skin allergen of the year
Actually, this one is true: In 2017, the “winner” was alkyl glucoside—a plant-based chemical used in a wide range of cosmetics and household products. “The reason there is a new skin allergen of the year each year is because it takes time from when a chemical is introduced for people to start reacting to it since skin allergies are caused by cumulative reactions,” Dr. Zirwas says. The American Contact Dermatitis Society lists the skin allergens of the year for the past 20 years.
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