Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a skin reaction as a result of contact with a chemical or something you’re allergic to. It’s also known as allergic eczema.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is an inflammatory skin condition where your skin reacts to contact with a chemical or something you’re allergic to.

There are two types of contact dermatitis:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis – when you become hypersensitive to something, so your skin reacts the next time it’s in contact with it
  • Irritant contact dermatitis – when your skin comes into contact with a chemical that damages the surface of your skin

Irritant contact dermatitis is much more common than allergic contact dermatitis because it’s so easy to come into contact with a chemical or irritant at work or at home.

Anyone can get it, but women are more likely to be affected and also people who already have atopic dermatitis.

Hands are affected in four out of five cases. Hand dermatitis is common in occupations such as hairdressers, nurses and cleaners as they’re often washing their hands.

Avoiding contact with the allergen or irritant will usually help to reduce the symptoms, although treatments such as moisturisers and steroid creams may be needed.

Contact dermatitis can affect your daily life and work. Treatment success depends on the cause of your contact dermatitis and how long you’ve had it.

How to tell if you have contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis can happen quite slowly after you’ve been in contact with the allergen. Your skin will become red and itchy.

Irritant contact dermatitis usually happens very soon after contact with the chemical. Your skin will become red and sore within a few hours or a day.

You may notice small blisters or cracks.

It’s important to get a proper diagnosis so you can get the right treatment and prevent it from becoming a chronic (long-term) condition which may be harder to treat.

There’s also a risk of infections to damaged skin.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for contact dermatitis

It’s often possible to diagnose contact dermatitis from your history. Your doctor will look at your skin and ask you about your work or activities, particularly in the hours and days before you first noticed the symptoms.

Your doctor may also refer you to a dermatologist (specialist in skin). They may use a patch test – very small amounts of different allergens and irritants on your skin – to find out what your skin’s reacting to.

Causes of contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is caused by frequently allowing your bare skin to come into contact with a substance that damages it. These include:

  • Chemicals used at work
  • Detergents and cleaning products
  • Dust and oil
  • Some plants

The symptoms can be made worse by heat, cold or humidity.

Allergic contact dermatitis results from contact with something you’ve previously become allergic to – sometimes without realising it. These are called allergens and include:

  • Cosmetics, such as hair dyes
  • Metals such as nickel, which are often used in jewellery
  • Ingredients in skin creams and medicines
  • Rubber and latex
  • Some plants
  • Hot water

Your skin’s response as it tries to protect itself is to become inflamed.

Common treatments for contact dermatitis

The first step is to avoid whatever’s causing your skin to react. This may involve changes at work.

Other treatments include:

  • Applying plenty of moisturiser to affected areas to protect the skin
  • Use of creams and medicines called corticosteroids
  • If your doctor thinks your skin has become infected, they’ll give you antibiotics or penicillin.