10 Common Skin Irritants

Irritated skin can itch, burn and frustrate your daily routine. Be aware of potential skin irritants around you. See more pictures of skin problems.
© iStockphoto.com/DOConnell

Chances are you've experienced a skin irritation at some point in your life. You may have had anything from a mild redness to frustrating swelling and itching to a severe case of blisters or sores. Your skin is your body's largest organ and its primary layer of defense, so it often takes the first blow against irritants in the world around you.

Dermatitis is the term used to describe a wide range of skin inflammation. Some categories of dermatitis are a result of internal conditions, and some chemical process in the body can trigger them. For example, eczema is usually hereditary, and outbreaks can be triggered by stress, allergies or asthma. Contact dermatitis, though, is a result of your skin's contact with some external irritant that creates an allergic reaction.


Because you come in contact with so many things on a day-to-day basis, it's sometimes hard to discover the exact cause of a rash or itch. You may have mild chafing from the wind or your clothes, or a case of contact dermatitis from household chemicals, poison ivy and even sunscreen. This article describes 10 common skin irritants, listed in no particular order, and what you can do to keep your skin protected.

No matter what skin irritation you have, you can treat the symptoms with lotions and over-the-counter medicated skin creams. If the irritation persists or worsens, you should see a health professional for a more precise diagnosis and treatment.

10: Plants

Poison oak leaves can prompt an allergic reaction similar to the rash shown here.
© iStockphoto.com/nathanphoto

Campers, hikers, and gardeners may encounter some of nature's most common skin irritants: poison ivy, oak and sumac. Despite their ominous moniker, these plants create different reactions in people, none of which pose serious health risks.

If you encounter poison ivy, you might have red, itchy bumps or blisters that appear in the days following your encounter, and lasting about 2-3 weeks. This reaction is caused by an allergic reaction to a resin found in the plant called urushiol. If the rash is severe or in a particularly frustrating area, such as the face, a medical professional may prescribe a treatment of oral steroids to reduce the inflammation. Another treatment is the drug Bentoquatam, sold under the trade name IvyBlock, which has been shown to absorb urushiol, and to help prevent and relieve rashes from poison ivy, oak and sumac.


While you're avoiding urushiol, you may be voluntarily subjecting yourself to another irritating plant chemical: capsaicin. Capsaicin is the chemical that makes hot peppers "hot." Besides burning your tongue when you eat it, capsaicin can also create an intense burning sensation in your skin and eyes. Unless you have an allergic reaction to capsaicin, though, just washing thoroughly with soap and water should be sufficient treatment for your skin.

Your best prevention against skin irritation from plant contact is keeping your skin covered. Wear sufficient clothing to come between you and the plants when you're walking among natural brush. Also, wear protective gloves and use caution when handling the leaves of poison ivy or the pods of hot peppers.

9: Household Cleaners

Before your tackle your house cleaning, know what chemicals you're using that could potentially irritate or damage your skin.

Most household chemicals, such as cleaning products, have clear messages on their labels, like "do not swallow" and "avoid contact with eyes." Many of these products can also irritate, or even damage, your skin. You can avoid exposure by wearing protective gloves while you're using the products.

Here are some of the cleaners you may have around the house that can irritate your skin:


  • All-purpose cleaners can include ammonia, trisodium phosphate (TSP) and other hazardous chemicals designed to break up grease and remove stains from porous surfaces. While limited skin exposure to these chemicals may not seem to affect the skin, prolonged exposure can have caustic effects, drying and breaking down your skin's surface.
  • Window and glass cleaners typically include ammonia and isopropanol. Not only can these be caustic to the skin, but they can also irritate your eyes and nasal passages and should be used in a well-ventilated area.
  • Dishwashing detergents can leave your hands dry and flaky with significant use, but usually aren't harmful to the skin. The more concentrated detergents for automatic dishwashers are more harmful and can cause your skin to burn and itch.
  • Toilet cleaners and mold and mildew removers have pesticides that are highly caustic, sometimes including bleach, which also has dangerous fumes.
  • Drain cleaner main ingredients include lye and sulfuric acid, which are highly caustic and cause dangerous fumes.

Scientists have studied the health impact of these cleaners, and researched alternative cleaners that are not as harmful to your body. Some products now contain alternative chemicals reported to be less harmful and, sometimes, more environmentally safe.

8: Laundry Detergents

Laundry detergent can leave small amounts of chemicals in your clothes that could possibly irritate your skin.
© iStockphoto.com/DonNichols

Laundry detergent can have caustic affects with prolonged exposure to your skin. What this section covers, though, is the effect of remnants of the laundry detergent and fabric softener left in your clothes when you wash them. Laundry detergent includes ingrediants such as:

  • Surfactants dissolve in water and "lift" dirt and oils from the laundry.
  • Builders aid the surfactants by softening hard (mineral-rich) water to make the detergent more effective.
  • Enzymes are designed to break down stains made up of organic proteins, such as blood and grass.
  • Chlorine bleach removes color from fabrics while also disinfecting and deodorizing the laundry.
  • Oxygen bleach will bleach clothes, but is less powerful and safer for fabrics than chlorine bleach.
  • Whiteners (optical brighteners) absorb invisible forms of light and re-emits it as blue light, making clothes seem brighter.
  • Fragrance can mask the chemical smell of the detergent and produce an emotional response when using the product.

Builders and bleaches are caustic out of the box or bottle, but are readily rinsed away in the wash. The detergent's surfactant, as in other soaps, is low in toxicity, but could give you dry, itchy skin if your clothes are not thoroughly rinsed. The more notable irritants are the dyes and fragrances, which are left on clothes even after they are rinsed. These culprits can produce itching and rash for people with sensitive skin or specific dye or fragrance allergies. Fragrance and dyes in fabric softener can produce similar allergic reactions.


Many manufacturers have responded to their sensitive and allergic consumers, creating fragrance-free and dye-free detergents and fabric softeners. Without the fragrance, you can still smell the detergent's other ingredients. When your laundry is finished, though, all potential irritants should be rinsed away.

7: Sunscreen

If you have sensitive skin or allergies, try different sunscreens with different ingredients until you find one that works best for your skin.
© iStockphoto.com/jcarillet

When you apply sunscreen, your goal is usually to protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. Physical sunblocks can include zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which reflect all ultraviolet (UV) radiation before it gets to your skin. More commonly marketed, though, are chemical sunblocks, which absorb into the skin, and then in turn absorb some of the UV radiation before it can affect your skin. Both physical and chemical sunscreens are marketed in both dedicated lotions, and as part of other cosmetics such as facial moisturizers, hand creams, and foundation makeup. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends a sunscreen that includes as much of the UV spectrum as possible, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 [source: AAD].

Suncreen has specific chemicals that could provoke allergic reactions in some people. The FDA has approved more than 16 compounds as UV filters for sunscreens sold in the United States, so there's a wide variety of ingredients for manufacturers from which to choose. The University of California, San Francisco, recommends that if you have an allergic reaction to a specific sunscreen, such as severe itching or a rash, try another sunscreen with a different combination of chemicals [source: UCSF].


One of the most common allergic reactions to sunscreens is to para-aminobenzoic acid, or PABA. Though PABA is an essential nutrient in some animals, its internal benefits for humans are still under research. Topically, though, it is known to be an effective sunscreen. If you experience rash when using a sunscreen that has PABA, stop using it and try one of the "PABA-free" sunscreens to see if your allergic reaction is prompted by the PABA.

6: Bugs and Bug Repellent

© iStockphoto.com/W1zzard

Whether or not you're an outdoor enthusiast, you have likely encountered bugs, and perhaps attempted to repel those bugs to avoid bites, stings and general unpleasantness. Both the bugs and the repellents are potential skin irritants.

Most bugs are harmless to your skin unless they bite or sting you. Some bugs, such as mosquitoes, ticks and bedbugs, bite with the objective to feast on your blood. Others, such as bees, ants and spiders, attempt to defend or attack with a venom of amino acids, peptides and proteins. While only some of the world's bugs have potentially lethal venoms, all bug bites and stings can produce allergic reactions ranging from a mild swelling and itching to a violent rash with blisters or sores.


When you're trying to avoid the pesky critters, one of your options is to apply a repellant lotion or spray to your exposed skin. These products usually contain N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) and other chemicals known to be effective at preventing bites from several types of insects. The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded from toxicity testing that DEET does not present a health concern for most people. However, the EPA recommends sparing use, washing it off thoroughly when you return indoors, and discontinuing use if you have any adverse reactions.

Your skin's best protection against bugs is clothing. When exposed skin is vulnerable, and applying a repellent to the skin is risky, long sleeves and trousers may be your healthiest option. You can even apply the repellent to the clothing for an extra layer of defense. If you spend a significant amount of time outdoors, you might even consider special insect-repellent clothing.

5: Heat

Hot, humid weather is just one cause of the skin irritation known as heat rash.
© iStockphoto.com/Jim DeLillo

In hot, humid weather, you may experience a skin irritation known as a heat rash. Despite its name, the heat is only an indirect cause of the rash. Heat rash is an outbreak of blisters or red lumps in the skin resulting from excessive sweating. The bumps are created when sweat ducts get blocked and trap perspiration under your skin.

Heat rash usually clears up on its own, but you can relieve its swelling, itching and prickly feeling by cooling your skin and moving to a place where you won't continue to sweat. You can try to prevent heat rash by keeping cool on hot, humid days. Even with prevention, though, some people are more prone to heat rash than others, including newborns and those taking certain medications.


Heat rash can also defy weather conditions. Any time your body overheats or lacks sufficient exposure to sweat normally, heat rash may be a risk. This includes bundling up a lot in the winter, using heavy ointments or creams, or being confined to a bed for long periods.

4: Shaving and Hair Removal

Facial shaving is a daily ritual for many men.
© iStockphoto.com/diego_cervo

Shaving can irritate your skin when you haven't sufficiently lubricated the skin's surface. For lubrication, you can use a commercial shaving cream, or just a generous lather from soap. Without lubrication, the razor may have too much friction as it travels over your skin, and it can catch and scrape at the skin's surface. This can result in welts on the skin that burn and itch, called razor burn.

As an alternative, there are also many hair removal, or depilatory, creams on the market. Test each product on a small patch of skin before using it on larger areas. Depilatory users have reported allergic reactions and chemical burns with symptoms such as itching, rash, blisters, burning and peeling. If you experience any of these reactions when testing a depilatory, wash the area thoroughly to remove the cream, and avoid using that particular product.


Waxing removes the entire hair shaft from its follicle for a longer-lasting effect. Because the wax adheres to both skin and hair, the fast rip of the waxed strip can leave your leave your skin red, burning, itching and possibly bumpy for a few hours as it recovers from the trauma. Some waxing products can help reduce this, as can lotions and anti-inflammatory medications.

Permanent hair removal can be a tempting long-term solution to the skin irritation and other inconveniences of regular shaving and waxing. Both electrolysis and laser hair removal can give you a temporary stinging pain at the treatment site. Your skin can be slightly red and swollen for a short time following these procedures, and you can treat this with medicated ointments. Though rare, some who have had laser procedures have reported blistering, scarring, and a change in skin pigmentation [source: Mayo Clinic].

3: Cosmetics

Foundations and color cosmetics can contain ingredients that prompt an allergic response for some users.
© iStockphoto.com/Tjanze

Lotions, deodorants, acne treatments and other products can cause skin irritation if you have an allergic reaction to the chemicals, or if the chemicals break down into potentially hazardous substances. The first potential culprit is the active ingredients in a cosmetic product. Some antiperspirants, for example, can cause an allergic reaction, making you itch or, even worse, break out in a rash. Cosmetics can contain strong active ingredients, like alpha-hydroxy acids, that can irritate or even damage the skin if they are not paired with proper use and protective products such as sunscreen. Test each new cosmetic product carefully, and use it as directed. Discontinue using any product if you have skin irritations or other adverse reactions.

Other potential culprits are additives, such as colors and fragrances and preservatives. For some people, these can also cause allergic reactions. Fortunately, manufacturers have responded to people with allergies and sensitive skin by putting out fragrance-free cosmetics and other products that are free of additives and, sometimes, preservatives.


Though some cosmetics contain preservatives to give them a longer shelf life, they can change composition over time or when exposed to heat or bacteria. For example, foundation makeup with sunscreen is limited to the shelf-life of the sunscreen (about two to three years), can lose its sunblock quality if exposed to high temperatures, and can spread bacteria if you use your finger or a reusable applicator to scoop it from the bottle. To prevent skin irritation, acne and other harmful effects, only use a cosmetic product for its manufacturer-recommended shelf-life (some have expiration dates printed on them), and follow instructions on the label for proper storage. Also, keep makeup applicators clean with soap and hot water to remove bacteria.

2: Soap

Irritated skin can itch, burn and frustrate your daily routine. Be aware of potential skin irritants around you.
© iStockphoto.com/DOConnell

Your favorite soap may be one that smells good, lathers well, or just leaves your skin squeaky clean. Can it be irritating your skin? If you have itchy, dry skin between showers, you might want to consider whether the soap you're using is the culprit.

Soap is a surfactant, a substance that, when mixed with water, can remove dirt and oil from a surface to leave it clean. Soap is the natural result of a chemical reaction between an alkaline solution and a fat or oil, yielding alkali salts of fatty acids (the soap) plus glycerin. In contrast to soap, detergents are made without the fats and oils in an effort to avoid soap scum.


Soap can irritate the skin in a couple of ways. First, you can have an allergic response to a fragrance or dye added to the soap. Even if you have used the same soap for years, you could develop the allergy and suddenly respond to the soap in a way you hadn't before. The other way soap can irritate your skin is by stripping it of too much of the natural oils needed to keep your skin soft and elastic. If you suspect your soap is making you itch or drying out your skin, be sure to rinse well each time you wash, and consider choosing a different body cleanser such as mild cleansing product that isn't actually soap.

1: Clothing

Clothing can cause skin irritation from the abrasiveness of the fabric against your skin, or from allergic reactions to the fabric.
© iStockphoto.com/carterdayne

While many of the skin irritants in this article are avoidable, you aren't likely to avoid wearing clothes. Clothing itself can be a skin irritant for a variety of reasons:

  • The abrasiveness of the fabric itself
  • Allergic responses to dyes, metal fasteners, appliqués or chemical additives used in processing the fabric
  • Scratching from tags, fasteners and seams
  • Chafing from frequent movement against the fabric
  • Heat rash or bacterial infections from fabric that does not allow the skin to breathe or dry quickly

You may have some difficultly determining that your skin irritation is from your clothing. First, you want to eliminate other things, such as your soap, laundry detergent and toiletries and cosmetics applied directly to your skin. Then, you want to examine where the irritation is occurring, and see if you can clearly identify something in or on a particular article of clothing that is coming in contact with the irritated skin.

If you're itching to learn more, go on to the next page to link to more great resources about your skin and skin irritants.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. "Medical Management Guidelines for Ammonia." Sept. 24, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mhmi/mmg126.html
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Sunscreens/Sunblocks." 2005. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/sun_sunscreens.html
  • Benabio, Jeffrey, MD, FAAD. "Is That Suncreen In Your Car Still Good?" The Dermatology Blog: Smarter Skin Care. June 11, 2008. (Sept. 27, 2009)http://thedermblog.com/2008/06/11/is-that-sunscreen-in-your-car-still-good/
  • Bower, Lynn Marie. "Basic Housekeeping - Soaps vs. Detergents." Housekeeping Channel. (Sept. 27, 2009)http://www.housekeepingchannel.com/a_767-Soaps_Vs._Detergents
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Malaria Facts." April 11, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/Malaria/facts.htm
  • Dow Chemical. "Product Safety Assessment: Ethylene Glycol Butyl Ether Acetate." Dec. 15, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.dow.com/PublishedLiterature/dh_00c8/0901b803800c88fc.pdf?filepath=productsafety/pdfs/noreg/233-00340.pdf
  • eMedicineHealth. "Contact Dermatitis." (Sept. 25, 2009)http://www.emedicinehealth.com/contact_dermatitis/article_em.htm
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "The Insect Repellent DEET." March 23, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/factsheets/chemicals/deet.htm
  • eVitamins. "PABA." (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.evitamins.com/healthnotes.asp?ContentID=2894003
  • Griffin, R. Morgan. "Sun Safety: Sunscreen and Sun Protection." WebMD. June 19, 2009. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/health-ehome-9/sun-safety-and-sunscreen
  • Hamilton, Donna. Old Makeup, Habits Can Lead to Infections." WBAL-TV. July 25, 2008. (Sept. 30, 2009)http://www.wbaltv.com/health/16979071/detail.html
  • Hunt, John A., Ph.D., FRPharmS. "A short history of soap." The Pharmaceutical Journal, Vol 263, No 7076. Dec. 25, 1999. (Sept. 27, 2009)http://www.pharmj.com/Editorial/19991218/articles/soap.html
  • Irwin, Brandith, MD. "Sensitive Skin: Causes and Treatments." Interview with WebMD. Sept. 22 , 2004. (Sept. 30, 2009)http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=53674
  • Mayo Clinic staff. "Heat rash." MayoClinic.com. Jan. 18, 2008. (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heat-rash/DS01058
  • Mayo Clinic staff. "Laser hair removal." MayoClinic.com. March 28, 2008. (Sept. 27, 2009) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/laser-hair-removal/MY00134
  • MedicineNet.com. "Heat Rash." (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.medicinenet.com/heat_rash/article.htm 
  • Open2. "The History of Soapmaking." May 26, 2000. (Sept. 27, 2009) http://www.open2.net/historyandthearts/discover_science/soapmaking.html
  • Proctor & Gamble. "Chemical Functional Definitions: Surfactants." 2005. (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.scienceinthebox.com/en_UK/glossary/surfactants_en.html
  • Rockoff, Alan, MD. "Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac." MedicineNet.com. (Sept. 25, 2009) http://www.medicinenet.com/poison_ivy/article.htm
  • Shiel, William C., Jr., MD, FACP, FACR. "Lyme Disease." MedicineNet.com. (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.medicinenet.com/lyme_disease/article.htm
  • Skin Cancer Foundation, The. "Understanding UVA and UVB." 2009. (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.skincancer.org/understanding-uva-and-uvb.html
  • Soap and Detergent Association, The. "Soaps and Detergents: History." (Sept. 27, 2009) http://www.sdahq.org/cleaning/history/
  • Stöppler, Melissa Conrad, MD. "Spider Bites (Including Black Widow and Brown Recluse)." MedicineNet.com. (Sept. 30, 2009) http://www.medicinenet.com/spider_bites_black_widow_and_brown_recluse/article.htm
  • Stöppler, Melissa Conrad, MD. "Stinging Insect Allergies (Bee Stings, Wasp Stings, Others)." MedicineNet.com. (Sept. 30, 2009) http://www.medicinenet.com/insect_sting_allergies/article.htm
  • University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. "Sunblock." May 4, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.dermatology.ucsf.edu/skincancer/General/prevention/Sunscreen.aspx
  • U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergent Ingredients." May 1999. (Sept. 26, 2009) http://www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/laundry/techfact/keychar.htm
  • U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Learn About Chemicals Around Your House." (Sept. 25, 2009) http://www.epa.gov/kidshometour/index.htm
  • Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. "Clothing Dermatitis and Clothing-Related Skin Conditions." Report 55-8-2001. August, 2001. (Sept. 27, 2009) http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/Dermatitis/files/clothing.pdf
  • WebMD. "Allergies Triggered by Cosmetics." (Sept. 30, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/cosmetics
  • WebMD. "Allergy Basics." (Sept. 24, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/allergy-basics
  • WebMD. "Capsaicin - Topic Overview." (Sept. 25, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/tc/capsaicin-topic-overview
  • WebMD. "Understanding Dermatitis - The Basics." (Sept. 24, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/understanding-dermatitis-basics
  • WRAL News. "What is The Shelf Life Of Your Sunscreen?" June 5, 2001. (Sept. 27, 2009)http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/155611/