Some people sneeze when confronted with ragweed pollen or dander from cats. And some people break out in a rash, known as allergic contact dermatitis, when their skin comes in direct contact with substances that are normally harmless to most people, such as certain ingredients in costume jewelry or makeup.
In allergic contact dermatitis, the body's immune system reacts to direct contact with an allergen (a substance the body incorrectly identifies as harmful) by producing an itchy rash on the skin where that contact occurred. So, for example, a person with an allergy to the nickel in a bracelet will develop a bracelet-shaped rash on the skin where that piece of jewelry was worn.
The most common allergen in allergic contact dermatitis is poison ivy, which can cause reactions in at least half of the people exposed to it. The next most common contact allergen is nickel, a metal commonly used in costume jewelry. Up to 10 percent of the population may suffer an allergic reaction to this metal.
Other possible causes of allergic contact dermatitis include:
- Neomycin or benzocaine in topical anesthetics
- Formaldehyde, which is used in shampoo, detergent, nail hardeners, waterless hand cleaners, and mouthwashes
- Cinnamon flavoring in toothpaste and candies
- PABA, the active ingredient in some sunscreens
- Chemicals found in hair dyes
- Preservatives in cosmetics
Identifying a rash as allergic contact dermatitis is not always easy, however. An airborne allergen, like ragweed or animal dander, usually elicits sneezing or a runny nose within 15 minutes of exposure. But it may take up to 72 hours after contact with the sensitizing substance before a reaction shows up on your skin. That can make identifying the culprit and choosing a home remedy pretty tough.Complicating the diagnosis further is the fact that you have to become sensitized to a substance before it can cause a rash. That means you have to come in contact with it at least once before the next contact will provoke an allergic response. And indeed, sometimes it requires repeated contacts with a substance before the body becomes sensitized to it. So, for example, you may wear that nickel-containing bracelet once or even dozens of times without any problems, but then one day, out of the blue, it causes an allergic rash.Isolating the cause of a rash and selecting a home remedy can be challenging, since it may be triggered by tiny amounts of the offending chemicals. What's more, it may take only a tiny amount of the offending substance to cause an allergic rash, and thanks to our concerns with hygiene and appearance, we expose ourselves to a variety of potentially offending substances every day. For instance, the average woman uses more than a dozen different products on her scalp and head each morning.Don't sweat it. If you are sensitive to nickel, wearing nickel-containing jewelry in a hot, humid environment may worsen the allergy, as perspiration leaches out some of the nickel. So before you start a workout or go out into the heat, take off any nickel-containing jewelry.
Use caution with ear-piercing. If you decide to get your ears pierced but you have an allergy to nickel, make sure those first earring studs have stainless steel posts. Also make sure the needle is stainless steel. Otherwise, the studs or needle may contain nickel, and you'll be risking an itchy, inflamed rash on those recently pierced earlobes.
Coat nickel jewelry. Paint the surfaces that come in contact with your skin with clear nail polish.
Choose only the best. Even 14 karat gold jewelry has some nickel in it, so if your skin reacts strongly to nickel, you may need to restrict your gold purchases to 24 karat (which is pure gold). Other safe options include platinum and stainless steel.
Become a label reader. If your skin breaks out in a rash when it meets PABA or another chemical common in consumer products, do your skin a favor by reading ingredients lists carefully and choosing only those without the offender. Some products are even conveniently labeled as "free" of certain substances known to cause allergic reactions (you will likely find sunscreens, for example, advertised and labeled as "PABA-free").
Don't depend on the "hypoallergenic" label. It's an ambiguous term with no legal meaning. The Food and Drug Administration has not established a standard to define "hypoallergenic." If you can't tell whether a product contains a substance you're allergic to, try querying the manufacturer or performing your own patch test by applying a little of the product on the skin of your inner forearm and waiting three or four days to see if a rash develops.
Protect your skin. Guard against exposure to poisonous plants by wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts when you're in areas where these plants are likely to be.
In the next section, we will look at the problem of irritant contact dermatitis and optimal home remedies for this condition.
For more information about dermatitis and how to combat it, try the following links:
- To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
- Many skin problems stem from allergies. To learn more about allergies, you should check out How Allergies Work.
- To learn how to minimize your allergic reactions, check out Home Remedies for Allergies.
- If your skin feels itchy and scratchy, it could be from dry skin. To releive this problem, read our Home Remedies for Dry Skin.
- Or if the problem is with your scalp, check out Home Remedies for Dry Hair.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.