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Contact Dermatitis

What is it?

Contact dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin that results from direct contact with certain substances, such as soap, cosmetics, jewelry or weeds, including poison ivy or poison oak. The resulting red, itchy rash isn't contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable. It can develop at any age.


We divide contact dermatitis into two types:

Irritant contact dermatitis

This type of dermatitis results from repeated contact with a substance, such as soap, cosmetics or skin products, including deodorant, that irritates the skin. The exposure produces red, dry itchy patches usually on the hands, fingers and face. Some substances, such as bleach or strong acids, can cause irritant contact dermatitis after just one exposure. These substances typically remove oil and the protective barriers from the skin.

Allergic contact dermatitis

This type of dermatitis is caused by a reaction to substances called allergens. The resulting reaction is your body's response to the sensitive agent. Allergic contact dermatitis produces a red rash, bumps and sometimes blisters when severe. Common allergens include rubber, metals such as nickel, costume jewelry (nickel), perfume, cosmetics, hair dyes and weeds, including poison ivy. It may take several years for an allergy to develop. Once an allergy has developed to a specific substance, however, it remains for life. Exposure to even a small amount of the allergen will reliably result in skin eruption.

What causes it?

The cause of contact dermatitis is direct contact with one of many irritants or allergens. These include:

  • Strong detergents or soaps
  • Skin cleaning products
  • Cosmetics or makeup
  • Deodorant
  • Clothing or shoes
  • Household cleaning products
  • Formaldehyde and other chemicals
  • Rubber or latex
  • Metals, such as nickel
  • Jewelry
  • Perfume or fragrances
  • Weeds and plants, such as poison ivy or poison oak
  • Medicinal lotions, such as antihistamines, antibiotics or antiseptics
  • Some substances are both allergens and irritants. Examples include ingredients in soaps, detergents and some cosmetics.

It takes a greater amount of an irritant over a longer time to cause dermatitis than it takes for an allergen. If you're sensitized to an allergen, just brief exposure to a small amount can cause contact dermatitis. If re-exposure to a substance always results in dermatitis, then this substance is more likely an allergen than an irritant. The allergen might be something that you had been in contact with for years without trouble until now. Once an allergy has developed to a specific substance, however, it remains for life.

Some substances only cause dermatitis when they contact skin exposed to sunlight (photocontact dermatitis). Typical examples include shaving lotion, sunscreens, ointments containing sulfa drugs, some perfumes and coal tar products. Other causes of contact dermatitis may be airborne, such as ragweed pollen and insecticide spray.

How is it treated?

Successful contact dermatitis treatment consists primarily of identifying what's causing the inflammation. Then, if you can avoid the offending agent, the rash usually resolves in two to four weeks. Self-care measures, such as wet compresses and anti-itch creams, can help soothe your skin and reduce inflammation.

When to call us:

  • You're so uncomfortable that you're losing sleep or are distracted from your daily routines
  • Your skin is painful
  • You suspect your skin is infected
  • You've tried self-care steps without success
  • You suspect the dermatitis is job-related

Occupational Dermatitis

Occupational contact dermatitis occurs when a person is exposed to allergens or irritants on the job. Frequent exposure to water, friction, chemicals, fuels, dyes, cleaning agents, industrial solvents or dust (for example, cement dust, sawdust or paper dust) can lead to contact dermatitis.

Nationally, dermatitis is the second most commonly reported occupational disease. Many substances in the workplace can lead to dermatitis. The National Safety Council has listed these and you can visit their website and review them at: View PDF

Please contact us for an examination if you suspect you have been exposed.