Learn About Contact Dermatitis

What is the definition of Contact Dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a condition in which the skin becomes red, sore, or inflamed after direct contact with a substance.

Save information for later
Sign Up
What are the alternative names for Contact Dermatitis?

Dermatitis - contact; Allergic dermatitis; Dermatitis - allergic; Irritant contact dermatitis; Skin rash - contact dermatitis

What are the causes of Contact Dermatitis?

There are 2 types of contact dermatitis.

Irritant dermatitis: This is the most common type. It is not caused by an allergy, but rather the skin's reaction to irritating substances or friction. Irritating substances may include acids, alkaline materials such as soaps and detergents, fabric softeners, solvents, or other chemicals. Very irritating chemicals may cause a reaction after just a short period of contact. Milder chemicals can also cause a reaction after repeated contact.

People who have atopic dermatitis are at increased risk of developing irritant contact dermatitis.

Common materials that may irritate your skin include:

  • Cement
  • Hair dyes
  • Long-term exposure to wet diapers
  • Pesticides or weed killers
  • Rubber gloves
  • Shampoos

Allergic contact dermatitis: This form of the condition occurs when your skin comes in contact with a substance that causes you to have an allergic reaction.

Common allergens include:

  • Adhesives, including those used for false eyelashes or toupees.
  • Antibiotics, such as neomycin rubbed on the surface of the skin.
  • Balsam of Peru (used in many personal products and cosmetics, as well as in many foods and drinks).
  • Fabrics and clothing, including both materials and dyes.
  • Fragrances in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps, and moisturizers.
  • Nail polish, hair dyes, and permanent wave solutions.
  • Nickel or other metals (found in jewelry, watch straps, metal zips, bra hooks, buttons, pocketknives, lipstick holders, and powder compacts).
  • Poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and other plants.
  • Rubber or latex gloves or shoes.
  • Preservatives commonly used in prescription and over-the-counter topical medicines.
  • Formaldehyde, which is used in a broad number of manufactured items.

You will not have a reaction to a substance when you are first exposed to the substance. However, you will form a reaction after future exposures. You may become more sensitive and develop a reaction if you use it regularly. It is possible to tolerate the substance for years or even decades before developing allergy. Once you develop an allergy you will be allergic for life.

The reaction most often occurs 24 to 48 hours after the exposure. The rash may persist for weeks after the exposure stops.

Some products cause a reaction only when the skin is also exposed to sunlight (photosensitivity). These include:

  • Shaving lotions
  • Sunscreens
  • Sulfa ointments
  • Some perfumes
  • Coal tar products
  • Oil from the skin of a lime

A few airborne allergens, such as ragweed, perfumes, vapor from nail lacquer, or insecticide spray, can also cause contact dermatitis.

What are the symptoms of Contact Dermatitis?

Symptoms vary, depending on the cause and whether the dermatitis is due to an allergic reaction or an irritant. The same person may also have different symptoms over time.

Allergic reactions may occur suddenly, or develop after months or years of exposure.

Contact dermatitis often occurs on the hands. Hair products, cosmetics, and perfumes can lead to skin reactions on the face, head, and neck. Jewelry can also cause skin problems in the area under it.

Itching is a common symptom. In the case of an allergic dermatitis, itching can be severe.

You may have red, streaky, or patchy rash where the substance touched the skin. The allergic reaction is often delayed so that the rash may not appear until 24 to 48 hours after exposure.

The rash may:

  • Have red bumps that may form moist, weeping blisters
  • Feel warm and tender
  • Ooze, drain, or crust
  • Become scaly, raw, or thickened

Dermatitis caused by an irritant may also cause burning or pain as well as itching. Irritant dermatitis often shows as dry, red, and rough skin. Cuts (fissures) may form on the hands. Skin may become inflamed with long-term exposure.

Not sure about your diagnosis?
Check Your Symptoms
What are the current treatments for Contact Dermatitis?

Your provider will recommend treatment based on what is causing the problem. In some cases, the best treatment is to do nothing to the area.

Often, treatment includes washing the area with a lot of water to get rid of any traces of the irritant that are still on the skin. You should avoid further exposure to the substance.

Emollients or moisturizers help keep the skin moist, and also help skin repair itself. They protect the skin from becoming inflamed again. They are a key part of preventing and treating irritant contact dermatitis.

Topical corticosteroid drugs are commonly used to treat contact dermatitis.

  • Topical means you place it on the skin. You will be prescribed a cream or ointment. Topical corticosteroids may also be called topical steroids or topical cortisones.
  • DO NOT use more medicine or use it more often than your provider advises you to use it.

Your provider may also prescribe other creams or ointments, such as tacrolimus or pimecrolimus, to use on the skin.

In severe cases, you may need to take corticosteroid pills. Your provider will start you on a high dose and your dose will be slowly reduced over about 12 days. You may also receive a corticosteroid shot.

Wet dressings and soothing anti-itch (antipruritic) lotions may be recommended to reduce other symptoms.

Topical corticosteroids should be used only for short periods. Long-term use increases the risk of developing more irritant contact dermatitis.

Who are the top Contact Dermatitis Local Doctors?
Learn about our expert tiers
Learn more
What is the outlook (prognosis) for Contact Dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis clears up without complications in 2 or 3 weeks in most cases. However, it may return if the substance that caused it cannot be found or avoided.

You may need to change your job or job habits if the disorder is caused by exposure at work. For example, jobs requiring frequent hand washing may be bad choices for people with hand dermatitis.

Sometimes, the allergen causing the allergic contact dermatitis reaction is never identified.

What are the possible complications of Contact Dermatitis?

Bacterial skin infections may occur.

When should I contact a medical professional for Contact Dermatitis?

Contact your provider if:

  • You have symptoms of contact dermatitis.
  • The skin reaction is severe.
  • You do not get better after treatment.
  • Signs of infection such as tenderness, redness, warmth, or fever.
Poison oak rash on the arm
Latex allergy
Poison plants
Dermatitis, nickel on the sole
Dermatitis - contact
Dermatitis de contacto alérgica - vista de cerca
Dermatitis - contact on the cheek
Dermatitis - pustular contact
Poison ivy on the knee
Poison ivy on the leg
Photocontact dermatitis on the hand
What are the latest Contact Dermatitis Clinical Trials?
Real-life Study Evaluating the Performance of 2% Aqueous Eosin in Children With Diaper Rash

Summary: This study is being conducted to provide updated clinical data on safety and performance (demonstrated previously for CE marking under the Medical Devices Directive) Cooper Aqueous Eosin 2%. This is an observational study conducted under real-life conditions and as part of post-marketing surveillance activity for a device that has been on the market for a long time and a well-established technolog...

Match to trials
Find the right clinical trials for you in under a minute
Get started
Clinical Treatment of Alopecia Areata With Stem Cell Educator Therapy and Minoxidil

Summary: Alopecia areata (AA) is a common autoimmune disease that results in loss of body hair in varying degrees. The condition is estimated to affect more than 6.5 million people in the United States alone (naaf.org), with a worldwide prevalence of 0.1% to 0.2% and calculated lifetime risk of 2%. AA is the most common form of the disease, in which areas of complete hair loss arise within normal hair-bear...

What are the Latest Advances for Contact Dermatitis?
Chemical peel as an adjuvant treatment in pigmented contact dermatitis: a case series.
Tapinarof for the treatment of psoriasis.
Tired of the same old research?
Check Latest Advances
Dermal Safety of Tapinarof Cream 1%: Results From 4 Phase 1 Trials.
Who are the sources who wrote this article ?

Published Date: August 14, 2021
Published By: Elika Hoss, MD, Senior Associate Consultant, Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, AZ. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

What are the references for this article ?

Dinulos JGH. Contact dermatitis and patch testing. In: Dinulos JGH, ed. Habif's Clinical Dermatology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 4.

James WD, Elston DM, Treat JR, Rosenbach MA, Neuhaus IM. Contact dermatitis and drug eruptions. In: James WD, Elston DM, Treat JR, Rosenbach MA, Neuhaus IM, eds. Andrews' Diseases of the Skin: Clinical Dermatology. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 6.

Nixon RL, Mowad CM, Marks JG. Allergic contact dermatitis. In: Bolognia JL, Schaffer JV, Cerroni L, eds. Dermatology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 14.