Avoiding Skin Irritants

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | June 2017 | Last updated: August 2020

Atopic dermatitis (AD), commonly known as eczema, is a relapsing skin condition. An important part of treating and maintaining healthy skin is good skin care.

One component of skin care for people with AD is avoiding skin irritants. Irritants are substances that irritate the skin. While anyone can experience irritation with some substances, people with AD are more sensitive to irritants due to the damage to the skin barrier.

Some people with AD have a decrease or lack of the protein filaggrin in their skin. Filaggrin plays a key role in the structure and formation of the corneal layer, the outermost layer of skin. Not enough filaggrin in the corneal layer can lead to a reduced ability to maintain the skin’s natural amount of water. Excess water loss can lead to dry skin, which then causes itchiness. The lack of filaggrin may also allow for the entry of allergens or irritants to enter the skin.1

Common eczema irritants

Irritants can be different for each individual with AD. However, some common irritants include:

  • Wool clothing
  • Man-made or synthetic fibers, such as rayon, acrylic, nylon, polyester, spandex, or modacrylic (often used in children’s sleepwear to be flame-resistant)
  • Soaps or bubble bath, particularly those that change the skin’s natural pH
  • Some laundry detergents
  • Cleaning solutions, including dish soap, disinfectants, or surface cleaners
  • Cosmetics
  • Perfumes
  • Chemicals like chlorine, mineral oil, or solvents
  • Dust or sand
  • Cigarette smoke2-4

Dry skin and irritants

People with AD have dry skin, due to the damage to the skin barrier and the increased water loss. Dry skin also makes people with AD more susceptible to irritants, like soaps, chemicals, and some clothing fibers. Treating and preventing dry skin, through the regular use of moisturizers as well as other medications used to treat AD, can help people with AD minimize the effect of irritants.5

Identifying and avoiding irritants

It may take some experimentation, such as switching brands of soaps or laundry detergent, to identify an individual’s personal sensitivity to irritants that trigger their AD.

Tips for avoiding irritants:

  • Wear clothes with natural fibers, like cotton or silk
  • Avoid perfumes and cosmetics with alcohol
  • Wear rubber gloves with a cotton lining when cleaning with detergents or using other chemicals like solvents
  • Choose non-soap cleansers that are fragrance-free and non-hypoallergenic, or avoid soaps with sodium lauryl sulfate, which can irritate the skin
  • Avoid bubble bath
  • After bathing, moisturize immediately to keep moisture in the skin6

After exposure to eczema irritants

When irritants can’t be avoided, follow-up skin care can help reduce the irritation. Bathing with water can remove irritants, as well as any allergens or scale from AD. As always, after bathing, moisturizers should be applied to damp skin to retain the hydration and help repair the skin barrier.7

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