Avoiding Skin Irritants

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is a relapsing skin condition, and 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 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.

Some general tips for avoiding irritants include:

  • 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 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

Emily Downward | June 2017
View References
  1. Tollefson MM, Bruckner AL. Atopic dermatitis: skin-directed management. Am Acad Pediatrics. 2014 Dec;134(6):e1735-1744. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-2812.
  2. Atopic dermatitis fast facts, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Accessed online on 4/4/17 at https://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/atopic_dermatitis/atopic_dermatitis_ff.asp.
  3. Man made fiber, Britannica. Accessed online on 4/4/17 at https://www.britannica.com/technology/man-made-fiber
  4. National Eczema Association. Accessed online on 4/4/17 at https://nationaleczema.org/.
  5. Tupker RA, Pinnagoda J, Coenraads PJ, Nater JP. Susceptibility to irritants: role of barrier function, skin dryness and history of atopic dermatitis. British J of Derm. 1990;123:199-205.
  6. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Accessed online on 4/4/17 at https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/skin-care-tips-atopic-dermatits.
  7. Eichenfield LF, Tom, WL, Berger TG, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of atopic dermatitis. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014;71:116-32.