What Are Common Irritants?

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Atopic dermatitis (AD) damages the skin’s natural barrier, which can make it more sensitive to substances in the environment. These are collectively called irritants because of their ability to irritate the skin. Irritants may cause additional redness, itchiness, or a burning sensation.

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 pajama sets or other sleepwear so that they are 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 smoke1-3

Atopic dermatitis versus contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is another form of eczema that occurs when the skin comes in contact with a substance that is irritating, such as detergents, soaps, cleaners, or other chemicals. The skin that is exposed to the irritant becomes red, itchy, and may cause blisters. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin develops an allergy to a substance that comes into contact with it. Atopic dermatitis can worsen when exposed to irritants or skin allergens, but the dry, itchy, and scaly patches can occur on the skin without exposure to these triggers as well. Both irritant and allergic contact dermatitis can occur in a person with AD, and avoidance of irritants and allergens is critical. In addition, proper diagnosis is important to receive the proper treatment.3

Dry skin and irritants

By damaging the skin’s barrier, AD causes the skin to lose more water than usual, which leads to dry skin. Dry skin can also be a trigger for relapses of AD, and people with AD are encouraged to regularly use moisturizers to protect and rehydrate the skin. 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.4

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.

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 doing dishes or wet work, cleaning with detergents, or using other chemicals like solvents
  • Choose non-soap cleansers or avoid soaps with sodium lauryl sulfate, which can irritate the skin
  • Avoid bubble bath
  • After bathing, gently pat dry with a towel and moisturize immediately to keep moisture in the skin5
view references
  1. 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.
  2. Man made fiber, Britannica. Accessed online on 4/4/17 at https://www.britannica.com/technology/man-made-fiber
  3. National Eczema Association. Accessed online on 4/4/17 at https://nationaleczema.org/.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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View Written By | Review Date
Emily Downward | June 2017
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