What Is Contact Dermatitis? 

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A woman's hands with eczema dermatitis

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Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that causes inflammation: rashes, redness, and itching. It occurs most frequently on the hands, but can also occur on the face and feet due to irritants such as certain metals, chemicals, or allergens, which cause an inflammatory reaction on your skin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contact dermatitis can develop from chemicals and other substances you encounter daily. For example, soaps, cleaning chemicals, and gloves are common causes of contact dermatitis.  

Contact dermatitis is one of the most common skin conditions. It can occur acutely, meaning it is a one-time event, or it may become a chronic condition. It is not contagious; you cannot catch it from someone or pass it on to someone else.  

Types of Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is divided into several categories.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis 

Irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) occurs when you encounter certain substances in your environment which irritate your skin and cause dry, itchy rashes where it touched it. The rash generally stays in the area that was exposed to the irritant. Irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) constitutes about 80% of content dermatitis cases.  

You are more likely to develop ICD if you’re exposed to the substance for a long time or repeatedly, or there was a large or very concentrated amount of the substance. For example, washing your hands frequently with harsh soaps may lead you to develop ICD. 

Other factors that determine the likelihood of developing ICD include: 

  • Environmental factors: For example, very high or very low temperatures, humidity, etc.
  • Pre-existing conditions: For example, previous predisposition to allergic reactions.
  • Type of skin: For example, thick, thin, oily, dry, or very fair may be at risk for develop ICD.
  • Skin integrity: Previously damaged skin. 

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) occurs when you encounter a substance that causes an allergic reaction on the skin it touches. You may develop ACD the first time you encounter the substance or after multiple times. For example, chemicals found in the workplace or rubber gloves can cause allergic contact dermatitis.  

The rash will often begin a few hours after you come across the substance and is usually confined to the area that it touched. 

Common allergens that may cause ACD include:

  • Corticosteroids 
  • Plants, such as poison ivy 
  • Metals, such as nickel in jewelry 
  • Benzocaine used to treat itching
  • Fragrances, such as in perfumes or cosmetics 
  • Chemicals, such as formaldehyde, latex, or hair dyes 
  • Antibiotic ointments, such as neomycin and bacitracin 

Latex gloves are a widespread source of ACD in the healthcare profession. ACD may start as a localized reaction on the hands, but it can develop into a more widespread (systemic) contact dermatitis or even an anaphylactic reaction (a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction). 

Systemic Contact Dermatitis

Systemic contact dermatitis (SCD) occurs when an allergen creates a rash and itching that spreads beyond the area that came into contact with the allergen. 

You may inhale the allergen, such as paint fumes or perfume, or ingest it, such as food. The rash or itching can occur anywhere on your body, and other non-skin-related symptoms may appear as well. 

A history of ACD increases your chances of developing SCD if you inhale or ingest that substance or a similar one.  

Photo Contact Dermatitis

Photo contact dermatitis occurs when the sun or other UV rays react with a chemical on your skin and causes an inflammatory reaction. The rash and itching are only confined to areas exposed to the sun.  

For example, you may apply sunscreen liberally over your skin but only develop a rash on the sun-exposed areas of your body when you go outside. 

Protein Contact Dermatitis

Repeated contact with specific proteins can cause protein contact dermatitis (PCD). The PCD rash is often on the tips of the fingers. It appears as a white area where the substance touched the skin and then a red area around the white, called a "wheal and flare" response. This is common in the food industry with people who handle food frequently.

Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis

Although itching is more common in ACD, irritant and allergic contact dermatitis share some common symptoms.   

In the first stage of contact dermatitis, you may feel:

  • Tenderness 
  • Blisters or pustules 
  • Oozing 
  • Itching 
  • Redness 
  • Scaling 
  • Cracking skin 
  • Pain 
  • Burning 
  • Blistering 
  • Swelling in the skin 
  • Stinging 
  • Soreness 
  • Rash 

As the skin begins to heal, blisters or sores may begin to crust over, and you may see color changes. 

If the dermatitis is recurrent, scratching the area can cause thickened skin, color changes, and exaggerated lines on the skin. 

Irritant contact dermatitis symptoms begin within a few minutes to a few hours of contact with the irritant. 

Allergic contact dermatitis may take up to three days to appear and may not reach its peak for three or four days. It progresses more slowly than ICD but tends to recur faster when re-exposure occurs. 

With ACD, the severity of the reaction depends on:

  • The strength or concentration of the allergen 
  • The sensitivity of the person or area exposed 
  • How long the exposure lasted 

Systemic contact dermatitis symptoms may include all the ICD and ACD symptoms, but the reaction will not be confined to just the skin that came into contact with the irritant or allergen. You may have a wide-spread rash anywhere on your body, often your hands, feet, buttocks, and inner thighs.

Other symptoms of systemic contact dermatitis are:

Diagnosing Contact Dermatitis

Your healthcare provider (HCP) will determine if your contact dermatitis is ICD or ACD by asking you questions about: 

  • Your hobbies 
  • Your medications 
  • The timing of the symptoms 
  • Potential workplace hazards 

Patch testing is the gold standard to diagnose what is triggering contact dermatitis.

Your HCP will apply small patches of common allergens on your back. They will remove the patches in about two days and assess them for reactions after two or three days.  

If a local reaction occurs under one of the patches, your healthcare provider knows that allergen is one of your triggers.  


Your healthcare provider  may recommend some common treatments, such as:

  • Corticosteroid creams to reduce inflammation 
  • Antihistamines to reduce and manage the itching 
  • Immunosuppressive ointments, such as tacrolimus and pimecrolimus creams 

They may also recommend simple treatments, such as:

  • Washing your hands with soap and water as soon as possible after exposure to known allergens or one that commonly affects people, such as poison ivy or poison oak 
  • Avoiding tight-fitting clothes that may rub and irritate the area further 

Unfortunately, it is very common for contact dermatitis to recur.  


You may prevent contact dermatitis with some simple habits:

  • Avoid known allergens. 
  • If you work with an allergen, wear clothing that protects your skin from exposure, such as gloves or long sleeves. 
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes or other things that cause friction. 
  • Avoid perfumes, dyes, and harsh soaps. 
  • Apply lotions to keep your skin hydrated. 
  • Avoid wearing jewelry or pick jewelry without nickel if you have a known allergy to nickel or are susceptible to allergies. 
  • Read food labels and avoid known allergens. 

Living With Contact Dermatitis 

Contact dermatitis usually goes away without treatment. However, some treatments such as corticosteroids and antihistamines can make the condition more manageable. Talk to your healthcare provider about what treatments are available. 

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6 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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