Irritant Contact Dermatitis: Signs, Prevention

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Irritant contact dermatitis can cause swelling, redness, thickened or darker pigmented skin, and sometimes broken skin. It’s most common on the hands, typically from occupational exposure, but can occur anywhere on the body. Anyone who comes into contact with corrosive chemicals or who has continual contact with irritating substances or physical abrasives can get irritant dermatitis. This includes healthcare workers, cooks, hairdressers, construction workers, metal workers, mechanics, and housekeeping staff.

Read on to learn more about irritant contact dermatitis, including its symptoms, causes, and treatment and prevention tips.

Irritant contact dermatitis explained

a florist is in a field
Cara Brostrom/Stocksy United

Contact dermatitis is divided into irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. The quantity, concentration, duration of exposure, and frequency all determine the severity of contact dermatitis.

Irritant contact dermatitis is the inflammatory reaction of the skin from direct exposure to a chemical.

According to 2018 research, approximately 80% of contact dermatitis due to occupational exposure is from irritant contact dermatitis. Of all occupational skin disorders, 95% are contact dermatitis.

Irritant and allergic contact dermatitis have similar symptoms, but their causes are different. 

Who can get irritant contact dermatitis?

Any age group can develop irritant contact dermatitis. However, older adults have a higher risk.

As people age, their skin becomes thinner and drier. This makes the skin less tolerable to solvents and soaps.

Women may be more likely to develop irritant contact dermatitis, according to a 2022 research review. However, more research needs to establish whether women’s skin is more sensitive or whether they are around irritants more often than others.

There also seems to be a genetic factor that can make some people’s skin more likely to react to irritant exposure. 

Symptoms of irritant contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis causes a skin reaction.

Irritant contact dermatitis is more common on the hands because of chemical exposure.

The time for the rash to develop depends on the chemical the skin is coming into contact with, along with duration and concentration.

Certain chemicals, such as benzalkonium chloride, can cause an acute delayed onset reaction (8–24 hours after coming into contact with the chemical). Exposure to a weaker irritant can take weeks to develop an irritant dermatitis.

Irritant contact dermatitis can make skin appear discolored.

Dark skin may become purple, while light skin may become red. You may notice bumps or dryness. Acute exposure can cause burns. Prolonged exposure can cause drier, cracked skin.

Irritant contact dermatitis can cause a burning sensation. Allergic contact dermatitis can cause intense itching. 

When to contact a doctor for irritant contact dermatitis

Contact a doctor for irritant contact dermatitis if your rash is becoming infected or not improving. If you received a chemical burn from an irritant, a doctor can help you manage the pain. 

Read our appointment guide for contact dermatitis.

Causes of irritant contact dermatitis

When an irritant comes into contact with your skin, it may cause irritant contact dermatitis. Irritants are any substance that causes damage or swelling to your skin. 

Some common irritants include:

  • soaps and detergents
  • cement
  • car or machine oil
  • disinfectants and antibacterial products
  • chlorinated water

You may be exposed multiple times before you develop a rash to a weaker irritant. 

Jobs with irritant exposure 

Some jobs have a higher risk of irritant contact dermatitis due to the tendency to work with chemicals.

These occupations include:

  • healthcare workers
  • florists
  • hairdressers
  • housekeeping staff
  • mechanics and machinists

Irritant contact dermatitis vs. allergic contact dermatitis

The two types of contact dermatitis are irritant and allergic contact dermatitis. According to a 2022 research review, irritant contact dermatitis is more common than allergic contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is your body’s response to chemical damage caused by an irritant. Allergic contact dermatitis is when the skin comes into contact with an external allergen. This contact causes an immune response that results in inflamed, itchy skin. Blistering may also occur.

The rash from irritant contact dermatitis often appears faster than the rash from allergic contact dermatitis.

Diagnosing irritant contact dermatitis

Your doctor can diagnose irritant contact dermatitis during an office visit. There is no diagnostic test. Instead, your doctor will ask questions about your rash. They may ask whether you have had any contact with chemicals. Your doctor will rule out any other skin conditions by asking about your overall health and assessing the rash. 

Your doctor will also want to know your occupation, whether you come into contact with any metals or certain chemicals, whether you wear gloves, and more.

Testing for irritants

You may be exposed to irritants for several days before you notice a skin reaction. A repeated open application test determines any possible irritants.

During this test, a healthcare professional applies a substance to your skin twice a day for 7 days. If you develop a reaction, that indicates the substance is an irritant to you. 

Testing for allergens

Your doctor will differentiate between irritant and allergic contact dermatitis by performing a patch test. A patch test will check to see whether you have any allergies.

During this assessment, your doctor will apply small amounts of different substances to your skin and check the area in 2 days. 

If you have a reaction, that indicates you have an allergy to that substance. 

Treatment for irritant contact dermatitis

You can treat an irritant contact dermatitis rash by avoiding future contact with whatever caused the rash, if you know the exact cause.

Your doctor may recommend emollients, other creams, and steroids to help manage your dermatitis. They might also recommend wearing certain gloves to prevent contact of the skin with the irritant.

Learn more about what to do for contact dermatitis.

Preventing irritant contact dermatitis

You can prevent irritant contact dermatitis by avoiding what is causing the rash. 

Avoiding irritants 

You can lower your risk of irritant contact dermatitis by reducing or eliminating your exposure to the irritant. Wearing personal protective equipment can help prevent exposure. You can wear gloves, eye protection, and gowns.

Another way to minimize exposure is to distribute job duties, such as having others wash the dishes.

Emollients 

Emollients act as a barrier cream to prevent the irritant from coming into contact with your skin. Some emollients may cause a rash, so monitor your skin closely and stop treatment if you develop one. 

Topical corticosteroids and side effects

Current research indicates that topical steroids may be useful during severe dermatitis. However, they may weaken your skin and cause an increase in sensitivity to irritants. 

Steroid pills

For serious cases of irritant contact dermatitis, your doctor may prescribe steroid pills for a brief time. This medication will reduce any redness or swelling in the area.

Second-line treatments include PUVA, which is a light-based therapy, and immunosuppressants, such as cyclosporine or azathioprine.

Home remedies

Home moisturizers can help protect your skin from irritants by hydrating dry skin. Moisturizing your skin and repairing any cracked areas can reduce the likelihood that an irritant will penetrate deep into your skin.

You can moisturize before your work shift, after your shift, and after handwashing for optimal protection. 

Applying a cold compress can also help reduce any swelling and pain. Make sure you wrap the ice in a towel and apply it to the area for no longer than 15-minute intervals. 

Summary

Irritant contact dermatitis causes a rash that may appear on your hands or face. Certain chemicals and metals can cause irritant contact dermatitis.

Healthcare workers, florists, and hairdressers can develop the rash due to their frequent contact with chemicals. 

Your doctor may treat your rash with medications and creams. You can use a cold compress to help reduce any itchiness. If your rash seems infected or is not going away, make sure to contact your healthcare team.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.