Are You Allergic to Your Clothes?

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wool sweater
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From time to time, everyone puts on an item of clothing that sets them scratching—maybe a hand-knitted scarf or a pair of wool pants. Sometimes that little itch can indicate something bigger. It could be contact dermatitis, which happens when your skin touches something that causes irritation and inflammation. Another name for dermatitis is eczema.

The Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis

There are two kinds of contact dermatitis—allergic and irritant—but it can be difficult to tell them apart. That’s because the signs and symptoms are almost identical:

  • Dry, scaly rashes
  • Redness and swelling
  • Skin that’s warm to the touch

Although the signs and symptoms of the two forms of contact dermatitis are similar, they are usually caused by different things. 

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

An allergic response happens when your body’s immune system kicks in to fight off something it perceives as harmful. For some, materials like wool, rubber or latex can trigger such a response. These materials are commonly found in some articles of clothing, including:

  • Bras
  • Gloves
  • Pants
  • Shirts
  • Shoes
  • Waistbands

Another common allergen is nickel, which can be found in jewelry and a variety of fashion accessories. Earrings, for example, often contain nickel. Belt buckles, buttons, zippers, and snaps are other nickel-laden items. A nickel allergy is often made worse by sweating, making it a big problem for some people in warmer summer months. 

11 Ways to Cope With Sensitive Skin

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Some materials and chemicals can cause skin irritation without necessarily causing an allergic reaction. That’s why irritant contact dermatitis is much more common than allergic contact dermatitis. While it can also be caused by materials  like wool or latex, it’s more likely to be caused by:

  • Clothing dyes
  • Fabric softener
  • Laundry detergent
  • Soap

Other strong chemicals and acids can cause irritant contact dermatitis, but with enough exposure, almost anything can become an irritant—even water.

Which Itch Is Which?

The only way to know for sure whether you have allergic or irritant contact dermatitis is to talk with a dermatologist. Be sure to give your dermatologist as much information as you can to help narrow down the cause of your skin irritation, including information about your:

  • Clothing, and what detergents you use
  • Cosmetics
  • Health history
  • Hobbies
  • Job
  • Pets
  • Skin care products
  • Skin lighteners

To figure out exactly what material or chemical is causing the problem, you may need a patch test. Your dermatologist will apply small amounts of potential irritants to your skin. In a few days, you can see which ones have caused a reaction. 

Treating the Problem

Much like the signs and symptoms, treatment for both allergic and irritant contact dermatitis is roughly the same. And it’s pretty straightforward: Once you’ve figured out what’s causing your rash, you can do your best to avoid it. This can take a bit of trial and error.

If the nickel in your zipper is to blame, swap it out for a nylon one. If the latex in your bra is causing redness and irritation, look for an undergarment made from spandex or another non-rubber material.  

Once you stop wearing whatever has been causing the irritation, your skin should clear in about 1 to 3 weeks. You can also talk with your dermatologist about antihistamines, moisturizers, or corticosteroid creams that can help relieve your symptoms.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 13
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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.
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