What Is Contact Dermatitis and How Can you Prevent It?

Everyone knows that washing your hands is the most effective way to remove germs and prevent the spread of viruses. So the more you wash your hands, the better, right? Nope, that’s not always the case—I know, because it happened to me. And it sucked.

It started with a little bit of peeling skin on the knuckle of my ring finger. I didn’t think much of it; my skin usually gets dry in the winter. I religiously applied moisturizer after washing my hands, but it didn’t seem to help. The next day, the dry spot turned into a deep, bleeding crack in my knuckle, which spread to a few other fingers. Then, in the middle of the night, itchy, fluid-filled blisters popped up between my fingers. The more moisturizer I applied, the worse it got. Within a few days, 80 percent of my body was covered in intensely itchy, swollen hives.

I went to my dermatologist, fearing the worst. Was it bedbugs? Scabies? Measles? Luckily, he ruled those out immediately and said it looked like a severe allergic reaction. After examining my rash, he asked, “How often do you wash your hands?” I said that if I had to guess, I’d estimate at least 30 times a day—I have an infant, and between the dozens of diaper changes, feedings and pump sessions, I was pretty much always lathering up. I left the office with a prescription for a strong topical steroid cream and a diagnosis of irritant contact dermatitis. The cause? Excessive hand washing, which had created tiny cracks in my skin. I’d also been using a popular hand cream that contains lanolin, which penetrated deeply into my beat-up hands and caused a reaction.

When I got home, I did some research on irritant contact dermatitis.

So What is Contact Dermatitis?

“People often develop irritant contact dermatitis at work,” says the American Academy of Dermatology. “Beauticians, nurses, bartenders and others who spend lots of time with wet hands get this. It often starts with dry, cracked hands. In time, the skin on their hands may begin to sting and burn. The skin becomes very tender. Sometimes, the skin itches and bleeds.” Check, check, check. And while a steroid cream, like the one I used, can clear up the issue quickly, there are a few ways to prevent irritant contact dermatitis in the first place or keep it from coming back.

How to Prevent Contact Dermatitis

1. Wash your hands less often.

Yes, keeping your hands clean is super important. But according to a study conducted by the World Health Organization, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be less irritating to the skin than soap and water, and they should not cause irritant contact dermatitis. If you alternate between using hand sanitizer and washing with soap and water, you could cut your hand washing (and skin irritation) in half. When you do wash your hands, use lukewarm—not hot—water.

2. Use a gentle soap.

My dermatologist recommended Aveeno moisturizing bar soap, but any unscented moisturizing bar soap for sensitive skin should do the trick. When your skin is raw and irritated, even washing once or twice with a harsh detergent (like the industrial soap at the gym) could cause a reaction.

3. Read the labels.

If you aren’t sure what’s causing your irritant contact dermatitis, make an appointment with a dermatologist. They will help you narrow down the ingredient that’s causing your reaction—it’s important to eliminate it from your routine, especially if it’s in a soap or moisturizer you use often. Once you pinpoint it, read labels to make sure the ingredient isn’t hiding in other products, like your shampoo or body wash.

4. Wear gloves.

I bought a few pairs of washable cotton gloves and wear them whenever I can. This way, if the gloves get dirty, I can remove them, toss them into the laundry and put on another pair. At night, I slather my hands with Vaseline (although any non-irritating moisturizer will do) and put gloves on to keep the moisture locked in. If your hands are extra dry, soak your hands in cool water, apply moisturizer, put on wet gloves, then add another dry pair of gloves on top—it’s an old eczema trick. I also wear silicone gloves when I do dishes or housework.

5. Don’t scratch.

I know firsthand that irritant contact dermatitis can be extremely itchy (for context, poison ivy is another form of contact dermatitis). But when you scratch, you’ll create more tiny abrasions in your skin, making matters worse. Plus, the Cleveland Clinic tells us that anti-itch creams and topical medications like Neosporin can further irritate the rash. Your best bet? Use a prescription steroid cream, then a gentle moisturizer when the cuts have healed.

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Lindsay Champion

Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.
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