Contact dermatitis: Who gets and causes

Many people develop contact dermatitis on the job: Handling tulip bulbs for many hours caused this worker’s allergic contact dermatitis.

Beauticians and nurses often get contact dermatitis: Having wet hands frequently throughout the day can irritate the skin, causing irritant contact dermatitis.

Tradespeople often get contact dermatitis: Sawdust from exotic woods caused this cabinetmaker’s rash.

People who wear latex gloves get contact dermatitis: Many people who wear latex gloves at work develop an allergy to latex, as did this dentist.

Athletes get contact dermatitis: Athletic gear is a common cause of contact dermatitis. A wet suit caused the rash on this man’s leg.

People who play a musical instrument get contact dermatitis: Playing an instrument can cause a rash where your skin touches the instrument.

Jewelry can cause contact dermatitis: Nickel is common in jewelry. Many people are allergic to nickel and develop a rash when jewelry that contains nickel touches their skin.

Rash caused by wire in a hearing aid: Many people who wear eyeglasses develop a similar rash. Eyeglass frames can contain nickel.

Poison ivy is a common cause of contact dermatitis: Many people develop an allergy to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

Fiberglass can cause contact dermatitis: Working with fiberglass tends to irritate the skin, causing irritant contact dermatitis.

 

Who gets contact dermatitis?

Anyone can develop contact dermatitis. People working in certain professions have a higher risk. In fact, this is so common that your doctor may tell you that you have occupational dermatitis.

People who are more likely to get occupational dermatitis include:

  • Nurses (and other health care workers)
  • Beauticians
  • Bartenders 
  • Chefs (and others who work with food)
  • Florists (and others who work with plants)
  • Construction workers
  • Janitors
  • Mechanics
  • Plumbers

Nurses and beauticians often develop dry, cracked skin on their palms and fingers. Wearing latex gloves frequently throughout the day causes some people to develop an allergy to latex. A common sign of this allergy is itchy, inflamed hands. 

You also have a greater risk of developing contact dermatitis if you have (or had) one of these medical conditions:

  • Asthma
  • Hay fever
  • Atopic dermatitis (often called eczema)

Your environment also plays a role. Extreme heat or cold, high humidity, and very dry air make the skin more vulnerable.

What causes contact dermatitis?

A person develops contact dermatitis when something that touches the skin does one of the following:

  • Irritates the skin 
  • Causes an allergic reaction

When the skin is irritated, a person develops irritant contact dermatitis. Anyone can develop this type of contact dermatitis. It happens when something damages the outer layers of skin.

Almost any chemical, including water, can damage the skin with enough contact. Toxic substances like fiberglass and turpentine quickly damage the skin. Many people develop irritant contact dermatitis when they work with hair dyes, solvents, oils, paints, varnishes, foods, or metalworking fluids.

An allergic reaction causes allergic contact dermatitis. People develop allergic reactions to many substances. Some of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis are:

  • Poison ivy
  • Nickel (used in cell phones, jewelry, eyeglass frames, zippers, belt buckles)
  • Nail cosmetics: Nail polish, adhesives
  • Fragrances
  • Latex
  • Cement

Many people touch a substance for years before an allergy develops.

Sometimes a trigger is needed for an allergic reaction to occur. Allergic contact dermatitis may only occur when the skin:

  • Sweats
  • Has ultraviolet rays (sun, tanning bed) hit it

More than 3,600 substances can cause allergic contact dermatitis. These substances include preservatives in cosmetics, antibiotics applied to the skin, animal dander, dyes in clothing and shoes, and rubber.

With thousands of causes, successfully treating this skin condition can take a bit of detective work. Dermatologists frequently treat this condition. In fact, this is one of the most common reasons to see a dermatologist.

To learn more about treatment, read Contact dermatitis: Diagnosis, treatment, and outcome

Learn more:


Images 1,3,4,5,7,8,9, and 10 used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides

References:

American Academy of Dermatology 

  • “Contact dermatitis.” Medical Student Core Curriculum. Last update July 2011.
  • “Musicians at risk for common skin condition.” News release issued March 16, 2012. 

Cohen DE et al. “Contact and Occupational Dermatology.” Presented as a course at: The 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology. February 2005; New Orleans.

Kadyk DL, McCarter K. “Quality of life in patients with allergic contact dermatitis.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2003;49:1037-48.

The Lewin Group (prepared for the Society for Investigative Dermatology and the American Academy of Dermatology Association). “The Burden of Skin Diseases.” 2005. p. 37-40.

Kockentiet B, Adams BB. “Contact dermatitis in athletes.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007;56:1048-55.

Saary J, Qureshi R. “A systematic review of contact dermatitis treatment and prevention.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;53:845-55.

Zug KA et al. “Contact and Occupational Dermatitis.” Presented as a symposium at: The 64th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology. March 2006; San Francisco.