Contact dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin. It is caused by an irritant or an allergen that comes in contact with the skin and makes it extra sensitive.Contact dermatitis is more common in women, with approximately 1 in 5 females experiencing it on their hands at some point during their lives. This may be because women are exposed to more of the irritants that can cause contact dermatitis. The condition can, however, develop at any age and can affect anybody.

Contact with an irritant or allergen can cause the skin to become red, itchy and scaly, sometimes accompanied by a burning and stinging sensation. As a result, the skin becomes blistered, dry and cracked. It can affect any part of the body but most commonly affects the hands. Individuals with allergic contact dermatitis typically develop the condition within a few days of exposure, in areas that were exposed directly to the allergen. Certain allergens (eg, the antibiotic neomycin), however, penetrate intact skin poorly; in such cases, the onset of dermatitis may be delayed for up to a week following exposure.

Common allergens include:

  • Adhesives, including those used for false eyelashes or toupées
  • Antibiotics such as neomycin rubbed on the surface of the skin
  • Balsam of Peru (used in many personal products and cosmetics, as well as in many foods and drinks)
  • Fabrics and clothing
  • Fragrances in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps, and moisturisers
  • Nail polish, hair dyes, and permanent wave solutions
  • Nickel or other metals (found in jewellery, watch straps, metal zips, bra hooks, buttons, pocketknives, lipstick holders, and powder compacts)
  • Poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and other plants
  • Rubber or latex gloves or shoes
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