Beware: Common Skin Irritants Hiding In Plain Sight

Written by Neil Farnsworth, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on December 9, 2022 No Comments

skin rash dermatitis

Dermatitis is a catch-all name which describes many forms of skin irritation. Contact dermatitis arises when skin comes in contact with an irritant, causing symptoms such as redness, inflammation, itching or flakiness. In more serious cases, symptoms may include a stinging or burning sensation, or actual burns, blisters or sores.

It’s not always easy to deduce the source of your dermatitis or flare-ups of psoriasis or eczema. This is especially true if the culprit is something in your home that you come into contact with daily.

There are numerous common household products may be the source of your allergies, dermatitis or inflammatory skin issues. It’s even possible to develop new allergies to something you’ve been exposed to for many years. The following are common skin irritants which are likely in your home right now.

Household Cleaners

There are several different types of household cleaners, most of which can negatively affect the skin, especially if used daily or long-term.

All-purpose cleaners may include ammonia, sodium hypochlorite, trisodium phosphate or other hazardous chemicals. Prolonged exposure can dry and damage the surface of the skin.

Automatic dishwasher detergents are concentrated and more harmful than dish soap. Contact with them may cause skin to itch or burn.

Drain cleaners include hydrochloric acid, lye and potassium hydroxide, each of which is extremely caustic. These corrosive substances can cause chemical burns if they come into contact with skin.

Window and glass cleaners often include ammonia or isopropanol, two ingredients which can irritate skin.


Wearing latex gloves is often recommended to prevent reactions to cleaning supplies. But latex itself can cause skin irritation in some people. This natural rubber may also be found in bra straps and the elastic bands in your clothing.

Clothing Detergent & Fabric Sheets

Laundry detergent and fabric softener sheets can leave irritating ingredients in your clothing even after your wash is done. Skin irritants may include surfactants, water softeners, fragrances or chlorine bleach. These can lead to allergic reactions, dry or itchy skin, and rashes or hives.


Apart from clothing detergent, your clothes themselves could be irritating your skin. Abrasive fabrics such as wool, scratching from seams or clothing tags, or chafing from too-tight clothes or straps can lead to skin inflammation or itching.

Allergic reactions to clothing dyes and chemical additives in synthetic fabrics are also possible.

“Wrinkle-free” clothing contains formaldehyde-releasing elements that can potentially irritate skin, especially if worn straight out of the bag without an initial washing.


Fragrances are found in cologne, perfume and body spray, but also in soaps and many skincare products. Some people have allergic reactions or sensitivities to certain fragrances, which can lead to rashes or hives.


Fragrance aside, dyes in soaps may also cause allergic reactions in some people. Excessive use of soap, commonly for hand-washing, can strip skin of its natural oils and lead to drying, flaking and cracking.

Bubble bath, body wash, and soaps promoted as “natural” are all common culprits for irritation, and you may want to consider a trial vacation from any of them for generalized dryness or itching.

Skincare Products

Skincare products can contain irritating fragrances or dyes, but may also contain harsh ingredients that aren’t tolerated by all skin types. If you have sensitive skin, consider avoiding products with alpha hydroxy acids, ascorbic acid or paraben preservatives.

When looking for irritants in your skincare products, consider cleansers, creams and lotions, face masks, deodorants and make-up.  Propylene Glycol is a common ingredient in many skincare products, especially antiperspirants & deodorants, and is capable of cause with an irritant or allergic contact reaction.


Chemical sunscreens sometimes include PABA-based chemicals, which cause rashes and other allergic reactions. To avoid this irritant, seek out PABA-free formulas, or switch to a mineral sunscreen.

Bug Spray 

The active ingredient in most bug sprays, both for personal use and as insecticide sprayed inside the home, is N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET). DEET has been associated with swelling, rashes and itching in some people.   Picaridin –containing insect repellants are the most effective alternative according to multiple studies.


Nickel is a metal commonly found in costume jewelry, zippers and other clothing fasteners. It could also be in the frames of your eyeglasses. This trace element is also found in daily vitamins and skin-lightening creams. Nickel allergies are a common cause of contact dermatitis, and should be suspected for rashes below the bellybutton or around the earlobes.


Hot weather can exacerbate skin issues by causing excessive sweating or increasing the likelihood of clothing chafing against the skin. During the cold winter months, artificial heat can irritate skin by causing extreme dryness which leads to itchiness, cracking or flaking.

Food Allergens

Most people are aware of their food allergies and avoid eating problematic foods. But foods can also trigger allergies or irritate skin just by being handled. This is especially true for acidic foods, such as spicy peppers or citrus.


Several types of common houseplants are known to cause allergic reactions, including ficus plants, poinsettias, ferns, wax plants, African violets and orchids. These plants and more may cause contact dermatitis or trigger flare-ups of eczema and other skin conditions.

Neil Farnsworth, MD

Dr. Neil Farnsworth is a board-certified dermatologist with longstanding ties to the Houston area. Dr. Farnsworth believes in a comprehensive approach to dermatology, with a special emphasis on regular maintenance of the skin’s health through sun-protection, use of the proper personal care products, and vigilance against potential assaults such as infections, skin cancers, and autoimmune disease. Dr. Farnsworth sees patients at our River Oaks location.

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