Skin Rashes 101: Contact Dermatitis Causes & Treatments

Written by Jennifer Gordon, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on November 17, 2015 One Comment

skin rashes

The common skin rash (known as dermatitis in the medical world) is a red, itchy area of skin that can be caused from a variety of different triggers. While not usually medically dangerous, it is often uncomfortable and unsightly. Contact dermatitis is a type of skin rash that is caused by something that contacts the skin and forms a rash.

Determining the exact cause of a skin rash can be tricky. Once contact dermatitis is diagnosed. One important determinant is whether it is a true allergic reaction to something or an irritation of the skin.

Contact dermatitis can be minimized or completely avoided if you can find the source of the issue. Today, there are a variety of effective treatments to quickly resolve rashes, as well as testing techniques to find the etiology of what caused the contact dermatitis and how to safely avoid it in the future.

Potential Contact Dermatitis Causes

While there are a myriad of substances which can trigger skin rashes, all sources can be grouped into two specific segments: irritant dermatitis or allergic dermatitis.

Irritant dermatitis, the most common type, can be caused by:

  • Soaps and laundry products
  • Hair products and dyes
  • Cleaning chemicals and solvents
  • Insect repellants or pesticides
  • Gardening or lawn care products

Allergic dermatitis, while less frequent, can be caused by:

  • Fragrances (including those found in cosmetics and soaps)
  • Fabrics and clothing materials
  • Adhesives
  • Topical antibiotics like neomycin
  • Rubber or latex
  • Nickel or other metals
  • Exposure to poison ivy, poison sumac, or poison oak

Determining if your dermatitis is allergenic or irritant can be difficult as the symptoms of each can be nearly identical. However, there are a couple of indicators which may help pinpoint the source. Typically both types of contact dermatitis occur at the site of where the culprit touched the skin, however in irritant contact dermatitis, it can spread outside of that area. Also irritant rashes typically show up immediately while an allergic rash can take a day or two before developing.

Contact Dermatitis Treatments

In many cases, treating contact dermatitis is as simple as determining and avoiding the source of the reaction. The rash should resolve on its own as long as the skin does not come back into contact with the irritant or allergen. It’s important to note that some rashes can take two to four weeks to completely resolve.

During the healing process there are some home treatments which can sooth the skin and reduce irritation/inflammation. You should wash the affected skin with warm water to remove any traces of remaining irritant. You should also wash any clothing, bedding or other items that may have also come into contact with the potential culprit. Next you can use anti itch creams like corticosteroid cream or calamine lotion to help soothe the rash.

If you notice that your rash is not improving after a few days you may need to see a dermatologist, who can prescribe heavy-strength ointments, creams, or even pills to treat more severe cases of contact dermatitis. If your rash because painful or uncomfortable to the point where it interferes with your everyday life you should see a professional immediately as failure to treat a serious rash can lead to skin infections and scarring. Patch testing can also be performed in the case of allergic contact dermatitis to help determine the source of the allergen.


Jennifer Gordon, MD

Dr. Gordon is Board Certified by the American Board of Dermatology and is a member of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS), the American Academy of Dermatology, the Dermatology Foundation, the Texas Medical Association and the Travis County Medical Society. Currently, Dr. Gordon oversees our South Austin location.

One Response to “Skin Rashes 101: Contact Dermatitis Causes & Treatments”

  1. Avatar Taylor says:

    Great tips but its still hard to tell if I have a recurring rash or eczema. Going to setup an appointment

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