Irritant contact dermatitis

This is one of two forms of dermatitis which causes an itchy red rash, usually on the hands, as a result of touching or handling a substance which irritates the skin.

The other type is allergic dermatitis. But irritant contact dermatitis is more common than allergic contact dermatitis.

Irritant contact dermatitis is a very common skin condition which develops in people with jobs where they are handling certain substances, e.g. detergents, which cause an inflammatory skin rash.

There are two forms of this condition: acute and chronic. The acute version causes a quick reaction, often only minutes after the initial exposure.

But the chronic form develops after repeated exposure over a long period of time. This results in thick, scaly skin which loses its protective layer.

Causes of irritant contact dermatitis

This skin condition occurs as a result of direct contact with the following substances:

  • Petrol
  • Chemicals
  • Washing up liquid/powder
  • Bleach
  • Soaps
  • Soil
  • Dust
  • Construction materials, e.g. cement
  • Certain plants such as anemones and clematis

Any substance which is handled for long periods of time and on a regular basis is likely to cause irritant contact dermatitis. But a skin rash can also occur from single contact with an extra strong substance.

If you work in an environment where you are exposed to and handle the substances listed above then you are at greater risk of developing this condition.

Symptoms of irritant contact dermatitis

This takes the form of an itchy red rash which mainly develops on the hands. This rash starts with a tingling or burning sensation on your skin 24 to 48 hours after initial contact with a substance.

The problem with this condition is that once an area of skin has become infected it results in damage to that area. But this makes that area vulnerable to repeated infections so even the lightest contact will cause a rash.

Diagnosing irritant contact dermatitis

All forms of dermatitis are diagnosed by visual observation. Your GP will examine your rash and ask questions about your symptoms. These will include the frequency of the symptoms and the types of substances you are in contact with.

If your GP is unsure as to the exact cause of your condition then he/she will refer you to a dermatologist. He/she will also do this if your condition is not responding to treatment.

The dermatologist will carry out patch testing to determine the cause of your condition. This involves tiny amounts of various substances which are applied to your skin and left for a set period of time. These are then removed and your skin checked to see if there has been a reaction.

Treatment for irritant contact dermatitis

This is a combination of self-help and prescribed medication.

The self-help measures are straightforward and can be done at home. They include washing your hands with soap and water each time you are in contact with an irritant and applying an acidic substance, e.g. lemon juice which will counteract the effects.

A cool, soothing lotion such as a calamine will deal with any itching. Protect your skin with a barrier cream such as Vaseline which will also keep your skin soft and lubricated. It is important to do this as irritant contact dermatitis causes your skin to become dry and cracked which only worsens the symptoms. So use a barrier cream or emollient as a moisturiser.

And don’t scratch your rash!

Your GP will prescribe corticosteroids and antihistamines. Antibiotics are another option.

If these fail to work then you will referred to a dermatologist: he or she will recommend alternative forms of treatment such as phototherapy and immunosuppressant therapy.

Find out more about these options in our dermatology treatments section.

Preventing irritant contact dermatitis

Ideally, you should avoid contact with substances which irritate your skin but we realise this is not realistic. So, minimise your contact with them and wash your hands each time. Use barrier creams and wear protective gloves if necessary.

If your condition has occurred as a result of handling substances at work then discuss this with your employer. He or she may suggest a change of duties or provide you with protective clothing.