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13 Skin Allergy Myths Everyone Needs to Stop Believing

Skin allergies aren't like regular allergies: They turn up unexpectedly and are caused by a lot of weird things. Here's what skin experts want you to know

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Understanding your itchy skin

All allergies aren’t the same. When your skin gets red and itchy from something that triggers an immune response, that’s a skin allergy. From poison ivy to makeup, jewelry to latex gloves, all sorts of common substances can cause your body to react in an unpleasant way, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Some reactions happen quickly and others take time to appear. Here are some common myths about this common problem.

Woman in a bathrobe is washing hands.Summer Photographer/Shutterstock

Only a few things cause skin allergies

The number of potential skin allergens is endless. People react to soaps, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, shampoos, metals (nickel, cobalt, chromium, and zinc), adhesives, nail polish, topical medications, and plants, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI).

red swollen skin from mosquito bitesfrank60/Shutterstock

Most rashes are a sign of skin allergies

If you get red, bumpy, itchy, or swollen skin after a few days where you were wearing a piece of jewelry, that’s most likely a skin allergy to the nickel in the jewelry. This is allergic contact dermatitis. If, however, the reaction happens quickly, you may have irritant dermatitis—which isn’t an allergic reaction. “If someone has a skin reaction to something in a matter of hours it is not likely an allergic contact dermatitis, rather an irritant dermatitis,” says Adam Friedman, MD, associate professor of dermatology and director of the Supportive Oncodermatology Clinic at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC. The only exception is hives (officially, contact urticaria), which may occur immediately after contact at the site of contact. When in doubt, check in with your dermatologist or allergist for a definitive explanation. Make sure you know these medical conditions that may be mistaken for allergies.

Close up image of hands with cream tube triocean/Shutterstock

Medical ointments are non-allergenic

Not true: The active ingredients in ointments can cause skin allergy, says dermatologist Matthew Zirwas, MD, in Bexley, Ohio. “If you have a rash or irritation and use these products, you may feel better initially and then the itchiness or irritation will get worse and worse,” he says. Your best bet? See a specialist to make sure you are not doing more harm than good.

woman applying sunscreen on legMarko Marcello/Shutterstock

Sunscreen allergies are always caused by the ingredients

Although some people are allergic to sunscreen ingredients, others react to the combination of UV rays hitting the sunscreen. “If you are not in the sun, there’s no problem, but if you are out in the sun, you will have a problem,” says Dr. Zirwas. Avoid this by choosing and using sunscreens that have titanium oxide and/or zinc oxide and nothing else, he suggests.

Bottles of essential oil with lavender on tableAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Natural, essential oils are safe for your skin

Essential oils are popular, but some—including frankincense, lavender, tea tree, and peppermint—can trigger skin allergies, Dr. Zirwas says. “Once we figure out it’s the essential oil and they stop using it, their rash gets better.” Try to do a small patch test of any home made masks or oils in a small spot on the inner wrist.

Doctor doing allergy skin test to her patient in medical officewavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Identifying the culprit is easy

Allergists can quickly narrow down the common foods that are responsible for almost all food allergies, but skin allergies are much tougher to ID, Dr. Zirwas says. The list of potential offenders is nearly infinite, and skin allergy reactions are delayed as opposed to immediate. “If you are allergic to shrimp or peanuts or other allergens such as cats, dogs, or pollen, you tend to have an immediate reaction, but reactions to skin allergens don’t start for 48 hours,” he says. “If you are exposed on a Tuesday, for example, the rash may not occur until Thursday or Friday and can last two to three weeks.” This involves a lot more backtracking to identify the possible culprits. Don’t miss these other weird things you can be allergic to.

Alergy patch test on the back of a young womanNeeila/Shutterstock

Testing for skin allergies is just like testing for regular allergies

For most skin allergies, doctors rely on patch testing so there is no puncturing of the skin. “We place a drop of a suspected allergen on a disc, tape the disc to the person’s back for 48 hours, and then we wait four days to see if there is a reaction,” Dr. Zirwas explains. Most reactions occur in two days, but some take longer. “We can use anywhere from 40 to 100 of these discs at a time.”

woman's feet in bubble bathTORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock

Often, switching your shampoos or body wash will help

The preservatives and fragrances in shampoos and body wash are common skin allergy triggers, Dr. Zirwas says. The real issue is that most of the products on the market contain the same ingredients. Common culprits are methylisothiazolinone (a preservative), cocamidopropyl betaine, and decyl glucoside (lathering agents), though those are just a few of the potential troublemakers. “Switching doesn’t work, and it’s much more difficult to find fragrance-free shampoos and body washes than to find fragrance-free cleansers, laundry detergents, and creams,” he says. Find out how to recognize the most common skin irritations.

Set for personal care with deodorants on wooden tableAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

If you don’t have skin allergies yet, you’re probably safe

You could use the same shampoo or soap for decades when all of a sudden you get red, bumpy, scaly, itchy, or swollen skin. “People will say, ‘It couldn’t be anything I am using because I didn’t change anything,’ but skin allergies can occur with cumulative exposure,” Dr. Zirwas warns. The longer you use a product, the more likely you are to become allergic to it. And once you react, the skin allergy is with you for life. “Each time you are exposed to the allergen, your immune system gets better and better at reacting to it,” he says.

Pile of white medical glovesDenisProduction.com/Shutterstock

Latex skin allergies are a big concern

Latex allergy was once one of the more common types of skin allergy, but times are changing, says Dr. Zirwas. “It is basically nonexistent nowadays as the companies that make medical products have taken most of the latex out,” he says. That said, some people may react to another chemical in rubber gloves or products that traditionally used latex, and mistakenly blame it on latex. These are the sneaky signs your allergy medicine isn’t working.

close up of woman holding smartphoneWestend61/Getty Images

Most allergy culprits are what you’d expect

There are some interesting things that can trigger skin allergies … like your cell phone. Electronics that contain metals like nickel or cobalt can cause skin allergy if they touch your ear, hand, or cheek, reports the ACAAI. Find out the 11 things itchy skin can reveal about your health.

Doctor doing skin allergy test at her patient in medical officewavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Any allergist or dermatologist can deal with your skin allergies

Sure many could, but most are generalists: Dermatologists treat a variety of skin issues, like cancer, psoriasis, and eczema; allergists address all types of problems, including potentially life-threatening food and respiratory allergies. Because skin allergies are so tricky, you may want to find a skin allergy specialist near you through the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

Closeup shot of hands applying moisturizer. Beauty woman holding a glass jar of skin cream. Shallow depth of field with focus on moisturizer.Rido/Shutterstock

You can’t treat skin allergies with shots

Allergy shots are the best fix for seasonal allergies, but there is no such thing as exposure therapy for skin allergy, Dr. Zirwas says. The only “cure” for skin allergy is avoidance. Over-the-counter steroid creams can help the itching and inflammation as can Sarna Original Anti-Itch Lotion and creams made with pramoxine hydrochloride such as CeraVe Itch Relief Moisturizing Cream. Also, check out these 8 home remedies for skin rashes.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD, on May 11, 2020

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.