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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- American Academy of Dermatology: “Contact Dermatitis”
- American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: “Skin Allergy”
- Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, associate professor of dermatology and director of the Supportive Oncodermatology Clinic at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.
- Matthew Zirwas, MD, dermatologist in Bexley, Ohio
- American Contact Dermatitis Society: “Find a Provider”