Contact Dermatitis: Facts About Skin Rashes

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on April 26, 2022

Contact dermatitis is a rash that crops up on your skin when you touch or have a reaction to a certain substance. It’s red, itchy, and uncomfortable, but it’s not life-threatening.

The rash could be caused by an allergy or because the protective layer of your skin got damaged. Other names for it include allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis.

Contact Dermatitis Symptoms


Symptoms of a contact allergy usually show up near where you touched the thing you're allergic to.

 You’ll notice your skin may be:

  • Red

  • Itchy

  • Dry, cracked, or scaly

  • Covered in bumps or blisters. Blistering is rare. If you see blisters, contact your doctor.

  • Swollen

  • Burning

  • Tender

Irritant contact dermatitis (skin damage) tends to burn and be more painful than itchy.

When something is irritating or damaging your skin, you'll probably see a rash right away. With an allergy, it may be a day or two before the rash shows up.

Many of the symptoms can be the same. In both cases, your skin may blister, or you may get a raised red rash. Your skin will itch and maybe burn.

Contact Dermatitis Causes

If it's caused by an allergy, your immune system is involved. After you touch something, it mistakenly thinks your body is under attack. It springs into action, making antibodies to fight the invader. A chain of events causes a release of chemicals, including histamine. That's what causes the allergic reaction -- in this case, an itchy rash. It's called allergic contact dermatitis.

Usually, you won't get a rash the first time your skin touches something you're allergic to. But that touch sensitizes your skin, and you could have a reaction the next time. If you get an allergic rash, chances are you've touched that trigger before and just didn't know it. 

Allergic contact dermatitis causes include:

  • Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac

  • Hair dyes or straighteners

  • Nickel, a metal found in jewelry and belt buckles

  • Leather (specifically, chemicals used in tanning leather)

  • Latex rubber

  • Citrus fruit, especially the peel

  • Fragrances in soaps, shampoos, lotions, perfumes, and cosmetics

  • Some medications you put on your skin

Some rashes look like an allergic reaction but really aren't because your immune system wasn't involved.

Instead, you touched something that took away the surface oils shielding your skin. The longer that thing stayed on your skin, the worse the reaction. It's called irritant contact dermatitis.

Things that can cause irritant contact dermatitis include:

  • Acids

  • Some drain cleaners

  • Urine, saliva, or other body fluids

  • Certain plants, such as poinsettias and peppers

  • Hair dyes

  • Nail polish remover 

  • Paints and varnishes

  • Harsh soaps or detergents

  • Resins, plastics, and epoxies

If you have eczema, you're more likely to get this kind of rash.

Another less common form of contact dermatitis is photocontact dermatitis. This is a rash that can form when you use certain products, such as sunscreen, on your skin and then spend time in the sun. The combination of the sun and the allergen or irritant on your skin causes a reaction.

Contact Dermatitis Treatment and Home Remedies

Depending on how bad your symptoms are, you may be able to treat your contact dermatitis at home, or you may need to see your doctor.

To help soothe your skin, you can try these home remedies:

  • Wash your skin with mild soap and cool water right away.

  • Remove or avoid the allergen or irritant that caused the rash.

  • Apply hydrocortisone cream over small areas.

  • For blisters, use a cold moist compress for 30 minutes, three times a day.

  • Put moisturizers on damaged skin several times a day to help restore the protective layer.

  • Take an oral histamine for itching.

Don't use an antihistamine lotion unless your doctor suggests it, because it could cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction, too.

When to Contact Your Doctor About Contact Dermatitis

Call your doctor if your rash is:

  • Painful 

  • Keeps you from sleeping or distracts you during the day

  • Sudden 

  • Spreads over a large part of your body

  • On your face or genitals

  • Not better after a couple of days

  • Oozing or infected

  • Affecting your eyes, nose, or lungs

Your doctor will take a look and ask you questions to help figure out what's going on.

Depending on how severe it is, they may prescribe:

  •  Steroid pills, creams,  or ointment

  • Antihistamines 

  • Immunosuppressive medications for severe cases

Your doctor can do skin tests to determine what you are allergic to.

If you can't avoid what's bothering your skin, talk to your doctor about wearing gloves or using creams to keep it safe.

Contact Dermatitis Prevention

The best way to avoid getting contact dermatitis is to know what makes you break out and stay away from it. If you do come into contact with an allergen or irritant, wash it off as soon as possible to reduce your reaction.

If you’re not sure what’s causing your rashes, take these steps:

  • Use only fragrance-free, dye-free lotions, detergents, and soaps.

  • Wear protective gear if you might come into contact with an irritant or allergen, such as long sleeves and pants near plants or in the sun, or goggles and gloves when using cleaning products.

  • Use a barrier cream to keep your skin’s outer layer strong and moisturized.

  • Test any new product on a small patch of your skin before using it.

Show Sources

Photo Credit (inset, arm): Science Photo Library / Science Source

Photo Credit (inset, torso): Koshy Johnson / Medical Images


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: "Allergic Reaction," "Contact Dermatitis."

American Academy of Dermatology: "Contact Dermatitis."

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology

Cleveland Clinic: "Contact Dermatitis."

UpToDate: "Irritant contact dermatitis in adults."

Mayo Clinic

Dermatologic Therapy: “Photocontact dermatitis.”

Mayo Clinic - Photo Caption

National Eczema Association - Photo Caption

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology - Photo Caption

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