How I Got Rid of Itchy Contact Dermatitis the Natural Way
Whether you have been living miserably with contact dermatitis for years or it has reared its ugly head overnight, there are alternative ways to heal your skin and to keep flare-ups under control. While a doctor might want to prescribe steroid creams, ointments, or even oral medications for more severe cases, you don't always need to use prescription drugs to treat this condition.
In the United States alone, contact dermatitis ranks among the top ten reasons people visit a primary care doctor and accounts for seven percent of all visits to dermatologists. I have personally suffered from severe irritant contact dermatitis on my hands since working in the healthcare profession. Although I am not a doctor or skin specialist, I have found different preventative methods and all-natural treatments that have soothed and healed my skin back to its former health. I would like to share what has worked for me. Here is what this article will cover:
- How contact dermatitis is defined
- How to treat it at home
- The symptoms of contact dermatitis
- How to prevent it
It is always advisable to visit your doctor or skin specialist for a proper diagnosis because it can be very easy to mistake a skin complaint with something completely different.
What Is Contact Dermatitis?
Anybody who has had contact dermatitis knows how painful it can be. It makes your skin inflamed and sore. It also flares up when your skin touches something it doesn’t like (hence the name). There are two types of contact dermatitis: irritant and allergic (I go into more detail on this further down in the article). According to Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse (MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the University of Southern California), "Contact dermatitis does not usually occur after the first application, but it can. It can worsen after repeated exposure to the product or higher concentrations of the product. Once the skin has been sensitized to the product, it often reacts to the slightest exposure."
Contact dermatitis makes your skin incredibly dry and prone to cracking, putting you at risk for secondary skin infections, which are sometimes worse than the condition itself. It is always advisable to visit your doctor or skin specialist for a proper diagnosis because it can be very easy to mistake a skin complaint with something completely different. For instance, if you suffer from tiny little bumps or blisters on your skin, you could have pompholyx eczema. This is the skin condition I developed as a result of my contact dermatitis.
Why Is Dermatitis on Your Hands So Common?
The hands are most commonly affected because it’s the one part of your body that touches things constantly. In fact, you might be touching things that you are allergic to without even realizing it—especially if you frequently come into contact with hazardous chemicals or if you wash your hands a lot. Healthcare workers are at a higher risk of developing hand dermatitis since they clean their hands as many as 100 times per 12-hour shift!
However, dermatitis can affect anywhere on the body, including your feet (shoe contact dermatitis) and eyelids.
Natural Home Remedies for Contact Dermatitis
Your symptoms should start to subside two to four weeks after you identify the cause. However, while you search for the culprit and try to promote healing, here are some things to help you.
Use This Healing Balm Recipe
For those of you who have been advised to moisturize the skin with a barrier cream or oil, I have a great recipe for you to try:
- 1 part beeswax granules
- 1 part jojoba oil
- 2 parts almond oil
- A few drops of organic lavender essential oil. (You can substitute blue chamomile essential oil, tea tree oil, or patchouli oil.) Neals Yard sells the best essential oils in my opinion (by aromatherapy oils, I mean pure, organic oils extracted from plants, not the cheap adulterated kind containing synthetic ingredients and chemicals).
- Melt the beeswax, jojoba, and almond oil together in a double boiler until melted completely.
- Remove from heat and wait a moment before adding the essential oil. The reason you don't add the essential oil during the cooking process is that extreme heat denatures the precious oils. If you like your balm to have more fragrance, add more essential oil.
- Start to stir the mixture to blend all the ingredients together. The aim here is to stop the balm from completely setting into a hard block. By continually whipping the mixture as it cools, your balm will develop a lovely thick, mousse-like consistency. If you miss this step, the balm will completely solidify, and it will be very hard to get out of the pot. The whole process should take about five minutes, depending on the quantity of balm you make. A very small amount of balm will take less time to cool than a big batch.
- Spoon the balm into a clean, sterilized container such as a small glass jar. If possible, make sure the glass is dark blue or amber (easily found in aromatherapy shops or online) because it will protect the product from sunlight.
How to Use:
- Apply the homemade balm to the skin before bed every night and whenever possible during the day. This is incredibly soothing for dry skin. The essential oils help reduce inflammation and fight infection.
- Please do the sensible thing by patch testing 48 hours prior to use (just to ensure your skin responds well to treatment). If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, I suggest checking with your doctor for recommendations of safe oils to use. Alternatively, you could omit the essential oils completely.
- If you are allergic to latex or nitrile gloves, moisturizers and barrier creams are a bad idea to use until your allergic reaction has subsided. This can take as long as 72 hours.
Try not to pick and scratch at your dermatitis since it will only delay the healing process. If you scratch in your sleep, try trimming your nails short and moisturizing your skin to ensure that it's well moisturized before you go to sleep. This should help to keep itching at bay. If moisturizing doesn't help, consider changing your moisturizer or covering the areas with dressing so you won't be tempted to scratch.
Take a Warm Shower or Bath
To help relieve discomfort, take a warm bath or shower—also known as hydrotherapy. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should add uncooked oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal—a finely ground oatmeal that's made for the bathtub. Soak for five to ten minutes, pat dry, and apply moisturizer. Dr. Shainhouse recommends using Aveeno pouches but says that if you use cooked oats, be sure to toss them in the trash so they don't clog up the shower drain.
Support Your Immune System
Some vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C and quercetin actually help reduce the severity of allergic reactions. In fact, eating a healthy and varied diet will give your body the boost it needs to heal quicker. For advice on allergies, including tried and tested natural treatments, check out this comprehensive website by Natural Ways.
Stress also affects the immune system and the body's natural ability to heal itself. This medical study explains how stress suppresses the immune system and why our skin reacts sympathetically to our emotions. This makes perfect sense to me. When I changed to a more stressful job, my hands were the worst they have ever been. At the very least, get as much sleep as you can.
Eat Blueberries, Blackberries, and Food Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Try incorporating these foods into your diet as you continue to heal. Blueberries and blackberries have been known for their anti-inflammatory properties while omega-3-rich foods, including mackerel, wild-caught salmon, and walnuts, boost your immune system response and reduce inflammation.
Try Other Home Remedies
I didn't use these remedies to treat my contact dermatitis, but they are worth asking your doctor about or looking into.
- Warm coconut oil
- Apple cider vinegar
- Aloe vera (if you don't have an allergy)
- Vitamin E oil
- Honey and beeswax mixture
- Turmeric solution
- Diluted tea tree oil
- Sarna Lotion (with menthol) to reduce itch
- Cool milk compresses
- Bland emollient moisturizers
How Do You Get Contact Dermatitis?
According to WebMD, if your contact dermatitis is due to an allergic reaction, your immune system is involved. After touching something you're allergic to, your immune system suddenly thinks your body is under attack. Your body then springs into action, making antibodies to fight the invader. This causes a release of chemicals that cause an allergic reaction. This is known as allergic contact dermatitis.
Another type of dermatitis is known as irritant contact dermatitis, which is caused by touching something that took away the surface oils shielding your skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, this type of dermatitis is usually triggered by something at work and typically affects beauticians, nurses, bartenders, and other people who spend a lot of time with wet hands.
Neither allergic or irritant contact dermatitis is contagious.
What Are Common Triggers for Contact Dermatitis?
- Nickel, a metal commonly found in jewelry
- Latex rubber (or even nitrile gloves, as discussed below)
- Citrus fruits, especially the peel
- Leather—This can cause what's known as shoe contact dermatitis.
- Fragrances in soaps, shampoos, lotions, perfumes, and cosmetics
- Certain chemicals
- Poison ivy and similar plants—This type of allergic reaction is known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis since it's caused by the oil urushiol, which is contained in various plants.
For me, the hardest part was identifying the things that were making my skin react in such a negative way and then trying not to touch those things. I thought carefully about my day-to-day life and discovered the problems through a sheer process of elimination.
The cause of my sore hands turned out to be the nitrile gloves that we use at work (the so-called hypoallergenic gloves that replaced the latex ones). I also discovered that I had developed two food allergies, which amplified my symptoms. I had to remove these from my diet until my symptoms improved.
After my skin had become sensitive, everything else aggravated it—hand soap; drying my hands on abrasive; cheap paper hand towels; preparing food, etc. When I removed the cause, the skin healed itself.
How Do I Figure Out What Caused My Contact Dermatitis?
Think about the things you come into contact with on a daily basis—from the moment you wake to the moment you go to sleep (I also explain a couple alternative ways to determine your triggers a little further down). Here are some questions to ask yourself as you do this:
- When did you first develop contact dermatitis?
- What have you touched within the last 24-48 hours that could have aggravated your skin?
- Do you have any known or unknown allergies to things such as nickel or preservatives? If you are not sure, get yourself allergy tested! It may give you an important clue as to the cause of your skin condition. I developed a milk and lemon allergy out of the blue one day.
- Do you wash the dishes or hand-wash clothes on a regular basis? The detergents might be irritating your skin.
- Have you changed the type of personal hygiene or domestic household products you use?
It's important to also keep a journal to help you keep track of what things you come into contact with on a daily basis.
Here are a couple additional ways to help you determine the triggers: You can get an allergy test done or have your doctor conduct patch testing on your skin. In the patch test, small amounts of various substances are applied to your skin under an adhesive covering. You'll then return several times over the following days to see if you develop any reaction. According to the Mayo Clinic, this type of testing is best done at least two weeks after your dermatitis has cleared up.
What Are the Symptoms of Contact Dermatitis?
Both Allergic and Irritant Contact Dermatitis
Allergic Contact Dermatitis
Irritant Contact Dermatitis
Itchy skin that may also burn or sting
Symptoms usually appear right around where you touched something you're allergic to
Will likely burn and be more painful rather than itchy
Skin may blister
May be a day or two before symptoms show up
Symptoms show up right away
Symptoms may spread to other parts of your body
When to Call a Doctor
If your affected skin starts oozing or gets worse, it's time to see a doctor. You may have an infection.
It Takes Time for Your Skin to Heal
Even if you have discovered the cause of your condition and you do your best to avoid the culprits, your skin will still be vulnerable to future flare-ups. This is because skin cells can stay inflamed for as long as eight or nine months after first aggravated. The skin may not look all that red, but it won't take much to upset it again! Before you know it, your skin will return to its sore and angry state the moment you come back into contact with the irritant or allergen. This can be a problem if you don't know what the cause of your skin condition actually is. Make it your mission to find out!
When the skin begins to heal itself, take extra care to protect it from further damage. If your skin problem is caused by a food allergy, avoid it altogether if you can. This is when you will notice the inflammation begins to settle down. It can take several months to get to this stage, but it will be worth it!
How Can I Prevent Contact Dermatitis?
Besides avoiding anything that you know or believe triggered your contact dermatitis last time, here are some other ways to help prevent this painful skin condition.
Choose Your Personal Hygiene Products Wisely
Finding high-quality bath, hair, and shower products is a positive start. They should preferably be hypoallergenic and free from fragrances and harsh chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate. You could also consider a "soap-free lifestyle."
Personally, I love buying unscented products and adding my own aromatherapy oils—that way, you can smell fantastic and know exactly what goes on your skin. I don't like to use an aqueous cream to moisturize because if you check the back of the label, it says, "This product contains cetostearyl alcohol that may cause local skin reactions (e.g. contact dermatitis)." Aqueous also contains sodium lauryl sulfate and cheap mineral oil.
Finding high-quality makeup products is also a must. Just because a makeup product's label says it's "natural" or "organic" doesn't mean you aren't allergic to something in it. If you're still searching for the cause of your dermatitis, it's best to stick with allergy-safe makeup.
Change Your Hand Soap
Many of us have our hands in and out of water and detergents all day because our job or lifestyle requires us to do so—we can’t just skip washing our hands altogether. What should we do?
If you haven't already, it would be a good idea to change your hand soap. You can purchase a small, empty, travel-sized bottle and fill it with hypoallergenic, scent-free soap, which is handy when you are on the go. I take one with me to work and another in my handbag for when I am out and about.
Beware of Moisturizers and Low-Quality Water
Keeping the skin soft and supple is important, but beware, moisturizers can in some cases push allergens and irritants deeper into the skin and make the problem worse, especially in the case of latex or nitrile glove allergies. On the other hand, if your skin is sore because of too much hand washing, moisturizing is very important to help the skin retain its vital moisture levels. Please try to do some research before assuming that moisturizers and barrier creams are the answer. This is why visiting a dermatologist is so vital. They are trained to know information like this.
In addition, water can be a big problem where contact dermatitis is concerned—a lot of articles cover this subject briefly but very few talk about the quality of the water supply itself. Tap water contains vast amounts of metals, minerals, and harsh chemicals such as chlorine, fluorine, and pesticides in order to kill off dangerous bacteria and microbes—but at what cost?
Since investing in a shower water filter, I have noticed a dramatic difference in my skin and hair—my skin isn't so dry, my hair is shinier, and my eyes don't feel as irritated by the water when showering. For anyone wanting higher-quality water, I definitely recommend buying a water purification system for your home. Water filters range in price, depending on your budget and needs. For around £30 (around $40), you can buy an attachment for your shower head that removes most of the harsh chemicals. Secondly, keep an eye on the temperature of your water. Water that's too hot can strip the skin of its natural oils and inflame the skin—a real nuisance if you are a lover of hot baths and showers like I am!
Be Careful With the Use of Gloves
For some of us, gloves are a necessity for the workplace. If you are unlucky enough to have an allergy to the gloves themselves, you face a huge challenge. Without them, you are exposing yourself to a multitude of health risks. With them, you are causing yourself an equal amount of harm.
The most common glove allergy is to latex, although nitrile is also problematic for some. Hospitals generally use nitrile gloves these days instead of the traditional latex variety because they are believed to be hypoallergenic. For the rare few who are allergic to nitrile, however, one can experience some pretty severe reactions. According to my occupational health department, you can experience an allergic reaction from latex and nitrile for up to 72 hours after exposure! Sometimes though, gloves can simply aggravate the symptoms of contact dermatitis. The latter happened to me.
One day, I suddenly developed a nasty rash all over my fingers and palms. At first, I thought the gloves were to blame, but as it happens, I was later diagnosed with a new food allergy. Who would have thought that an allergy to dairy could cause a nasty localized rash all over my hands? The rash didn't appear anywhere else. The gloves basically amplified my symptoms because it made my hands hot and sweaty. It wasn't long before it progressed to full-blown pompholyx eczema.
I overcame this by cutting out dairy from my diet and wearing cotton glove liners underneath the nitrile ones for several months until all the redness and inflammation disappeared. When my skin was completely healthy, I was then able to wear nitrile gloves again without cotton liners! If it wasn't for the cotton liners, I don't think I would have ever healed my hands.
Be Careful When Preparing and Consuming Food
Some foods can create negative skin reactions when touched or eaten. If you are allergic to nickel, for instance, there is a small possibility you might be allergic to foods containing nickel too. Like with anything, intolerances vary from person to person—this is why you should get allergy tested.
My mother had an allergy test that revealed hypersensitivity to citrus fruits, wine, mold, and trees! As an avid gardener, she was gutted, to say the least. Still, it’s better to know what your body does and doesn’t like. That way, you can be conscious of the things you can and cannot touch. Personally, I find that milk and lemons are my problem foods. Whenever I eat them, I end up with the worst eczema ever—my hands blister up, and I develop hives all over my chest area. It's weird because my food allergies developed out of the blue. It wasn't until I went on an intense detox that I realized I had a food sensitivity all this time. It is a good thing I discovered this when I did because I would still have dreadful skin! In addition, my severe, long-term back acne also cleared up altogether after I eliminated the problem foods from my diet. Bonus!
I also find that acidic foods in general, such as tomatoes, really aggravate my inflamed skin when I handle them. Wearing gloves can help in this instance. Just make sure you are not allergic to the gloves themselves!
Find out what is causing your contact dermatitis and then avoid exposure as much as possible. If you can, remove exposure completely. Choosing different personal hygiene products and detergents is often a good place to start. As we all know, manufacturers can change their product formulations from time to time so always check the ingredients list for hidden preservatives. If it’s full of words you can’t pronounce, put the bottle back on the shelf and choose something else.
If you can't figure out the cause of your skin condition, please consult a doctor or skin specialist—they can test you for allergies and sensitivities. Hopefully, this will highlight the problem. My heart goes out to everybody suffering from this miserable skin condition. If any of you have any comments or suggestions, I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks for reading.