Health advice
Contact dermatitis
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Contact dermatitis is a skin reaction. Read more to learn about symptoms, treatment and where else to go for help with contact dermatitis.
What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is when your skin becomes inflamed after exposure to something in your environment. You can get contact dermatitis anywhere on your body, but it most often appears on the skin of your hands and face.1

Contact dermatitis isn’t contagious, and it often resolves on its own. But if it doesn’t go away, you can get treatment from your GP or pharmacist.

What are the symptoms of contact dermatitis?

The main symptom of contact dermatitis is inflamed skin.

This can appear in a few different ways. Some of the most common are:

  • Redness on light skin, or dark brown, purple or grey skin if you have a darker skin tone
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Dryness.1

If your contact dermatitis doesn’t go away by itself, you may develop bleeding or blisters on the irritated skin. Contact dermatitis can also affect your sleep and quality of life, but it is very treatable.

Are there different types of contact dermatitis?

There are two types of contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. In allergic contact dermatitis, symptoms usually take 1—3 days to develop, while the symptoms of irritant contact dermatitis show within 48 hours, or immediately.3

Allergic contact dermatitis is when you have an allergic reaction to something your skin comes into contact with.2 Irritant contact dermatitis is when your skin cells are damaged by something that touches them. Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type, making up about 80% of cases of contact dermatitis.4

What causes contact dermatitis?

The cause of contact dermatitis depends on the type you have. Irritant contact dermatitis happens because your skin comes into contact with an irritating substance. This can be anything from cleaning products, suncream, plants or washing your hands too often.2

Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by your immune system developing a faulty response to something that touches your skin, and treats it as a threat to fight off.1 This causes your skin to become inflamed. Some of the most common things that cause allergic contact dermatitis are makeup, skincare, metals like nickel, topical medication and some plants.2 Suncream can also cause contact dermatitis.

How is contact dermatitis treated?

Treatment for contact dermatitis is focused on managing the symptoms. There are a few different treatment options, depending on the symptoms you have.

Emollients are topical moisturisers which are used to treat dryness. You can get these from your local pharmacist or online with Well. You might also be advised to use topical corticosteroids, a type of steroid you rub into your skin. These medicines help reduce itching, redness and swelling.1

If your contact dermatitis does not go away or gets worse, talk to your GP. They may prescribe you oral corticosteroid tablets, which can sometimes be more effective in treating inflammation.

How else can you manage contact dermatitis?

The main way to manage contact dermatitis is to avoid the irritant that causes a reaction. If you have allergic contact dermatitis, an allergist can help you identify and avoid your trigger.1

If you can’t fully avoid what causes your symptoms, like if it’s something you work with, you should try to use personal protective equipment such as gloves. Clean any areas of skin that come into contact with the irritant.1

Visit your nearest pharmacy

Get support and advice from your local Well pharmacist

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Where can I get further support and information?

Allergy UK.

Information and support, including a helpline, for anyone with allergies.

NHS Inform.

Information and support if you live in Scotland.

NHS Website.

Information about allergies, including symptoms, living with allergies and treatments to manage allergies.

  1. Contact dermatitis. Published October 19, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2023.
  2. Dermatitis - contact | Health topics A to Z | CKS | NICE. Accessed April 4, 2023.
  3. Clinical features | Diagnosis | Dermatitis - contact | CKS | NICE. Accessed April 4, 2023.
  4. Bains SN, Nash P, Fonacier L. Irritant Contact Dermatitis. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2019;56(1):99-109. doi:10.1007/s12016-018-8713-0

Reviewed by: Mital Thakrar

Review date: April 2023

Next review: April 2026

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