Contact (Skin) Allergies

Few people are happier than those who have found lasting relief from skin allergy. Food and airborne allergies are certainly for fun, but skin allergies can be downright depressing. After all, if your eyes are swollen, your face is blotchy or your arms are patchy and dry, you won’t feel much like going to work, playing sports or even socializing. And the constant urge to scratch can drive you crazy!

Skin allergies go far beyond a simple summertime clash with poison ivy. Add up the cosmetics and grooming aids, soaps, detergents, clothing, jewelry, hobby and office supplies we run up against every day, and you get a pretty good idea of the number of things that can cause skin allergy. But figuring out your problem and finding relief can be easy once you know where to start.

Mix and Match Symptoms

If you have a skin allergy, you probably know it. But just in case you don't, the symptoms are easy to spot because they always follow a variation of one general pattern (the following description of the pattern includes medical terms in parentheses so you’ll be able to understand your doctor when he or she talks to you about a skin allergy).

Reddening (erythema) is the first sign of trouble, sometimes accompanied by bumps or pimples (papules) or blisters (vesicles) that may weep and ooze. Then the itching starts, and after a few days the red spots and bumps give way to crusting, scaling and thickening of the skin.

Should the problem persist – if you continue to use the cosmetic, soap or apparel you’re allergic to – the scaliness and thickening take over completely, and itching becomes more unbearable than ever. The whole business is customarily called eczema, or atopic dermatitis, especially if it's caused by something you ate. If the culprit is something you’ve touched, it's called contact dermatitis.

The face – particularly the eyelids – is the most sensitive area. Not only are the eyelids prone to react to chemicals applied to and around them (mascara, eye shadow and the like), but they also to anything near them. Hair dye or shampoo on the scalp, perfume on the neck, poison ivy or not quite dry nail polish on the hands can precipitate puffy, inflamed or scaly lids.

The backs of the hands and fingers also waste no time in letting us know that they're ”in touch” with a troublemaker. But the scalp, palms of the hands and soles of the feet are remarkably resistant to allergy in most people. Skin reaction aren’t limited to these areas, of course – but they don't always crop up where to find them. Jewelry allergy, for instance, generally shows up on earlobes, neck, wrist and fingers.

But a loose bracelet can effect the skin anywhere from the wrist to the elbow. Or detergents can splash above the tops of gloves. And the offending substance isn’t always obvious, either. The trunk, underarms, forearms and inner elbows all react to clothing and perfumes. Eczema on the things could be from garters – or from coins or keys in a pants pocket.