Dermatitis is something of a catchall term for skin irritation, covering causes ranging from general stress to allergies and specific irritants coming into contact with skin. Sometimes it takes observation, substance elimination and patch-testing to know what type of skin irritation is occurring and what its true cause may be. Reactions to substances in laundry detergent are fairly common.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis can range from mild patches and skin redness and dryness to hives and swelling, burning or itching without visible sores, oozing blisters, severe pain and dark, leathery peeling and cracked skin. Contact dermatitis is further subdivided into cases caused by true allergies — generally the most severe — and those caused by long exposure to a substance that has caused chronic irritation. Laundry detergents, soaps, various cleaners, waxes and other chemicals are fairly common sources of skin irritation and can wear down the skin’s oily, protective surface layer to cause irritant contact dermatitis, the Cleveland Clinic explains.
Atopic Dermatitis or Eczema
Particularly if itching and rashes begin in infants or young children, the problem might be eczema caused by atopic dermatitis. Eczema itself isn’t an allergy, but skin is hypersensitive to various substances, so the condition can be triggered by allergies. About 10 percent of children develop eczema. The susceptibility is genetic, and strongest in families where hay fever and asthma are common. Infants and very young children with eczema usually develop red, itchy and dry skin and tiny bumps on their scalp, forehead and cheeks. The rash may spread to the main body and arms and legs, with open lesions developing. Symptoms come and go over time, triggered by exposure to dust, pollen, mold, animal dander, dry skin or dry winter air — and also by harsh detergents and soaps and other substances.
Your doctor may do a patch test if she suspects contact dermatitis caused by an allergy. If you suspect that you have a detergent allergy, be sure to mention that. Assuming the patch test verifies your hunch — and the test only identifies true allergies, which involve the immune system, not irritants — you can officially start avoiding that detergent or other substance. Diagnosing eczema or atopic dermatitis is more challenging, because every child has a slightly different combination of symptoms. Eczema is also easily confused with seborrheic dermatitis, the genetic disease psoriasis and contact dermatitis. Diagnosis is primarily by deduction, because there is no absolute test; family history may provide the crucial clue.
With contact dermatitis, avoiding the suspect detergent or other allergic or irritating substance usually yields immediate improvement. Oral cortisone and cortisone creams may also be prescribed. Using mild soaps and slathering on hand cream and lotion may also help. These treatments may also be prescribed for atopic dermatitis, along with antihistamines, anti-itch lotions and creams and oatmeal baths, to further relieve itching; consult your doctor before giving your child any at-home treatment. Trim kids’ fingernails short to prevent scratching, switch to short, cool baths, keep skin well hydrated with lotions — and avoid the entire list of possible triggers to encourage remission.