Fabric softeners, also known as fabric conditioners, are added to laundry during the rinse cycle to soften clothing and reduce static cling. Many products also contain perfumes to impart fragrance to clothing and linens. A thin coating of the softener remains on the fabric at completion of the wash cycle. Fabric softeners contain an array of chemicals, some of which can irritate the skin of sensitive individuals. Babies, young children, older adults and people with eczema or other skin conditions are more likely to experience a reaction to fabric softener due to increased skin sensitivity.
Contact dermatitis refers to a skin reaction provoked by direct exposure to a triggering substance. Contact dermatitis occurs in two forms, irritant and allergic. Irritant contact dermatitis is more common than the allergic form. Perfumes, dyes, preservatives and other chemicals in fabric softeners can potentially cause irritant or, less commonly, allergic contact dermatitis. With irritant contact dermatitis, the triggering substances in the fabric softener irritate and inflame the exposed skin, but do not cause an allergic reaction. With allergic contact dermatitis, one or more specific chemicals in the product induces an allergic skin reaction.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of irritant and allergic contact dermatitis are often nearly identical, particularly with the type of low-level, widespread skin exposure that occurs with fabric softener. For most people, itchiness is the most prominent and bothersome symptom. Any area of the skin exposed to clothing or linens that have been rinsed in the offending product can be affected. Areas of friction between the skin and clothing -- such as the waist, wrists, neck, armpits and groin area -- are most likely to be involved as the friction allows more chemical penetration into the skin. A pink or red rash is common, which may be accompanied by a mild stinging sensation or pain. Hives are also possible. With ongoing exposure, the skin may appear scaly.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Determining the trigger for contact dermatitis can be challenging. If you’ve recently started using fabric softener or switched brands, this may be a tip-off that fabric conditioner might be to blame. Your doctor may recommend patch testing to help distinguish between irritant and allergic contact dermatitis. However, it is sometimes difficult to make this distinction, even with testing. An over-the-counter antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may be recommended to relieve itchiness. Short-term use of hydrocortisone cream might also be recommended if you have a bothersome rash.
With both types of contact dermatitis, avoiding exposure to the offending product is the cornerstone of treatment. If fabric softener is to blame for your skin reaction, all clothing and linens will need to be laundered to remove any residual fabric softener. Adding white vinegar or baking soda to your laundry during the rinse cycle may help get rid of the fabric conditioner in your clothes and make the fabrics feel a bit softer.
See your doctor if you experience symptoms that might suggest contact dermatitis. Medical evaluation is needed as many conditions cause skin symptoms that can mimic contact dermatitis. Testing is important if your doctor suspects an allergy because as you might need to avoid all products that contain the offending chemical, not just fabric softener. Seek immediate medical care if you experience signs or symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, including:
-- dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
-- swelling of the face, lips or tongue
-- a choking sensation
-- wheezing or difficulty breathing
-- rapid heart rate
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.