When we think about how many different things our skin is exposed to during our normal daily life, it can be mind boggling. First up, there’s the things from nature and the surrounding environment - pollen, plants, dust mites and animal dander (hair, fur, fluff and skin cells that our pets and other animals commonly shed) that can all cause us to suffer irritation in our nasal passages and on our skin.
But arguably worse than that are the irritants that our skin is regularly exposed to that aren’t derived from nature. This includes environmental pollutants in the air outside such as car exhaust fumes and industrial toxins, and from the items we choose to bring into our homes.
Washing powders, household cleaners, soaps and even unwashed new clothes all enter our homes and we could be unwittingly inviting no end of skin irritants along with them for the ride. Even our skin care products can be causing skin irritations without us making the connection between irritated, red, itchy skin and the products we’re using on it, especially if they claim to be ideal for sensitive skin.
So here’s a look at the common skin irritants to consider if your skin is stressed out or acting up. But first up, how to recognise irritated skin…
What is irritated skin?
Irritated skin is skin that feels itchy and looks red and inflamed. It may be red all over or in blotches or patches and it may become swollen, appear dry and cracked (either because it’s dehydrated or because you’ve been scratching it a lot) and may bleed (again caused by scratching or dehydrated skin causing the skin to crack).
Other times, a skin irritant could cause the skin to feel like it’s stinging or burning. You may be the only person in your home that’s suffering, and that will mean that whatever is causing your irritated skin, is an allergen to you and it’s causing a condition called contact allergic dermatitis.
Some skin irritants, in particular some poisonous plants and certain cleaning chemicals will cause a skin reaction in everyone if they come into contact with the skin, and this is called contact irritant dermatitis.
If you’ve ever experienced dry, red itchy skin, then you’ve experienced irritated skin. Red skin is often caused by sunburn, dermatitis, folliculitis, rosacea or psoriasis - and it’s often more easy to identify the causes of red skin.
But itchy skin is often more difficult to pinpoint the cause of. It can be down to a sensitivity or allergy to something that you’re either applying to the outside of your skin such as a moisturiser or cleanser, or that you’re exposing your skin to, such as a cleaning product or washing powder. It can also be caused by something internal, such as a particular food you may be eating that your skin doesn’t like.
If you’ve ruled out skin conditions such as dermatitis or rosacea, then your irritated skin could be down to a common skin irritant…
Common skin irritants
By understanding what could be causing your skin to feel and look irritated, you can take steps to eliminate this product from your house, helping to relieve your stressed out skin. Here’s a look at some of the most common skin irritants.
Most of us use washing up gloves because the water is often too hot for our skin to handle. But also because we know that we probably shouldn’t be dunking our hands in washing up liquid that probably contains harsh cleaning chemicals. (Despite what the glossy, dreamy adverts told us in the 1980s, washing up liquid generally isn’t as kind to our skin as they had us believe back then.)
But what about other cleaning products? Do we wear gloves when we’re using furniture polish, loading the dishwasher with tablets or cleaning the windows?
Probably not. But like most household cleaners, these can all contain ingredients designed to clean, disinfect and bleach away “all known germs”, and they can all be causing our skin to become irritated.
Opt for skin friendly brands for all your cleaning, washing up, dishwashing and clothes cleaning products. Often, this means looking for an eco friendly brand that uses natural, planet friendly products which also happen to be skin friendly too - a double bonus! They can be more expensive than the more mainstream products in supermarkets, but a little often goes a long way.
Washing powders and fabric conditioners
The same goes for the products we use to clean our clothes. Admittedly, not many of us hand wash our clothing these days, but what about when we’re wearing our clothes?
Residual cleaning solution and the fabric softener that’s designed to hang about on our clothes will touch our skin as soon as we put them on. It’s then that they can cause skin irritations.
So again, look for skin and planet friendly versions of washing powders, liquids, liquitabs and fabric softeners.
New, unwashed clothing
The dyes used in fabric and clothing manufacture can also make our skin become stressed out and irritable. Shockingly, formaldehyde is often used in the finishing resins (formaldehyde is a preservative often used in healthcare settings and as a resin in the building and construction industry).
This can irritate the skin, as can other resins, glues, dyes and tanning agents often used in the clothing industry. A common dye, called para-phenylenediamine or PPD for short is a known skin irritant.
Flame retardants used in workwear (and also in sofas and other types of furniture) can also cause skin irritation in some people.
Further ways our clothing could be responsible for irritated skin
Other ways our clothing could be responsible for our badly behaving skin is by putting our clothes into the dry cleaners. The chemicals used to dry clean clothes are extremely harsh - you just need to walk into a dry cleaners and smell the air to know that.
Some people are allergic to the chemicals used, so try to look for patterns to see if you can work out if you are or not. If you develop skin irritation around the neck after wearing a dry cleaned shirt, or after putting your winter coat on after giving it a dry cleaning session, the chances are, you are.
There’s also a risk that your non iron shirt could also be posing an irritation risk. Non iron materials are treated with a solution that means they don’t wrinkle as much during the wash cycle and some of us are sensitive to this. Spray on starches to give clothing a freshly ironed stiffness can also cause skin irritations.
Metallic buttons and zips made from nickel can cause the skin to become irritated too. But more on that below under the jewellery section.
Finally, some of us are allergic or sensitive to certain fabrics - such as wool or manmade fibres such as polyester and nylon which don’t allow the skin to breathe as much as natural fibres such as cotton, bamboo and hemp.
Are you allergic to your bedsheets?
It’s not just our clothing that can lead to a textile allergy or sensitivity. Our sheets, duvets, pillows and mattresses can cause the same.
Dust mites are a common occurrence around the home that usually go unnoticed and are swept away when we vacuum and clean.
But for some, the microscopic droppings left behind by dust mites in our bedding can cause no end of allergy symptoms ranging from a blocked, stuffy nose, scratchy throat and itchy, irritated skin.
Also, flame retardant mattresses can also cause the same symptoms. Look for allergy friendly bedding and mattress covers that can help.
Hand soaps and sanitisers
As this article was written, the effects of the coronavirus were still very much a reality and regular hand washing was still the message being spread. But even without a global pandemic, if we need to wash our hands regularly, then it can cause the skin to become dry, stripped of its natural oils and feeling chapped and sore.
Try to use a gentle soap and if you’re using a hand sanitising gel that’s causing the same symptoms, use a nourishing, deeply penetrating hand cream and cover your hands with cotton gloves each night before bed.
Some plants are known to cause skin irritations including poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. So it’s important to recognise these plants if you think you might be being exposed to them so that you can avoid them.
Finally, some nickel plated earrings, necklaces, rings and watches can cause the skin to flare up and become irritated.
It should be fairly easy to identify as it’ll cause red, itchy, bumpy skin wherever you wear the jewellery. If this is you, then sadly, it’s best avoided.
This article is not meant to treat or diagnose. Please visit your doctor for advice about any health concerns you may have.