Irritated skin is an extremely common skin care concern that typically affects all people at some point in their lives. Sometimes called dermatitis, irritation is a blanket term used to describe skin that is red, puffy and inflamed. Irritated skin may be painful or itchy, and in severe cases, may include lesions. Skin irritation can be acute, meaning that it comes on suddenly, or chronic, meaning that it persists for long periods of time and may develop slowly.
Some type of trigger sets off all types of irritated skin. This trigger may be something external to your body that you come in contact with. In some cases, the irritant or trigger is an actual threat, but in other cases, the substance is harmless to most people, but your body perceives it incorrectly. This is known as an allergic response. Triggers can also occur due to a dysfunction in your immune system that makes your body perceive a threat that is not actually there. This type is considered "auto-immune" irritation.
No matter what the trigger of skin irritation is, the same mechanism in your body produces the symptoms associated with it. When your body perceives a threat, your immune system releases chemicals, including histamine, to respond to it and protect your body. The chemicals increase the amount of blood flow to the affected area, which causes the swelling. As the area fills with blood, redness occurs and you may even notice that your irritated skin feels slightly warmer than the areas around it due to the increased amount of blood in the area. Histamine can also cause your skin to become itchy. Depending on the severity of the irritation, your body may also produce scabs, crusty coverings that make up lesions, to protect the skin from the trigger.
A variety of external triggers can result in skin irritation. Some common culprits include:
- Plants with poisonous, harsh or abrasive chemicals on their leaves, such as poison ivy or poison oak
- Chemicals in household cleaners, including all-purpose cleaners, window and glass cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners and dishwashing detergents
- Fragrances, enzymes and other ingredients in laundry detergents and fabric softeners
- Venom and toxins from insects as well as some harsh chemicals in insect repellents
- Chemicals found in depilatory and shaving products and those used in clinical skin care treatments, such as chemical peels
- Ingredients in cosmetics, sunscreens and skin care products
- Components of bar and body soaps
- Dyes and synthetic fibers found in clothing
- Prescription and over-the-counter topical medications
- Metals in jewelry, such as nickel
- Your skin can also develop irritation from exposure to high heat, which occurs when your immune system perceives the overheating occurs on hot and humid days as an external threat.
Discovering the Trigger
To properly treat skin irritation, determining the trigger is important; however, in some cases, you may never be able to determine precisely what is to blame for your case of dermatitis, particularly if it is acute and disappears quickly without returning.
When you notice signs of skin irritation, the first important step to take is to think about what you did during the 24 to 48 hours prior to the appearance of the dermatitis. Were you exposed to a chemical or substance that you do not regularly come in contact with? Did you use a new type of makeup or skin care product, wear a new article of clothing or wear something that was washed in a new detergent?
In some cases, irritated skin does not appear with the first use of a product. You may need to be repeatedly exposed over a period of days, weeks or even months for the immune response to be triggered. If you cannot isolate a possible cause by thinking back on your activities from the days leading up to the appearance of dermatitis and the irritation persists, you can try to discover the trigger by eliminating items that may be to blame.
Stop using possible trigger items one at a time and look for changes in your condition. You'll want to select what items you eliminate based upon where the irritation is occurring. For example, if the rash is on your face, you would eliminate cosmetics, cleansers, moisturizers and skin care treatments one by one.
If you cannot uncover the source of your chronic skin irritation, your doctor may be able to help through physical examinations and collecting skin samples to study under a microscope.
In cases of mild, acute skin irritation, you may be able to care for the condition at home by alleviating your symptoms until the dermatitis clears up. Taking cool baths can make itchiness less severe as can cool, wet compresses applied directly to the skin. Applying a 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, a product available without a prescription, can help suppress the activity of your immune system and alleviate your symptoms temporarily.
Clinical studies have found that the use of rice bran can help alleviate some forms of dermatitis. Rice bran oil is available from some health food stores and natural medicinal suppliers. This oil can be applied directly to the rash with a cotton ball or swab. Alternatively, you can make rice bran broth by boiling bran in a pot of water for 30 minutes. Drain the bran, discard it and reserve the liquid. Then, chill the liquid in the refrigerator and apply to the skin as you would the oil.
For persistent, severe skin irritation, your doctor may prescribe a topical corticosteroid cream, such as prednisone. These drugs lessen the immune response in the area to which they are applied. Some people cannot use corticosteroid drugs to treat dermatitis because they have a sensitivity to the creams or ointments that causes additional inflammation. When used for long periods of time, corticosteroids can cause your skin to thin; due to this, your doctor will likely prescribe the drug for as long as your symptoms persist and then instruct you to discontinue use. If you have chronic dermatitis that disappears and then returns again, you'll need to begin treatment anew with each flare-up of skin irritation.
Over-the-Counter Beauty Treatments
For many types of skin irritation, over-the-counter beauty treatments are able to alleviate symptoms and return skin to its usual appearance. A variety of types of products are available to help you deal with irritation.
- Treatments are specialized products that usually address a specific cause of skin irritation, such as side effects from beauty treatments or hypersensitivity allergic reactions.
- Moisturizers restore hydration to the skin and are useful for treating eczema, a type of skin irritation that is believed to be an autoimmune response tied to skin dryness. A gentle moisturizer can also help alleviate itching and redness in irritated skin.
- Masks are leave-on treatments that expose your skin to soothing ingredients for extended periods of time, providing maximum benefits.
- Cleansers formulated for sensitive or irritated skin help wipe away impurities to assist in the healing process and can make the return of chronic irritation less likely.
Shopping for Irritated Skin
If you suffer from skin sensitivity that causes allergic reactions from a variety of products, look for skin care items and cosmetics that are hypoallergenic. Products that are fragrance free are ideal, as often perfumes are common irritants. Some people are sensitive to parabens, a type of preservative found in some skin care products. Many sensitive skin formulations are paraben or completely preservative free.
When treating irritated skin, there are certain natural ingredients that can soothe inflammation and provide relief from your symptoms. Among these are:
- Aloe vera extract, which is obtained from the juice or leaves of a succulent plant and is highly effective at eliminating redness and soothing irritation
- Alpha Bisabolol, which is derived from chamomile and is a natural anti-inflammatory
- Vitamin B12, a natural nutrient that has been shown in clinical studies to help reduce inflammation associated with dermatitis
- Honey, a natural product produced by bees that helps heal skin damage
- Cucumber extract, which has a cooling, soothing effect when applied topically
- Butcher's Broom extract sourced from an evergreen shrub, which helps alleviate the pooling of blood beneath the surface of the skin by stimulating circulation
- Arnica extract, obtained from a flowering herb, which promotes healing