This article may be of interest if you or your loved ones suffer from an irritating allergic skin rash – particularly if you think this could be caused by a recent change in your washing detergent or another fabric modifying additive like whitener/brightener or a fabric conditioner/softener.
In this weeks blog I would like to share with you something which is close to my heart. In fact as I type this article the skin around my heart (and most of my body) is covered in a very irritating red rash, bumps and various other inflamed lesions which are typical of allergic contact dermatitis.
Many years ago a quarter of my first degree which I studied at the Manchester Medical School involved immunology or the study of allergic reactions and what can cause them. As a result I hope that as an informed layman I can transfer my understanding to you of some of the things that can cause these painful and irritating skin reactions and help you to consider what to do about them. Let me stress I am not a medical doctor – just another sufferer.
My first thought as my own symptoms occurred was that I had simply developed a heat rash. This was due to the arrival of summer in Europe and a recent increase in my aerobic exercises both of which might encourage a heat rash if the skin is unable to sweat properly.
I was able to eliminate the idea of heat rash as the cause by stopping my exercise routine and avoiding exposure to heat and sun (quite easy with the rather cool and wet ‘summer’ we are having here at the moment!). The symptoms continued to get worse and quickly spread across most of my body. Heat rash normally goes away after a short while (a few hours to a couple of days) once the causes are addressed. However my symptoms were getting worse. These symptoms included a red skin rash over a large area with spots/bumps, itching, and a burning pain.
Most readers will be aware of the skin irritation you get following a mosquito or tick bite. Although we know it is better not to scratch the affected area it is almost impossible not to do this as it appears, at first, to ease the irritation. However any relief is short lived and soon after you stop scratching the itchiness returns but now it is even worse. Clearly you can not keep scratching because you risk damaging your skin and perhaps causing a more serious infection of the area concerned. Well now try and imagine what it is like having 1000 mosquito bites all over your body – that is roughly how I am feeling at the moment. Much as I would like to scratch, I would have to scratch my whole body and the problem could be made far more serious. So don’t scratch Chris!
Another reason I was certain this was not simply a heat rash was that the symptoms were spreading to several parts of my body, like my arms and legs. Heat rash is generally localised and often occurs where two skin regions touch like under the arms, breasts or in the groin area. This contact inflammation can be exacerbated if you are overweight. The photo above is my left arm which is the part of my body that does not have to do much work (I am right handed). Therefore I decided this was not simply a heat rash.
The rash spread to my groin area with its somewhat sensitive appendages and to my legs (don’t worry I will not inflict ‘medical’ photos of these areas on you). By this stage I had started to avoid wearing clothes wherever possible and stay in the coolest locations I could find. As I felt I had eliminated heat rash I started to examine other possible causes. The symptoms and circumstances I describe below indicated to me that this was an allergic contact dermatitis.
Over the last month I had made 3 changes to the way I wash clothes:
1. I used a whitener (Dylon’s White’n’Bright) in 3 washing machines full of white clothes
2. I started adding Lenor Softener (Proctor & Gamble) which I had bought recently
3. I used a new box of Persil colour capsules (Unilever) to wash my coloured clothes
All of these types of products: soap powder, detergents, softeners and other washing additives, have been suspected of eliciting allergic reactions in sensitive people.
At this time of year I have very light bed coverings – often usually only a sheet. To avoid getting too cool at night I often wear long armed T-shirts in bed with long pyjama trousers. Both items had recently been washed using one or more of the three products above. I was surprised that my back and shoulders were relatively free of the allergy symptoms. However as I tend to sleep on my chest or sides I assume that my sleeping position forced the allergen (the stuff that causes the allergic reaction) from my clothes into the skin area around my chest and sides. This in effect sensitized these areas which led to a slightly delayed (about two days later) full blown response.
If you are trying to identify causes for similar symptoms you are experiencing there are a number of possible causes of allergic contact dermatitis.
The most common items containing allergic stimulants (allergens) tend to be clothes washing detergents, fabric conditioners/softeners, perfumes and perfumed soaps, colognes, make-up/cosmetic products, rubber clothing items like gloves, smoke and certain kinds of plants (like poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak), dyes and items containing precious metals like nickel and gold. Sometimes an everyday item may contain an unexpected allergen, for example nickel may be in bra stays, hairpins, eyelash curlers, frames of glasses, necklace clasps, zips, thimbles, watch straps, jewellery and insecticides. These are just some common causes – for a more comprehensive list you should consult your allergy specialist.
To identify the cause of an allergic contact dermatitis consider the exact location of the skin response. For example a reaction around the ear-lobes may indicate nickel in an ear ring as the cause. Reactions near the eyes may be due to cosmetics, finger nail products or something that is airborne (pollen, sprays, plant products). Allergens in toothpaste, lip-balm or mouthwash may cause reactions in or around the mouth. If your feet are involved perhaps something in or associated with your shoes is the cause (leather tanning agents, socks, glues, inserts or buckles) or a foot powder. The neck region could indicate an allergen contained in cosmetics, aftershave, cologne or perfume. These can often be made worse by sunlight. Antiperspirants and deodorants usually affect the underarm area as do certain textiles in particular wool. Detergents may be the cause of problems around the hands.
Also consider whether the area affected has been in contact with tars, fibreglass, rubbers (e.g. latex gloves), clothing dyes, chemicals or items treated with chemicals, adhesives (like tapes), soaps, detergents, bleaches, cleaning agents, vinegar, antiseptic or salts of metals.
As I am doing with the three additives above try to eliminate the cause of the irritation or the potential causes. If the dermatitis goes away and you have eliminated more than one substance you can gradually reintroduce the items one at a time to narrow down the culprit. If this doesn’t work your doctor or medical specialist may recommend doing a skin allergy patch test in which very small doses of potential allergens are brought in contact with the skin (under a patch) to see if they cause an allergic response.
Sadly the constant irritation means I have been unable to complete my last piece of baroque music to share with you this week. However you are welcome to share the tracks already produced by clicking on my play-list below. I will certainly be listening to this as I try and relax with a nice piece of non-allergenic chocolate.
Well that is all for this week – I need to save some time for the mountain of re-washing I have to do to try and clean out any remaining traces of suspect additives in my clothes. As soon as I have determined exactly which additive caused my problems I will add a more detailed report to the risk articles section of this website (including more photos). Have a great (and if possible soothing) week.
If you found this article interesting please consider taking a look at some of my other recent reports on similar subjects.
Just click on the titles below: