Poison in your Washing Machine: Allergic Contact Dermatitis from Laundry Detergents, Softeners, Conditioners and Whiteners

This article is a little different to my usual reports on consumer related problems because the victim whose suffering I am describing here is me. I have never suffered before from allergic skin reactions but a couple of months ago I was ‘poisoned‘ by something I had used in my washing machine. The effects were so bad they prevented me working for about 6 weeks and affected my whole body except for my face, the palms of my hands and my feet. At an early stage in the illness I decided to keep a photographic record to share with others who might have similar problems and hopefully provide some encouragement that the problem can be eliminated if you can identify the exact cause.

The problem I an referring to is Allergic Contact Dermatitis. This is a reaction to some chemical – or biochemical – in your environment that you have come into contact with and developed an allergic reaction to. Let me first share with you some photographs of myself shortly after I realised I have a problem (these were taken approximately two weeks after I first came into contact with the product that caused the reaction). If you want to inspect more detail in any of my photographs simply click on them and you will see a high resolution version.

Day 15 after initial irritation - My right chest
Day 15 after initial irritation – My right chest
Day 15 after initial irritation - My right arm
Day 15 after initial irritation – My right arm
Day 15 after initial irritation - My left chest close-up
Day 15 after initial irritation – My left chest close-up
Day 15 after initial irritation - My left chest
Day 15 after initial irritation – My left chest
Day 15 after initial irritation - My left arm
Day 15 after initial irritation – My left arm

As you can see from these photographs I developed a rash and spots over large parts of my body. In addition to my chest and arms shown in the photos my legs and genital area were also affected. Because my face and the palms of my hands were not affected I suspected the problem may have been related to my clothing and tried to identify what changes I had made recently. I identified a number of suspects: new clothing (chemicals like formaldehyde are used to process these), recent changes to washing detergents (‘Persil colour capsules‘ from Unilever), softeners (Procter and Gamble‘s ‘Lenor‘) and my first use of a clothing whitener (‘White’n’Bright‘ from Dylon).

As I had recently only worn new clothes that had been thoroughly washed I eliminated these as a possible cause of my problem. However if you would like to find out more about formaldehyde related contact allergies and where this chemical is found try the link here. I was able to find examples on the internet of other people developing allergic reactions to Lenor and Persil Colour Capsules and the packaging for White’n’Bright by Dylon stated that it could cause an allergic reaction. To help you identify precisely which products I had been using here are some photographs of the packaging.

Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 1 Front of packet
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 1 Front of packet
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 2 Side of Packet
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 2 Side of Packet
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 3 Packet hazard warning and contents
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 3 Packet hazard warning and contents
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 4 rear of packet
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 4 rear of packet
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 5 Usage instructions
Suspect 1: Dylon White n Bright 5 Usage instructions
Suspect 2: Procter & Gamble Lenor 1 Front of bottle
Suspect 2: Procter & Gamble Lenor 1 Front of bottle
Suspect 2: Procter & Gamble Lenor 2 Side of bottle with warning
Suspect 2: Procter & Gamble Lenor 2 Side of bottle with warning
Suspect 2: Procter & Gamble Lenor 3 Side of bottle with contents
Suspect 2: Procter & Gamble Lenor 3 Side of bottle with contents

In my internet search for others with allergic reactions to Procter and Gamble’s Lenor I checked the Allergy UK site (the link is here). The Netmums forum also had some correspondence about Lenor (link here).

Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 1 Front of box
Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 1 Front of box
Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 2 Top of box
Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 2 Top of box
Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 3 Back of box
Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 3 Back of box
Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 4 Contents
Suspect 3: Unilever Persil Colour Capsules 4 Contents

When researching whether others had similar allergy problems with Persil from Unilever I found the forum at Allergy UK again to be quite useful (the link is here) and also the forum at mumsnet (link is here). It should be noted that Persil is manufactured by Henkel (not Unilever) when purchased in Germany and therefore this should be considered to be a different product when determining what may be causing an allergy. Research papers have also been written about the incidence rates of allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) from detergents – for example a paper examining allergy rates from patch tests using Procter & Gamble’s liquid and powder detergents can be found here. In their tests 0.7% of the population (5 out of 738 people who volunteered) were found to be allergic to the detergents tested.

As a result of my research and the localisation of my allergic reaction I was pretty certain it was probably caused by one of these three suspect products. Until I could identify which one it was I decided to stop using all three immediately. However this was sadly not enough. The thing causing the allergic reaction (the allergen) was already in my clothes and even though I tried not to use any of the clothes which had recently been washed my condition worsened considerably around day 20. Just prior to this I had been itching so severely that I decided to try and ease the irritation using a small hand towel soaked in cold water (a serious mistake). Take a look at the results….

Day 26 after initial irritation - Swelling of my left right arm
Day 26 after initial irritation – Swelling of my left right arm
Day 26 after initial irritation - Swelling of my right arm
Day 26 after initial irritation – Swelling of my right arm

This was a mistake because the towel had been washed in the whitener ‘White’n’Bright’ sold by Dylon. Until this time my suspicions had been focused on my softener or detergent as the most likely cause – however I don’t use softener when washing towels. Before using the soaked towel I had been scratching the irritated area and I suspect the damaged skin made it easier for the allergen to enter into my body – possibly helped by the water. The two photographs above showed the swelling in my arms a few days after using the cool wet towel.

At about the same time I had a much needed siesta and slept for about an hour wearing a white t-shirt that had been washed thoroughly at least once following an earlier wash with the whitener. This lead to a burning sensation on my skin and swelling around my chest which was similar to that shown on my arms (above). My weight increased by over 3 kilos and my sister suggested that my expanded body made me look like the ‘Michelin Man‘.

Michelin Man posing at the Taipei Cycle Day (courtesy of Rico Shen)
Michelin Man posing at the Taipei Cycle Day (courtesy of Rico Shen)

More worrying to me (and fortunately not seen by my sister!) my scrotal sack increased to the size of a grapefruit – yes I had washed my undies in the whitener. Let me put your mind to rest – I do not intend to publish any photos of this part of my anatomy. Needless to say my genitals felt like they were on fire (sadly for the wrong reasons).

At this point I decided more radical action was necessary. I could try and wash all the clothes in which I had used the whitener but I was not sure how many times I would need to wash them. I did not want to take the risk of the reaction occurring again so I simply disposed of any white clothes which may have been ‘contaminated’ with the whitener made by Dylon. I had used the product (supplied in sachets) in 3 full washing machines and because I had not segregated the most recently washed clothes I could not be sure which items in my white wardrobe were contaminated and which were ‘OK’. So anything with the slightest risk of containing the allergen went in the garbage (over 8 dustbin bags full – including towels and bed linen).

Day 30 Scars on swollen left arm
Day 30 Scars on swollen left arm
Day 30 Scars on swollen right arm
Day 30 Scars on swollen right arm

A few days later things started to improve – the swelling gradually reduced. I continued to have spots, scars and the red skin rash which all lasted for another 2-3 weeks until the skin started to fall off. The scars on my wrists were particularly painful and prevented me using a keyboard (both the computer sort and my assorted musical instruments). The skin shedding may sound dramatic but it is similar to what happens a couple of weeks after you return from a holiday in which you have managed to acquire a nice brown sun tan. My home looked as if it had a constant sprinkling of snow as skin fell off for a couple of weeks (my vacuum cleaner went through a very active period – often being used twice per day). I actually felt better that the skin was falling off because I believed it was taking the allergen with it – my body appeared to be trying to cleanse itself of the ‘bad’ skin.

In the blog I prepared when this allergic reaction first appeared (link is here) I included a list of the kind of things that might cause allergic contact dermatitis. In case you have a similar reaction and are trying to identify the cause here is the list:

The most common items containing allergic stimulants (allergens) tend to be:

  • laundry washing detergents,
  • fabric conditioners/softeners,
  • perfumes,
  • perfumed soaps, colognes, make-up/cosmetic products,
  • rubber clothing items like gloves,
  • smoke
  • 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 glassesnecklace 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.

By day 36 things had improved considerably although I still itched in all the areas that had been in contact with the allergen – the itching appeared to be my body’s way of encouraging me to get rid of the unwanted skin layers:

Day 36 Right wrist - swelling reduced
Day 36 Right wrist – swelling reduced
Day 36 left wrist swelling reduced
Day 36 left wrist swelling reduced

When you are trying to identify what it is that is causing an outbreak of allergic contact dermatitis it can be helpful to consider the exact location of the skin response. Here is a list which might help you with your investigations:

  • a reaction around the ear-lobes may indicate nickel in an ear ring as the cause.
  • a reaction 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, socksgluesinserts, 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 tarsfibreglass, rubbers (e.g. latex gloves), clothing dyes, chemicals or items treated with chemicals, adhesives (like tapes), soapsdetergents, bleaches, cleaning agents, vinegar, antiseptic or salts of metals.

Between days 30 and 40 I was unable to sleep very much at night – often managing only a couple of hours because of the constant irritation. As a result it was necessary to grab one or two sleeping sessions during the day. This lack of sleep, in addition to the general pain caused by the many scars and the constant itching, made it impossible to continue with my normal daily routine. In total I lost about 6 weeks of work during this allergic response period. After day 40 I was able to return to normal work activities (mainly writing and music production – both of which had been impossible due to the painful scars on my wrists).

By day 44 I had made an almost fairly full recovery (OK there were still a few small spots and my skin continued to itch a bit but hopefully this will clear with time). To give hope to any fellow sufferers who are trying to erradicate themselves of their contact allergens here are some pictures taken on day 44. I continue to marvel at the body’s ability to recover from the poisons we inadvertently throw at it. It would be good if manufacturers of products which are known allergens actually provide some more detailed (and graphic) information on the packaging about just what can actually happen when you get an allergic response. In addition to photos they should advise people how long the illness can take to clear up (e.g. a month) and approximately what the rate of sensitivity in the population is (e.g. are 1 in 200 people affected or is it 1 in a 100,000?).

Day 44 Right wrist (front) almost back to normal
Day 44 Right wrist (front) almost back to normal
Day 44 Right wrist (back) almost back to normal
Day 44 Right wrist (back) almost back to normal
Day 44 Front of chest almost back to normal
Day 44 Front of chest almost back to normal

….and to conclude I have included below some before (day 15) and after (day 44) eradication of the allergen photos:

Day 15 after initial irritation - My right chest
Day 15 after initial irritation – My right chest
Day 44 Right side of chest almost back to normal
Day 44 Right side of chest almost back to normal

During the whole of this incident I did not blame my body once for it’s response. If this were a killer virus or a carcinogen I would be very grateful that my body mobilised its best storm-troopers to kill the invader (storm-troopers here are killer white blood cells or T-lymphocytes)

If you are a fellow sufferer – good luck with your efforts.

Comments gratefully received via the comments box below. If you know anyone who may benefit from the information here please do not hesitate to share this article.

Chris Duggleby

PS Allergy Sufferers may also find the following articles of interest:

My T-shirt Made Me Sick – Textile Allergies – Sinusitis From Your Underwear

Torture In The Shower – Face and Body Soap Allergies – Main Suspect: Pears Transparent Soap

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:

Is Alzheimer’s caused by the Gum Disease Bacterium P. Gingivalis – A Dementia Prevention/Treatment Breakthrough?

Toxic Chemicals in Sex Toys – 18 Vibrators, Cock Rings, Love Balls Tested – Only 3 Get All Clear

Kill Head Lice In A Day With The Newly Developed Plasma Nitcomb From The German Fraunhofer Institute

Spreading diarrhea and vomit through the washing machine– The Norovirus propagator in our kitchen

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19 thoughts on “Poison in your Washing Machine: Allergic Contact Dermatitis from Laundry Detergents, Softeners, Conditioners and Whiteners”

  1. Thank you so much! This was so helpful! I’ve been in so much trouble finding out what was going on, as I developed the worst skin rash all over my body, stared feeling really sick and even ended up in hospital after my face started to swell! It’s been pretty hard to track down what was the cause as I’ve been having a cold too and another skin condition at the same time. After days of research and now seeing the pictures of your skin I’m almost a 100% sure it’s caused by the new washing detergent I’ve been using! After a steroid shot and antihistamines I’m a lot better now. I stopped taking the antihistamines and really hope that washing everything for at least 3 times without the detergent is gonna help!

      1. Thanks Metallfalke,
        Although it was a long time ago I think one of the detergents I used in my place in Bavaria may also have been Formil Colour purchased from Penny-Markt – I didn’t do a controlled experiment with just this product so it will be interesting to see how you get on after your ‘decontamination’ process. Good luck, Chris.

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I had an allergic reaction, developing both severe hives and a very bad allergic dermatitis, to a topical treatment I applied all over my body, and turns out I never even had the problem it was meant for! I was very concerned that I was taking too long to heal and even thought I would have this forever but knowing that it took you 44 days to almost get back to normal is comforting. It has been around that same time for me and I am improving as well. Thank you again!!

    1. Thanks for the feedback Christina – I hope everything clears up soon. For me it has been well over a year now and my skin has remained free of any signs of irritation (OK I also stopped using soap and in the last year even shampoo – I am amazed how much better my hair now looks – wash every day with just water – no sign of grease – new age caveman!).

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