Many households use laundry detergent to clean clothes and fabric softener to keep clothes smelling fresh, soft and avoid static cling. Fabric softener may smell nice, but the chemical used to make the product can also have adverse effects on the skin. If an itchy rash develops after exposure to clothing laundered with fabric softener, it is most likely a condition known as contact dermatitis.
Contact Dermatitis is when an irritating substance or allergen, such as the chemicals in fabric softener, makes contact with the skin causing a rash or allergic reaction. Contact dermatitis is a localized rash. Generally, the reaction is seen as itchy, red, scaly bumps on the area of skin exposed to the irritating substance. Any substance that causes such a reaction is known as an allergen. There are many different types of allergens including perfumes, chemicals, foods, latex, metals, cleaners and cosmetics.
Contact dermatitis is generally localized to the area where the fabric softener makes contact. The allergen may cause allergic dermatitis or irritant dermatitis. Allergic dermatitis may not appear immediately. It generally appears one to two days after exposure to an allergen and causes red, itchy skin. Irritant dermatitis appears immediately, is more painful than itchy and many times results in hives or blisters on the skin. Healing time for either reaction may be up to four weeks.
Home treatment consists of using calamine lotion or oatmeal baths to soothe the itching. Oral antihistamine may also help relieve symptoms. If the irritated area is small, use of an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream may help. If blisters appear, use a cold, moist compress three times a day. If you know you have recently come into contact with an allergen, wash the area immediately with soap and cool water, as it helps remove most of the irritating substance.
If the rash does not improve or worsens during home treatment contact a physician or dermatologist. The doctor generally prescribes a corticosteroid cream if the area is small. For large or severe areas of irritation, the doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid in pill form or as an injection. Prescription antihistamines are sometimes given along with the other medications.