Sophie Edme

Sophie Edme

Chemical Irritants and Eczema

Genes play a role in the development and severity of eczema, and unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do about those. But, the good news is that the various triggers for eczema can be dealt with to some extent. A separate post covers dietary factors, and triggers from the natural world.

Understanding triggers

The immune system is always working to protect us. The immune response and inflammatory processes work so well to fight pathogens and heal the body that we are mostly unaware of the battle taking place. A severe allergic reaction shows the full power of the immune system, and can be deadly.

Fortunately, most allergic reactions remain local and take a little time to develop. This a delay between contact with the allergen and the body’s reaction. And that is why a diary can be so useful in helping you identify the less obvious irritants.

Each person’s eczema trigger, or triggers, may be different, but once you’ve got a list of your personal triggers, then your eczema will be much easier to manage.

Some common eczema triggers that are everyday products:

  • hand and dish soap
  • bubble bath
  • body wash
  • surface cleaners or disinfectants
  • metals, particularly nickel
  • tobacco smoke
  • perfume
  • make-up and cosmetics
  • fabrics, such as polyester or wool
  • antibacterial ointments, such as neomycin and bacitracin

Things to look out for on the label:

Cocamidopropyl betaine

This thickening agent is often added to shampoos and lotions. If you have a sensitivity to this product then it will make eczema flare-ups much worse.

Solvents, inc. Formaldehyde

Lots of people are sensitive to formaldehyde, and if you also have eczema, it can be a strong trigger. Solvents are also found in several household disinfectants and some cosmetics, but also apples, bananas, onions and carrots, seafood and chicken, to name but a few. Formaldehyde sounds scary, but it is also a chemical that our bodies manufacture as we need it to produce the building blocks of proteins; amino acids. Formaldehyde is only a problem in massive quantities, or if you’re sensitive to it.


This compound is rarely used in its pure form but mixes and related chemicals are very common. The reason it’s used so much is that it’s very effective at killing bacteria, fungi and algae, and if you’re not sensitive to it, then it’s certainly safer than using products containing bacteria, fungi and algae!

However, sensitivity to isothiazolinone is on the rise, and it looks as though the more exposure you have to it, the more reactive you will become. If you suffer from eczema and are looking to eliminate triggers, then this should be towards the top of your list.

Products that commonly contain an isothiazolinone mix:


  • make-up removers
  • mascaras
  • eye shadows
  • bronzers
  • foundation/concealers

Hygiene and pharmaceutical products

  • baby wipes – these are a common source of infant skin irritations
  • creams/lotions/gels & moisturisers
  • shampoos & conditioners
  • some prescription medicines

Household cleaners (higher concentrations)

  • fabric softener
  • polishes
  • detergents and cleaners
  • Industrial uses
  • pesticides
  • glues and other adhesives
  • paints
  • latex
  • emulsions
  • printing inks


Eczema is one of those conditions where increased sensitivity to certain things can build up over time. This is particularly true of detergents as they tend to build up in our clothes with each wash.

Some people can be triggered by conventional detergents, but others are allergic to the ingredients of ‘natural’ products. It’s one of those issues where it pays to try different products. But, make sure to make a note of which products when in your diary to get the best quality of your careful experiments.

If you are going to change your detergent, it’s worth washing your washing machine out first, or else there isn’t much point. Run an empty machine on a hot wash with some vinegar inside, and for the first couple of washes, add no detergent at all. For a deeper clean, you’ll have to wash your machine manually.

Be a detective!

Taking a measured approach to working out what triggers your eczema is worth it in the long run. By jumping to conclusions, you risk being discouraged if that strategy doesn’t help. If a jumper makes your eczema worse, you still have to work out if it is the jumper or the detergent that remains on its fibres.

While some of the above may sound pretty scary, remember that Risk = Hazard x Exposure, and unless you are particularly sensitive, the risks these products pose are very small because the quantities used are usually tiny.

But, when you reduce or eliminate all the eczema triggers around you, the immune system will work better, meaning that your skin is less sensitive and recovers faster. I’m not a doctor, but I think that eczema specialists will agree, that lots of small changes working together will help.

Right! I’m off to hunt down a magnifying glass and see if there’s any iso- isotylio- isobenzy- er, chemicals in the shampoo…

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