Most Common Household Skin Irritants to Avoid & What You Can Try Instead

Do you or your family have unexplained allergies or persistent rashes? Or perhaps you have a new baby coming along and want to clear your house of any products or items that may cause a reaction to your little one. Our cupboards, drawers and cabinets are full of chemicals that may cause skin irritation. The products we use get into the air inside our house and cause levels of indoor pollution to rival the pollution levels outside.
 
We spoke to dermatologist Dr. Nicola Chan 陳珮瑤醫生 about the most common household irritants and some alternative options.
 
 

1. Household cleaners

Chemicals that make our household cleaners so effective at cleaning can wreak havoc on our skin, lungs and eyes.
 
Ingredients in popular cleaning solvents to look out for:
  • All-purpose cleaners and disinfectants contain chemicals that can irritate or breakdown the surface of your skin. Ingredients to avoid: ammonia, trisodium phosphate, sodium hypochlorite.
  • Window and glass cleaners can irritate your skin, eyes and nasal passages. Ingredients to avoid: ammonia and isopropanol.
  • Toilet cleaners contain chemicals that are highly corrosive and cause chemical skin burns, contain dangerous fumes, and can cause significant injury to lungs, skin, and eyes. Ingredients to avoid: hypochlorous acid, phenol, and sodium bisulfate.
  • Much like toilet cleaners, drain cleaners cause serious chemical burns and contain dangerous fumes, with potential for serious injury to skin, eyes and lungs. Ingredients to avoid: hypochlorous acid, phenol, and sodium bisulfate.
 
Try this instead: The obvious first step is to check the ingredient list of any cleaners you bring into the house. There are lots of eco- and health-conscious cleaning brands available in Hong Kong. Also, it is important to wear gloves whenever you handle any household cleaner.
 
 

2. Soaps

Soap can cause skin dryness and irritation from fragrances, chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, dyes and/or over-use. Excessively dry skin can chap, crack and bleed as the soap pulls out the skin’s natural oils.
 
Try this instead: Try to use gentler, hypoallergenic, fragrance-free and pH-neutral formulations and moisturize after washing and bathing.
 
 

3. Laundry detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets

Traces of laundry detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets can remain on clothing, causing skin to become itchy and irritated where clothes come into contact. Ingredients to avoid: fragrance, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)/sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), 1,4-dioxane, nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), and phosphates.
 
Try this instead: avoid the above ingredients and opt for a fragrance- and dye-free liquid fabric softener and detergent to ease irritation and increase the duration of the rinse cycle in your washing machine to increase the likelihood that chemicals are removed.
 
 

4. Heat

This one is hard to escape in our sweltering Hong Kong summers. Heat and humidity can cause heat rash on skin, presenting as small red bumps or blisters that are a result of excessive sweating. It is particularly common in young babies and people taking certain medications.
 
Try this: Heat rash usually remedies on its own but keeping as dry and cool as possible with fans and air conditioning will help keep heat rash at bay. Also, wipe away sweat with a wet towel when it starts accumulating around the creases. Sweat itself can frequently irritate sensitive skin.
 
 

5. Clothing

If you’ve got sensitive skin, you know it can be just that – sensitive. The roughness of fabrics like wool; tags or seams; or allergic reactions to chemical additives, metal buttons/fasteners or dyes can all irritate sensitive skin and cause a rash or itching
 

Try this instead: Cotton or poly-cotton fabrics usually keep irritation at bay.

 
 

6. Cosmetics

The skin on our face is particularly delicate so if you experience stinging or burning with your skin care products, it’s wise to find something gentler. Common irritants include fragrance, certain ascorbic acid preparations, retinols, paraben preservatives, and alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic acid, malic acid, and lactic acid).
 
Try this instead: Look out for skin care which is hypoallergenic and fragrance-free. Avoid whitening, exfoliating and strong anti-ageing skin care products if your skin is sensitive. Also, simplify your skin care routine and avoid toners. Use only the essentials, which include a suitable cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen.
 
Anti-perspirants and deodorants commonly contain fragrance that can aggravate skin. High concentration of aluminium chloride, which is a common active ingredient in many anti-perspirants, can cause irritation.
 

Try this instead: There are plenty of fragrance-free anti-perspirants and deodorants available on the market.

If you get a rash, irritation, itchiness or redness anytime you use a certain makeup product, there’s a chance either it has expired and contains bacteria or you’re allergic to it. The products most commonly linked to allergies are eye makeup, detergents, antiperspirants, foaming bath products , long-wearing lip stains, and nail polish. The most common cosmetic chemicals linked to skin reaction are formaldehyde, imidazolidinyl urea, parabens, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanol, and methylchloroisothiazolinone.
 
Try this instead: If avoiding cosmetics altogether is not an option for your sensitive skin, opt for labels reading ‘fragrance-free’ and without any of the offending ingredients above.
 
 

7. Fragrances

It’s likely you’ve heard of fragrance allergies as many public areas and offices are becoming ‘fragrance-free zones’. Fragrances can cause allergies similar to hay fever (sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, headaches etc.) and they can cause skin allergies with contact to the offending substance.
 
Try this instead: If you or one of your family members has a suspected fragrance allergy or irritation, it’s best to stay away from anything fragranced. Apart from the obvious perfumes and colognes, a lot of household and cosmetic products have fragrance so take a look at the ingredients list for any fragrances listed.
 
 
Dr. Nicola Chan 陳珮瑤醫生 is a Specialist in Dermatology in private practice. She graduated from the University of Cambridge, UK, and received post-graduate medical training in Cambridge, London and Hong Kong. This was followed by further laser and aesthetic dermatology training in Boston and Baltimore, USA. Dr Chan is a member of the Hong Kong Society of Dermatology and Venereology, American Society of Laser Medicine and Surgery, Asian Dermatological Association, and Hong Kong College of Dermatologists.
This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and not sponsored. It is informative only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.