Skin Irritation – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Irritation of the skin may occur for various reasons. The human skin is tough and waterproof but even harmless substances can cause irritation if there are long periods of contact and friction with the skin. From chaffing due to very tight clothing to irritation caused by prolonged exposure to even water and sweat, our skin is not impervious to irritation from everyday substances around us.

What is skin irritation?

Irritation is a term that we use to describe minor injury or inflammation. It may not be significant enough to cause a rash or bleeding but usually results in some discomfort, itching or redness at a specific location. Irritation should not be confused with an allergy. Although irritation and an allergic reaction are both associated with inflammation, an allergy is the body’s immune response, albeit an incorrect response, to a harmless substance.

Irritation on the other hand does not usually trigger a coordinated response from the immune system. There is no imminent threat to the body although some degree of tissue injury and damage occurs at the site of the irritation. We all experience skin irritation on a regular basis and even daily in some instances. However, it is usually mild and quickly resolves once exposure to the irritant is removed.

Signs and Symptoms

Skin irritation may present with a host of signs and symptoms. Sometimes there may be little to no symptoms until complications like skin darkening (hyperpigmentation) arises.

  • Itching, burning and rarely pain.
  • Redness (erythema).
  • Swelling of the skin.
  • Heat over the irritated area.
  • Dryness of the affected skin.

An oozing discharge like pus along with pain are usually symptoms of a bacterial infection. This may occur secondary to the skin irritation as a break in the skin increases the risk of bacteria entering and infecting the skin.

Causes of Skin Irritation

Skin irritation is caused by an irritant – this is any substance or object that is otherwise harmless but slowly injures, damages and triggers mild inflammation at the point of contact. This skin inflammation due to contact with an irritant is known as irritant contact dematitis. Some of the more common irritants have been discussed below but it is important to note that just about any substance is a potential irritant.

Read more on irritant contact dermatitis.


Whether we scratch to relieve an itch or as a habit, the friction caused by the act of scratching can irritate the skin. This is more likely to occur if there is vigorous scratching and in people with long and/or jagged fingernails. Some of the irritants discussed below may cause itchiness and the subsequent scratching irritates the already irritated skin.


Despite the skin being waterproof, prolonged exposure to water can cause skin irritation. This may occur when being submerged in water for long periods or when even small quantities of water on the skin are not wiped dry soon. People who work with water on a constant basis, like dish washers, are more prone to skin irritation from water.

Sweat and Skin Oils

Sweat and skin oils are constantly secreted by the skin even if it is not visible to the naked eye. Large amounts of sweat or skin oils on its own may irritate the skin. However, these skin secretions often mix with dead skin cells on the skin surface and trap dust in the environment which is a stronger irritant.

Soap, Shampoo and Detergents

A number of cleaning agents such as soap and shampoo for bathing to dishwashing and laundry detergents can irritate the skin with direct and prolonged exposure. Laundry detergents used to wash clothes may cause skin irritation when washing by hand but also when these clothes are worn.

Cosmetics and Skin Care Applications

Makeup, body lotions and even sunscreens are some of the topical applications that can become irritants. Some of these applications may have harsh substances within it but even milder applications will irritate the skin when used in excess and for long periods of time.

Clothing and Textiles

Clothing that is too tight can rub against the skin and result in chaffing. Some textiles are more likely to irritate the skin with constant friction due to its texture. Other clothing and textiles may not directly irritate the skin but cause itching and the repeated scratching of the skin can then cause skin injury.

Other Irritants

Some other substances that may be skin irritants include:

  • Sand and dust.
  • Constant pressure on the skin.
  • Occupational Irritants like organic and non-organic dusts and various chemicals.

Read more on household irritants.

Treatment of Skin Irritation

Mild skin irritation usually does not require any treatment. The skin is resilient and the symptoms quickly resolve once the offending substance is removed. However, treatment may be necessary in moderate to severe cases of skin irritation. Even in these cases the irritant must be removed or exposure to it must be discontinued while treatment is commenced. Treatment options may include:

  • Emollients to moisturize the irritated area which is prone to drying and barrier creams to help restore some of the skin’s barrier function until the skin heals.
  • Topical corticosteroid to reduce the inflammation. Oral corticosteroids are usually not necessary but may be prescribed in severe cases.
  • Antimicrobial agents like antibacterial or antifungal ointments in the event of a secondary bacterial or fungal infection of the skin, respectively.

Prevention of Skin Irritation

The following measures may help to prevent skin irritation and also allow the already irritated skin to heal.

  • Avoid the irritant or at least minimize exposure to it with protective gear or limit to shorter periods of direct contact. Industrial-grade protective wear must be used as necessary for occupational exposure to irritants.
  • Rinse and dry the skin thoroughly after using soaps and shampoos or following contact with detergents. Do not rub the skin vigorously or use hard objects to scrub the skin.
  • Wear loose but properly fitting clothing. Opt for natural textiles that are not rough and do not have hard objects like beads or bucklesthat will make contact with the skin.
  • Use a barrier application over parts of the skin most likely to be irritated due to contact with the irritant substance. This is only a short term solution and protective gear should instead be used for repeated contact.
  • Keep the irritated area clean and protected to prevent infections and minimize any further damage to the skin from environmental factors as well as from the irritants.

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