Top 5 Allergens in Soaps that Cause Dermatitis
A bar of soap may look harmless, but it could be packed with allergens
that can cause dermatitis.
What is dermatitis? Dermatitis is a symptom, not a disease, and the word
can apply to a wide range of skin conditions. Essentially, dermatitis is
any inflammation of the skin that leads to redness, scaling, itching or
tiny fluid-filled blisters. Dermatitis can have any number of causes, from
fungal infection to fleas, but allergic contact dermatitis
occurs when our bodies take in an allergy through our skin and, as a
result, become inflamed. Like food allergies, most of these substances are
harmless when ingested by people who aren't allergic, but there are also
plants (like poison ivy) that produce contact dermatitis in a majority of
the population. Oddly, the most common contact allergen isn't even a plant
-- it's nickel.
The quickest way to develop allergic contact dermatitis is by rubbing
something you're allergic to on your bare skin. Something we rub on our
skin on a regular basis is soap. Ironically, a product that's supposed to
cleanse your skin can end up causing you a lot of pain and aggravation.
We'll take a look at five of the most common allergens in soaps that cause
5: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a common ingredient found in soaps and
shampoos. SLS is a detergent, which means it does a good job of breaking up
oil and grease. It's also the substance that makes soap get frothy when you
rub it on your body.
So how does SLS contribute to contact dermatitis? One common skin-care myth
is that the oil on our bodies is dirty, but the truth is that we need a
reasonable amount of it for protection. While SLS is useful for breaking up
greasy foreign substances, it also breaks up the layer of oil that keeps
our skin from drying out. And while it's not technically an allergen
because it doesn't provoke a reaction from the immune system, SLS can cause
contact dermatitis and aggravate eczema by weakening that oily barrier on
our skin. This means that SLS can usher other allergic elements into your
body. After repeated exposure to these elements, you may develop reactions
to things you weren't allergic to before.
If you're having a problem with dry, itchy skin, check your soap for sodium
lauryl sulfate. It also appears in toothpaste and bubble bath -- pretty
much anything that foams up to get you clean.
Wait, fragrance? Isn't that a little general? Unfortunately, yes. The soap
market is a cutthroat place, and companies are cagey about revealing the
ingredients that make their formulas smell just right. When you see
fragrance listed as an ingredient on a skin care product, you're looking at
a top-secret mix of esters, ketones, aldehydes, amines and more. This makes
it difficult to construct allergy tests for fragrance because, in North
America in particular, we don't even know what the ingredients in most
Even though fragrance doesn't actually contribute to skin cleansing, it's
one of the most common contact allergens in soap. Furthermore, fragrance
allergens are found in just about any cosmetic product that doesn't carry a
"fragrance-free" label. And because the cosmetics industry (which is
largely self-regulated in the United States) is pretty secretive about its
formulas, the estimated range of cosmetic products that contain the
fragrance allergens used for skin patch testing is anywhere from 15 percent
to all of them.
3: Coconut Diethanolamide
While allergic reactions to ingesting coconut are rare, it's not uncommon
to have an allergic reaction to touching them. You'd think that it would be
harder for your body to deal with things you put in your mouth than stuff
that just touches your skin, but coconuts are an exception. What's more,
they show up in all kinds of skin care products, both for their delicious
scent and their ability to moisturize and soften skin.
However, coconuts can also be made into coconut diethanolamide, a detergent
that helps create a stable lather when you're washing with soap. Like
sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), coconut diethanolamide can break down skin's
oily barrier layer and dry it out, but certain people develop more intense
allergic reactions to it. Since coconut diethanolamide is a common
ingredient in skin care products such as barrier creams and hand protection
foams, sensitizing can happen rapidly. You may begin to develop reactions
after using a product for two or three months. Regular rinse-off soaps,
however, take much longer to produce a reaction -- more like five to seven
]. Check ingredient lists for coconut diethanolamide, and be aware that it
may be masquerading under such names as coconut oil acid, cocamide DEA,
ninol, witcamide and calamide.
Paraben is both an industrially produced and naturally occurring ester.
Used as a preservative, it's usually near the bottom of the ingredient list
in shampoos, soaps, toothpaste and deodorant. Allergic reactions to it are
relatively rare when you consider how common it is, but different types of
parabens also often appear in the same product, increasing the chance of a
One thing that should be mentioned regarding parabens is that a 2004 study
in the United Kingdom linked them to breast cancer after trace amounts of
methylparaben were found in breast cancer tumor biopsies [source:
]. Although further research has produced no conclusive evidence that
parabens cause cancer, many consumers are still worried, preferring to take
a better-safe-than-sorry approach to skin care. Whether or not the claims
about the dangers of parabens are true, cosmetics companies have
compensated for the backlash and now offer a wide variety of paraben-free
Parabens go by a long list of chemical pseudonyms, so if you think you're
allergic to paraben, check your soaps and medicine cabinet for anything
with paraben or parahydroxybenzoic in it.
1: Balsam of Peru
Balsam of Peru, also known as myroxylon, is a sticky sap that smells like
vanilla and cinnamon. It's used as an ingredient in soaps, perfumes and
shampoos both for its smell and for its quality as a fixative, which helps
slow down evaporation. It's also added to certain medications and food,
showing up in everything from calamine lotion to cough medicine and cola.
Cinnamein, a well-documented potential allergen, makes up between 60 and 70
percent of balsam of Peru, while the other 30 to 40 percent is made of
unknown resins, any of which can provoke an allergic reaction. It's one of
the most common causes of contact dermatitis, and about half of people who
have a fragrance allergy have a reaction to balsam of Peru. The most common
symptom is hand eczema in the case of skin contact, and when it's consumed,
rashes may form around the mouth.
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