There’s no better feeling than jumping into bed with freshly washed sheets… and nothing worse than waking up eight hours later covered in a rash. If this sounds familiar, there is a chance a laundry detergent allergy is the culprit that’s making your skin irritated. Sure, detergent can help make our brights brighter, but the often high concentration of chemicals in the stuff — capable of removing the stubborn stains we get from god-knows-where — can sometimes do more harm than good.
One common concern caused by detergent is its ability to trigger adverse skin reactions and conditions like contact dermatitis, the result of direct exposure to an allergen or irritant. Add in the fact that most formulas are infused with the coveted fresh-laundry aroma: As nice as it may smell, fragrances can be highly sensitizing.
Here, allergists and dermatologists come clean about detergents, the common allergens they contain, how they can mess with the skin, and what you can do to avoid it all.
Meet the experts:
- Tania Elliott, MD, is an allergist in New York City
- Sherwin R. Hariri, MD, is a board-certified adult and pediatric allergist
- Marie Leger, MD Ph.D., is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City at Entiere Dermatology and an assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai
- Purvi Parik, MD, is a board-certified allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network in New York City
In this story:
- How can detergent negatively affect skin?
- How can I determine detergent’s the culprit?
- What should I do if I’m allergic to detergent?
How can detergent negatively affect skin?
Even after an extra rinse and spin cycle, ingredients in your detergent can still linger in fabric fibers. Many products contain harsh chemicals (like 1,4-dioxane, a potential carcinogen), preservatives, and artificial fragrances and dyes, all of which can aggravate the skin. “There are a lot of potential allergens in laundry detergents,” says Marie Leger, MD, Ph.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City at Entiere Dermatology and an assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai. “Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MI) is a common allergen in the United States and a common preservative used in laundry detergents — its use is not as strictly regulated in the United States as it is in Europe and elsewhere, which has led to something of an epidemic of allergies to this recently.” Having lots of suds may mean stains are washed away, but those bubbles are the result of surfactants, which can also cause allergic skin rashes. “One common surfactant, sodium dodecyl sulphate, is likely still present on clothing after machine washing,” says Dr. Leger.
Because of this, people “can develop allergic contact dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis, when the skin develops a hypersensitivity to certain body products, the scents in them, or any preservatives or other inactive ingredients in those products,” says Sherwin R. Hariri, MD, a board-certified adult and pediatric allergist.
How can I determine detergent’s the culprit?
When you have an allergic reaction, to help decipher what’s caused it, consider the food and drinks you’ve been consuming and the skin-care products you’ve been applying, especially if you recently deviated from your usual routine in any way. (Did you try a new cuisine or add a different cream to your nighttime ritual?)