What causes skin allergies?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Skin allergies are caused by a chain of immune reactions after the body is exposed to an allergen. When the body senses an allergen, it produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E, which in turn produces histamines that cause a reaction of the skin's blood vessels. One common kind of skin allergy is called contact dermatitis, and it occurs as a result of touching an allergen. Some common allergens include perfume, cosmetics, latex, metals (especially nickel) and plants like poison ivy. Another type of skin allergy is a drug rash, which is the result of ingesting a drug that causes a reaction. Common drugs that cause this reaction include antibiotics, anti-seizure medications and diuretics. Other types of skin allergies can be caused by eating certain foods or being stung by certain insects, and sometimes allergic reactions can have causes that are more difficult to determine.

Some people may develop skin reactions as a result of photosensitivity, or sun allergies. These people usually develop red, itchy patches of bumps or hives on their skin after being exposed to sunlight. Depending on the severity of the allergy, hives can develop after a few hours or only a few minutes of sun exposure. Usually, this kind of allergic reaction is caused by certain diseases or skin conditions, or develops only if a person is taking certain medications that increase sensitivity to sunlight. The best treatment for a skin allergy caused by sunlight is to avoid sunlight as much as possible, and to wear protective clothing and sunscreen when exposed to the sun.

To a certain extent, skin allergies are hereditary. That means that if one or both of your parents have allergies, your risk for developing allergies is much higher. However, people may not necessarily develop the same type of allergies as their parents, and they may not be triggered by the same types of allergens. Another risk factor is the environment. Repeated exposure to allergens, especially early in life, is believed to increase the chances that an allergy to that substance will develop. Also, other preexisting skin conditions or sensitivities may increase the chances for having skin allergies.

Skin allergies are one of the most common skin disorders, especially among children. In children under 11 years old, allergic dermatitis—a common source of skin allergies—is the most common skin disorder. Some experts claim that at some point in their lives, 10 to 20 percent of people in the Unites States experience hives. This makes sense, since according to the National Institutes of Health, over 50 million Americans have some kind of allergies.

Some people suffer from skin allergies. People with sensitive skin should avoid some of the fragrances, antioxidants, stabilizers, preservatives and coloring agents that are found in skincare products and cosmetics. Sometimes less is more. While a skin cream might have one or two active ingredients, they all have a dozen or more inactive ingredients—that is, they are supposed to be inactive for making your skin healthy. But those inactive ingredients could be active against you and your skin.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.