Understanding Contact Dermatitis in Babies, Toddlers and Children

Contact dermatitis, or contact eczema, is the term given to the type of eczema that develops due to contact with irritants or allergens in the surrounding environment. The skin disease comes in two forms – irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. The irritant form is where the eczema develops because of direct contact with substances that irritate or damage the skin, while the allergic form develops when the sufferer becomes sensitised to something in the environment. It is possible to suffer from both form simultaneously.

Contact dermatitis comes in two forms irritant and allergic. As the allergic form is due to long-term sensitisation, the irritant form is more common in young children.

Contact dermatitis comes in two forms: irritant and allergic. As the allergic form is due to long-term sensitisation, the irritant form is more common in young children.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when an irritant comes into contact the skin. Symptoms will usually appear within 48 hours of coming into contact with strong irritants often causing immediate reactions whereas milder irritants, such as soap and detergents, may need frequent and repeated contact before they cause problems. Only the area of skin that has been in direct contact with the irritant will be affected.

Common irritants include detergents, soaps, bleach, household cleaning products, cold wind and raw food. In our family it is toiletries, the nightshade family foods (raw tomatoes and potatoes) and cold winds that cause the most problems. But our son has also had a reaction to the concrete dust which blew into his nursery’s garden from an adjacent building site. Children and babies with a history of atopic diseases (i.e. eczema, asthma or hay fever) have a much higher risk of developing irritant contact dermatitis, with the effects often worsening over time.

The most common sites for irritation are:

  • Hands (between fingers and on the backs of hands)
  • Face (caused by temperature changes, toiletries, highly perfumed products)
  • Body (Friction from clothes)

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis is where the body’s defence mechanism recognises a chemical and reacts to it. Again the skin reaction will usually only be in the area which came into contact with the allergen. The first time the skin comes into contact with an allergen, the body becomes sensitised to it. It’s only when that substance comes into contact with the skin again, that an itchy red rash appears. The allergy can be remembered by the body for potentially many years. As this sensitisation takes time to build up, allergic contact dermatitis is less common in babies and toddlers. Patch testing is available to confirm a diagnosis.

The most common sensitisers/allergens are:

  • Perfumes – often the culprit if you baby is ‘allergic’ to a particular relative
  • Preservatives/biocides – typically parabens and MI/MCI used to extend the shelf-life of toiletries
  • Paraphenylenediamine – usually found in hair-dyes so can be the culprit if you baby’s skin appear to react to a particular person
  • Plants – watch out for Christmas trees as pine is common allergen
  • Some topical medicines (creams), including hydrocortisone and antibiotic creams.
  • Rubber and latex – watch out for medical gloves although most places now use non-latex gloves.
  • Nickel – this isn’t usually a problem until children discover the delights of cheap jewelry
  • Stong adhesives, like epxoy resins – this is not usually a problem with child friendly glues such as PVA and Pritt

Treatment for contact dermatitis

The rash could heal on its own within a few weeks when once the irritant or allergen has been removed. However, if your child is experiencing discomfort the doctor will be able to prescribe hydrocortisone cream (assuming that this isn’t an allergen for your child) to bring the rash under control and stop the itching more quickly.


Here at ScratchSleeves we don’t just share our experiences of bringing up an eczema child (and favourite allergy friendly recipes), we also manufacturer and sell our unique stay-on scratch mitts for itchy babies, toddlers and children. We now stock sizes from 0-8 years in a range of colours. Visit our main website for more information.

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