An Overview of Laundry Detergent Allergies

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If you develop an itchy, red rash after wearing newly cleaned clothes, you might be allergic to an ingredient in your laundry detergent—even if it's a brand you've used for years. Symptoms can affect specific parts of your body, like the armpits, or spread over all areas that come into contact with your clothes.

Read more about laundry detergent allergies, their causes and symptoms, and how to prevent or treat this condition.

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What Are Laundry Detergent Allergies?

Having a laundry detergent allergy doesn't necessarily mean you are allergic to a certain brand. Laundry detergent allergy means you are allergic to one or more of the ingredients in your detergent, and your body has a negative reaction after you've worn newlywashed clothes—a condition called contact dermatitis.

In addition to skin issues, research has shown that laundry detergent can also irritate the cells in the lungs, possibly leading to asthma or other types of allergic reactions.

Causes

Several ingredients can make a person allergic to laundry detergent, with the biggest culprits being fragrances, preservatives, and surfactants. Some people might also be allergic to dyes used to color the detergent.

Contact Dermatitis vs. Skin Damage

While direct contact with bleach or other chemicals can cause significant skin irritation, it is not the same as having an allergy to laundry detergent. This type of condition is called irritant contact dermatitis. Skin cells are damaged in the area that has been exposed, but it does not cause an allergic reaction that involves your immune system.

Fragrances

Fragrance chemicals are added to laundry detergent to make it smell good. However, these chemicals can cause allergic reactions. Two ingredients (called hydroperoxides) that are often added to make detergents smell better include limonene, which is citrus-based, and linalool, which produces a range of floral scents. These substances release their scent when they mix with oxygen in the air.

Preservatives

Preservatives are added to laundry detergent to help protect against contamination. They are used to prolong shelf life and kill bacteria or fungi that can cause the detergent to break down and be less effective for cleaning.

One group of preservatives, called parabens, has received a lot of negative attention in the media. These chemicals are thought to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they might mimic or interfere with hormones in the body. In reality, allergic reactions to parabens are rare.

However, this fear has led to the development of many paraben-free products, including some types of laundry detergents.

Surfactants

Surfactants are another ingredient in laundry detergent that could cause an allergic reaction. These substances help break up stains and keep dirt that's released from laundry into the water from sticking back onto your clothes. Some types of surfactants are particularly helpful for removing oil-based stains, while others act as fabric softeners.

Surfactants boost the effectiveness of your laundry detergent, but coming into contact with these substances can cause skin irritation.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Laundry Detergent Allergies

Allergy symptoms from laundry detergent are similar to allergic reactions to other substances (such as poison ivy or poison oak) that cause contact dermatitis. These can include:

  • Red skin
  • Skin irritation
  • Severe itching
  • Swelling in the affected area
  • Hot skin
  • Skin that is painful to touch
  • Bumps
  • Blisters

Diagnosis and Management of Allergies

Allergy symptoms from laundry detergent can occur within a few hours or as late as 10 days after you've been exposed to the allergen. This can make it particularly difficult to determine the cause of your symptoms. However, your doctor can determine the culprit with a series of patch tests.

During patch testing, a series of "patches" containing different allergens (substances that can cause an allergic reaction) are taped to your back. These patches must stay in place and cannot get wet. You won't be able to shower, and you'll have to avoid excess sweating during the five days it takes to complete a patch test.

After 48 hours, the patches are removed. Your doctor will then assess your skin to look for negative reactions. To assess for delayed reactions, you will return to the doctor after another 48 hours has passed and be reassessed. If you have an allergy to one or more of the substances, your symptoms will still be present at your last visit to the doctor.

Treat Your Allergic Reaction

While you're waiting to see the doctor to determine if you have an allergy to laundry detergent, there are several ways you can help reduce your symptoms while you're recovering. These include:

  • Taking an oatmeal bath
  • Washing the affected area in cool water, using fragrance-free soap
  • Rinsing your skin thoroughly
  • Patting your skin dry
  • Applying over-the-counter creams or ointments
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothing

Once your allergy has been diagnosed, the most important part of managing your condition is avoiding anything that contains the allergen. This might require you to change your laundry detergent and/or other cleaning and hygiene products.

Prevention

While you can't control how your immune system reacts to substances, you can reduce your risk of laundry detergent allergies by using products that are free from the most common types of allergens. Look for products that are labeled "hypoallergenic" or types that are made specifically for sensitive skin. Use these products for washing both your clothing and your bedsheets.

You can also limit your exposure by reducing excess detergent in your clothing after a wash cycle. Choose liquid detergent over powder versions—liquid tends to leave less residue after washing.

Use only the recommended amount of detergent for the size of your load and rinse thoroughly—especially if you're washing something by hand. Consider using the extra rinse option on your machine to further decrease your exposure.

A Word From Verywell

Your doctor will likely refer you to an allergist—a doctor who specializes in treating allergies—to determine whether you have an allergy to laundry detergent. Your doctor can also prescribe skin creams or medications to help control your allergy symptoms if over-the-counter treatments are not working.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take for laundry detergent allergies to go away?

    Laundry allergies will likely persist as long as you continue to use the same detergent.

  • How quickly can you develop laundry detergent allergies?

    Laundry detergent allergy symptoms can develop within a few hours of exposure.

  • Which laundry detergent do dermatologists recommend using for allergies?

    You can be allergic to one or more ingredients in a particular laundry detergent. Ask your doctor for specific recommendations.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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