Is Laundry Detergent Causing Your Child’s Skin Rash?

How to know and what to do

Is Laundry Detergent Causing Your Child’s Skin Rash?

The market is bubbling over with detergents for baby laundry, some claiming to be No. 1 with pediatricians or recommended by dermatologists. Washing children’s clothing and blankets in gentle, hypoallergenic detergent can help protect delicate skin.

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But when can you start washing Baby’s items with the regular family laundry?

“There is no set time. It depends on your infant’s skin and family history,” says Cleveland Clinic pediatric dermatologist Joan Tamburro, DO. “A child who has skin problems may be more prone to laundry detergent reactions. A family history of atopic dermatitis (eczema) also may put your infant at higher risk.”

Two kinds of reactions

For some kids, clothing or detergent can cause two types of skin problems:

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  1. Irritation. This red, itchy rash usually occurs right away — as soon as your child puts on a wool sweater, for instance. Irritation goes away fairly quickly when they remove the irritant.
  2. Allergic contact dermatitis. This also appears as a red, itchy rash, but usually not with immediate contact. If your child has a true allergy to laundry detergent or fabric softener, you may not notice redness or itching for up to a week.“It can take the immune system a while to identify allergens,” says Dr. Tamburro. “You can be exposed to a substance multiple times before having a response.”

How to stop the rash

If laundry detergent or fabric softener bothers your child’s skin, Dr. Tamburro recommends you:

  • Use dye-free, fragrance-free detergents and fabric softeners. It’s often scents and dyes that cause the problem. The majority of laundry detergents and fabric softeners include them, even some products marketed for baby laundry. So, be alert. Look for detergents labeled scent/fragrance-free and dye-free.
  • Stick with one detergent. Don’t buy whatever brand is on sale. Changing detergents may make it harder to figure out what is causing the skin problem.
  • Rinse clothes twice. Make sure all detergent residue is removed from clothing.
  • Wash before wear. Not every child can wear clothes straight out of the store. Some kids’ skin is irritated by formaldehyde releasers that come on new clothing. Wash out the chemicals before putting the clothes on your child.

When itching is more than skin-deep

Most skin problems are not detergent-related. Allergies to food, medicines, inhalants, plants or insect bites also can cause red, itchy skin rashes.

The rash is probably not caused by laundry detergent if your child also has:

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  • Breathing trouble, including wheezing or coughing
  • Swollen eyelids or lips
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

Hives (itchy, red welts) are usually due to a food allergy, infection, stress or other internal reaction.

Detergent-triggered or not?

“A quick way to tell if a rash is caused by detergent or something else is to check under your child’s diaper, where clothing doesn’t touch their skin,” says Dr. Tamburro. “If the rash is there, it’s not caused by detergent. Also, detergent-triggered rashes are typically worse on arms and legs, where clothing is tighter and rubs more on the skin.”

If your child’s itching is severe (such as waking them up at night, distracting them from other things), try an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment. If itching lasts for more than a week, or if it is accompanied by hives or breathing, stomach or intestinal trouble, see your doctor.