What Caused Your Child’s Allergic Skin Reaction?

Uh-oh. Your child has developed a red, itchy, or sore rash.

Your little one may have a case of contact dermatitis, an eczema-like skin condition caused by touching something that triggers an allergic reaction or irritates the skin.

If the reaction is serious, talk to your doctor about a referral for allergy testing to determine the source. But for minor reactions, some easy sleuthing at home can help you figure out if a common allergen is to blame.

Here are the worst – and most likely – offenders:


The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 11 million children in North America are allergic to nickel, so this or another metal might have set off your child’s skin allergy. Clothing fixtures such as zippers and hooks or jewelry, including watch straps, are all easy ways we come into contact with metals. Face paints may also contain traces of heavy metals, and for older children, cosmetics could be the problem.


Carefully read the labels of body care product your child uses. An ingredient could be responsible. Methylisothiazolinone (MI) and formaldehyde releasers such as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (bronopol), diazolidinyl urea and DMDM hydantoin are potent skin allergens.

Manufacturers add MI to body washes, moisturizers, sunscreens, baby wipes and even products labeled “hypoallergenic.” Bronopol turns up in some CVS diaper wipes and cosmetics products such as facial cleansers, nail polish and moisturizers. Watch out for diazolidinyl urea and DMDM hydantoin in hair styling products, shampoos, conditioners and body washes.

Not sure if your family’s favorite products contain these or other allergenic ingredients? Search EWG’s Skin Deep database to find out. 

Botanical Allergens

Plant-based essential oils such as lavender, tea tree or citrus are popular in “natural” personal care products in place of chemical fragrances. Because the concentration of these oils can vary, they can easily trigger allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin.

Parents often notice these reactions after using botanical bug repellents, which commonly contain citronella, clove, geranium, lemongrass, peppermint or rosemary oils, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Click here to learn about safer ways to beat bug bites.

Tips for parents:

  • Need help sleuthing? Allergic reactions typically break out where an allergen touches the skin, so the location of your child’s rash may indicate which allergen is responsible. Is the rash on your child’s face or hands? A personal care product, like lotion, may be to blame. Around your child’s wrist? Watch strap. At a certain spot on the chest? Zipper. Baby’s behind? Diaper wipe.
  • Reactions may occur immediately after contact – making it easier to isolate the cause – or after a long period of exposure. Keep both in mind when investigating possible sources.
  • Always contact a medical professional if your child shows symptoms of a serious skin reaction, particularly if she shows any sign of infection, such as a fever.
  • Take heart: Allergic reactions often clear quickly and are generally avoidable once you determine the culprit.
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