Last Updated on May 9, 2023 by The Filtery
Written by Sheena Harris
That new shirt, pair of pants, or jacket checks all the boxes… It fits well, it’s the right color, and it even accentuates your body shape. But, after several hours of wearing it, something is definitely askew. Maybe your eyes are burning, you feel all itchy, or you’re developing a rash. Is it possible to be allergic to the fabric of your clothes? It sure is, and this can be an uncomfortable situation—literally.
As straightforward as it may sound to experience an allergic reaction to your clothing, contact dermatitis can be pretty complicated. There can be both legitimate allergens and chemical irritants involved.
So, is there such a thing as a nylon allergy? What about a polyester allergy? Find out more about different types of fabric or material allergies, how chemicals may play a role in symptoms of textile dermatitis, and more.
Can You Be Allergic to Clothing? Take a Closer Look
If you have ever experienced skin discomfort when wearing a certain piece of clothing, this experience is referred to as textile contact dermatitis. The problem can be caused by an allergen or simply a skin irritant, and you may not always know what specifically caused the reaction.
If the irritation is caused by a known allergen, this can indeed be classified as a fabric allergy (also referred to as textile dermatitis). If the reaction is thought to be caused by an irritant, then you are probably sensitive to some components in or on the fabric, such as a dye or chemical additives.
RELATED: The best brands for allergy-friendly underwear and bras for sensitive skin.
Signs of Contact Dermatitis Caused by Clothing
Textile dermatitis is generally characterized by symptoms like:
- Itching or burning sensations
- Hyperpigmentation splotches
- Scaly, cracked, or flaking skin
- Bumps, blisters, or a rash
- Swelling and tenderness
Generally, symptoms will show up within a few hours of contact, but delayed reactions are possible as well. If allergic contact dermatitis is a direct reaction to your clothing, you will likely see a reaction in areas that are in most contact with your skin. For example, you may develop a rash about your neck where a hemmed neckline sits close to your skin or around your waist where a waistband typically sits.
Materials That May Cause an Allergic Reaction
Numerous materials used to make fabrics are actually known allergens. Take a look at a few of the most common fabric allergies:
Nylon is a thermoplastic made using petroleum that can be processed to create fibers. Therefore, the material is commonly used to make clothing, including stockings, undergarments, and lingerie. Nylon is also commonly blended with other materials like cotton or polyester. While a diagnosable nylon allergy is rare, many people do develop textile contact dermatitis to nylon, possibly due to its components.
Polyester allergies are relatively common when it comes to textile dermatitis. Polyester is another synthetic material that is basically a type of oil-based product, but the material can also be produced from other agents like plants or recycled plastic.
Research shows that more than half of all fibers produced in the world are made from polyester. The material is commonly used to make pants, shirts, exercise clothing, and even bedsheets.
If you think you might have a polyester allergy, it could potentially be due to a number of different chemicals that are used in polyester manufacturing. This guide will give you a deeper dive into the issue of polyester and hopefully give you some more insight on what might be causing your problem.
As many as 4.3 percent of people may have a latex allergy, and latex can be found in some clothing. Latex may be made of natural or synthetic materials, and dermatitis related to both is possible. However, an actual latex allergy is related to the proteins found in plants that produce the sticky substance. Latex is commonly used in materials like elastane (Lycra or Spandex) and may be used to make elastic components in clothing and underwear.
While clothing may not be made with nickel, certain articles of clothing can have nickel components. For example, a pair of jeans with a metal button or a bra with metal fasteners may contain nickel that comes in direct contact with your skin. Nickel allergies are extremely common; as many as 18 percent of people are affected in North America.
Cotton is a natural fiber used to make fabric, but commonly goes through extensive processing before being used in manufacturing processes. Some people do have sensitivities to cotton, even though this is often considered one of the gentlest textiles available.
For example, some people find that cotton makes them feel itchy or their skin feels irritated. Usually, however, allergic contact dermatitis with cotton exposure is related to the presence of chemicals in the cotton.
Allergic contact dermatitis associated with wool is possible, but it is difficult to know whether symptoms occur due to the wool or compounds found in the wool. You can, however, be tested for a wool allergy because lanolin found in the material is a known allergen. Lanolin coats the fine hair of sheep like a protective wax coating. Therefore, its presence is natural in clothing made from wool fibers.
The Fine Line Between Textile Allergies and Chemical Sensitivities
In the world of fabrics, there are two highly different types that exist: natural fabrics and synthetic fabrics. Cotton is an example of natural fabric, while a fabric like polyester is synthetically created. You could have a reaction to either type of fabric, albeit synthetic fiber allergies are more common. However, other agents can also cause contact dermatitis that doesn’t have anything to do with the fabric itself.
Both naturally-sourced and synthetic fabrics are commonly treated with added chemicals and some are inadvertently exposed to contaminants. Both can mean the clothing you wear on your body is laden with chemicals or irritants, which means a negative reaction is highly plausible and possible. After all, your clothing sits directly against your skin for hours daily.
Further, your clothing can also be in close contact with your eyes and the air you breathe into your respiratory system.
A few textile chemicals that can be hanging out in fabrics include:
- PFAS (per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances)
- Azobenzene (“azo”) dyes
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
- Lead and other heavy metals
While experiencing a reaction to the fibers used to make your clothing is possible, chemical additives are just, if not more, commonly to blame.
How Do You Know If a Reaction Is Caused By Fabric or Chemicals?
The sad truth is, it can be difficult to determine what about the clothing is actually causing a reaction. Clothing or fabric manufacturers don’t always disclose what chemical compounds may be used to treat, finish, or dye their products. One piece of clothing can contain multiple types of fibers as well, both natural and synthetic, and may be treated with numerous compounds as well.
To further complicate matters, contact dermatitis often looks the same regardless of whether you’re dealing with a fabric allergen or a chemical irritant. You may see redness, itching, a rash, or scaling skin whether you are experiencing a reaction to the fabric or something in the fabric.
If you begin noticing skin issues after wearing certain garments, pay attention. Check out the tag and determine what the fabric is made out of and look for information about chemical treatments the manufacturer may have used.
For example, clothing marked as water-repellant may be treated with PFAS. Or, more vibrant colored garments (like bright red) may have been colored with azo dyes.
Most people can figure out what clothing piece is causing a reaction with a bit of careful monitoring. However, if you have continual problems and can’t pinpoint what article of clothing is causing skin irritation, it may be worth a visit to your doctor.
Talk to Your Doctor About Testing
A doctor can conduct a series of tests to help you determine what substances you may need to avoid. Allergy tests, for example, can test your reaction to dozens of potential allergens at one time with a simple skin-prick test.
For allergic contact dermatitis, the doctor may recommend a skin patch test. During this evaluation, small amounts of different substances are placed on a patch and the patch is applied to your skin to monitor for a reaction over the course of 48 hours. A skin patch test may involve exposure to substances like:
How to Deter Problems with Textile Dermatitis Caused by Clothing
If you manage to pin down what is causing textile dermatitis, you will have an easier time avoiding those agents. For instance, you may find that anything made of polyester makes you itch. However, if you’re not exactly certain, there still may be a few things you can do to thwart negative reactions. A few tips to help include:
- Opt for clothing made with natural fibers, as synthetic fibers are more likely to cause a reaction
- Stick with lightly colored clothing that is less likely to contain heavy dyes or color-protecting chemicals
- Shop for clothing from responsible brands that are transparent about the materials and treatments they use
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing that spends more time in close contact with your skin
- Watch for clothing labeled “stain-repellant,” “dirt-resistant,” or “wrinkle-resistant,” as these are most likely to be chemically treated
- Change our of clothing more frequently after exercising or while in humid or hot environments
Final Thoughts and Takeaways to Remember
If you feel like your clothing is causing skin irritation, take note. It is very possible you are dealing with either an allergy or sensitivity to the material or something in the material. Thankfully, these issues can typically be avoided once you determine what is causing the problem.
Sometimes, you may have to avoid certain fabrics, clothing embellishments, or even certain brands due to chemicals used during manufacturing.
If you have ongoing issues with textile dermatitis but can’t find the cause of your allergic reactions, be sure to talk to your doctor for advice. Also, be sure to look for non-toxic, organic clothing to help steer clear of bad things in your wardrobe.
About the Author
Sheena Harris is a well-regarded health writer of more than 10 years with published pieces across the web. She has worked closely with medical professionals, psychologists, and others in the wellness field to provide science-backed information to readers.