Contact Dermatitis

Contact Dermatitis of the Hands: Is It Irritant or Allergic?

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Clinical Examination

It can be challenging to differentiate between hand ICD and ACD based on clinical appearance alone, and patch testing often is necessary for diagnosis. In the acute phase, both ICD and ACD can present as erythema, papules, vesicles, bullae, and/or crusting. In the chronic phase, scaling, lichenification, and/or fissures tend to prevail. Both acute and chronic ICD and ACD can be associated with pruritus and pain; however, ICD may be more likely associated with a burning or painful sensation, whereas ACD may be more associated with pruritus.

Other dermatoses may present as hand eruptions and should be kept in the differential diagnosis. Atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, dyshidrotic eczema, hyperkeratotic hand dermatitis, keratolysis exfoliativa, and palmoplantar pustulosis are other common causes of hand eruptions.5,34

Patch Testing for Hand ACD
Consider patch testing for hand dermatitis that is refractory to conservative treatment. Patients with new-onset hand dermatitis without history of atopy and patients with a new worsening of chronic hand dermatitis also may need patch testing.

In addition to a medically appropriate screening series, patients with hand dermatitis often need supplemental patch testing. In a series of 37,113 patients with hand ACD, just over 20% of patients had positive patch test reactions to at least 1 supplemental allergen not on the screening series.3 Supplemental series should be selected based on the patient’s history and exposures; for example, nail salon technicians may need supplemental testing with the nail acrylate series, and massage therapists may need additional testing with the fragrance or essential oil series. Some of the most common supplemental series used for evaluation of hand dermatitis are the rubber, cosmetic, textile and dyes, plant, fragrance, essential oil, oil and coolants, nail or printing acrylates, and hairdressing series. If there is a high suspicion of occupational contact with allergens, obtaining material safety data sheets from the patient’s employer can be helpful to identify relevant allergens for testing.5 The thin-layer rapid use epicutaneous (T.R.U.E.) test may miss several common and relevant hand allergens, including benzalkonium chloride, lanolin, and iodopropynyl butylcarbamate.3


Management of hand ICD requires avoidance of irritants and proper hand hygiene practices.10,34 The hands should be washed using lukewarm water and mild fragrance-free soaps or cleansers,35 keeping in mind that hand sanitizers may be better tolerated due to their lower lipid-stripping effects. The moisturizers with the best efficacy are combinations of humectants (topical urea, glycerin) and occlusive emollients (dimethicone, petrolatum).11 When wet work is necessary, gloves should be worn; however, sweat and humidity from glove use can worsen ICD, and gloves should be changed regularly and applied only when hands are dry. Cotton gloves also can be worn underneath rubber gloves to prevent maceration from sweat.9

The mainstay of hand ACD management is allergen avoidance. The American Contact Dermatitis Society maintains the Contact Allergen Management Program (CAMP), a database that identifies products that do not contain patient allergens. The importance of reading ingredient labels of products should always be emphasized. For patients with rubber accelerator allergies, vinyl or accelerator-free gloves may be used. If the allergen is occupational, communication with the patient’s employer is necessary.5

When hand contact dermatitis does not improve with avoidance of irritants and allergens as well as gentle skin care, topical therapy, phototherapy, and in some cases systemic therapy may be required. High-potency topical corticosteroids or short courses of prednisone may be needed for quick relief. Topical calcineurin inhibitors (tacrolimus and pimecrolimus) and the phosphodiesterase 4 inhibitor crisaborole have shown some efficacy for hand dermatitis and can be used as steroid-sparing agents.36,37 Narrowband UVB and UVA have been used with moderate efficacy to treat resistant hand dermatitis.34,38 Oral immunosuppressant medications such as methotrexate, mycophenolate mofetil, azathioprine, and cyclosporine can be used for more severe cases.34,39,40 Furthermore, oral retinoids have been used for chronic severe hand dermatitis with notable efficacy.41

Our Final Interpretation

The 2 major types of hand contact dermatitis are ICD and ACD. Hand ICD is more common than ACD in both occupational and nonoccupational settings. The hands are the most common sites in the setting of occupational dermatitis; in North American patch test populations, the hands were the primary site of involvement in just under 25% of patients.3 Many hand hygiene products contain irritants and allergens. The lipid-stripping effects of soaps, detergents, and hand sanitizers in conjunction with increased frequency of handwashing can trigger ICD. The most common allergens implicated in hand ACD include MI, nickel, formaldehyde, quaternium-15, and fragrances. Patch testing is important for diagnosis, and supplemental series should be considered. Management includes avoidance of irritants and allergens; liberal use of moisturizers and barrier creams; and prescription topical therapy, phototherapy, or systemic therapy when indicated.


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