For many of us, doing laundry is automatic, and we treat it as a simple chore to check off our to-do list. But, if you’re managing eczema, you may want to put some extra thought into how you wash your clothes and what you use to do so.
“The wrong laundry product can be a real nightmare for someone with eczema,” says Jeffrey M. Cohen, MD, a dermatologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. “Some laundry products have chemicals that can be irritating to the skin, and any irritation to the skin can trigger eczema,” he says. This can lead to itching, burning, redness, and other symptoms, according to the National Eczema Association.
While laundry products may not be the biggest eczema triggers, they are potential contributors, says Peter Lio, MD, cofounder of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Center and a National Eczema Association scientific advisory board member. “When we’re trying to get irritated skin calmed down, every little bit can help. So, it is often worthwhile to get the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, and that includes laundry products,” he says.
Everyone’s skin is different, so what may be an irritant for you may have no effect on someone else. A little trial and error might be necessary to learn what works best for your skin. Follow these steps to make sure you’re washing your clothes in an eczema-friendly way.
1. Become Savvy About Product Labels
“Generally, people with eczema should avoid anything that is fragranced, and this includes detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets,” says Dr. Cohen. “Even if they are organic or natural, fragrances can trigger eczema. It is important to look for a product that is ‘fragrance free.’ Some products say ‘unscented,’ which is actually not the same as fragrance free, because some ‘unscented’ products contain fragrances to mask the scent of the chemicals in the detergent.”
Going by a sniff test won’t cut it, either. “It’s especially challenging for people to identify, because the detergent itself generally has no scent, so it is important to be aware of this distinction,” he adds.
Other things to look out for are dyes, which may be problematic for eczema-prone skin, Dr. Lio says, as well as the word “hypoallergenic.” “There are now a number of products that are noted to be ‘hypoallergenic,’ but this is actually not a standardized term, and companies can use it without proving anything, so we have to be careful with that designation, as it can be misleading,” says Lio.
2. Always Wash New Clothes
“Many new clothing articles have finishing sprays and chemicals that can be highly irritating,” says Lio.
Some of those chemicals may not be listed on manufacturers’ websites. There is a lack of published research on the subject, but scientists working on a doctoral thesis at Stockholm University conducted research that tested 60 new garments. They identified about 100 chemicals on the clothes that manufacturers didn’t disclose and could be irritating to the skin.
Play it safe by washing new clothing with a double rinse cycle before wearing, Lio says. “I have a case that I will never forget. A young man developed a terrible, itchy rash over most of his body that I just couldn’t control,” he recalls. “We did patch testing and found that he was allergic to formaldehyde, which is used in ‘wrinkle-free’ clothing sometimes, and he had been wearing these new jogging suits. Once we got rid of those, his skin totally cleared.”