Dermatitis is a general term that describes a common skin irritation. It has many causes and forms and usually involves itchy, dry skin or a rash. Or it might cause the skin to blister, ooze, crust or flake off. Three common types of this condition are atopic dermatitis (eczema), seborrheic dermatitis and contact dermatitis.
Dermatitis isn't contagious, but it can make you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. Moisturizing regularly helps control the symptoms. Treatment may also include medicated ointments, creams and shampoos.
Atopic dermatitis on the ankles
Atopic dermatitis can cause thickened dry skin and a rash.
Atopic dermatitis behind the knees
Atopic dermatitis can cause small, red bumps, which can be very itchy. Atopic dermatitis most often occurs where your skin flexes — inside the elbows, behind the knees and in front of the neck.
Seborrheic dermatitis on the face
Seborrheic dermatitis causes a rash with yellowish and somewhat "oily" scales. In addition to the scalp, seborrheic dermatitis can occur on the sides of the nose, in and between the eyebrows, and in other oil-rich areas.
Each type of dermatitis tends to occur on a different part of your body. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Itchiness (pruritus)
- Dry skin
- Rash on swollen skin that ranges from pink on white skin to reddish, ashen, brown, or grayish on brown or black skin
- Blisters, perhaps with oozing and crusting
- Flaking skin (dandruff)
- Thickened skin
- Bumps in hair follicles
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
- You're so uncomfortable that you're losing sleep or are distracted from your daily routines
- Your skin becomes painful
- You suspect that your skin is infected
- You've tried self-care steps but your signs and symptoms persist
A common cause of dermatitis is contact with something that irritates your skin or triggers an allergic reaction — for example, poison ivy, perfume, lotion and jewelry containing nickel. Other causes of dermatitis include dry skin, a viral infection, bacteria, stress, genetic makeup and a problem with the immune system.
Common risk factors for dermatitis include:
- Age. Dermatitis can occur at any age, but atopic dermatitis (eczema) is more common in children than adults, and it usually begins in infancy.
- Allergies and asthma. People who have a personal or family history of eczema, allergies, hay fever or asthma are more likely to develop atopic dermatitis.
- Occupation. Jobs that put you in contact with certain metals, solvents or cleaning supplies increase your risk of contact dermatitis. Being a health care worker is linked to hand eczema.
- Health conditions. Health conditions that put you at increased risk of seborrheic dermatitis include congestive heart failure, Parkinson's disease and HIV/AIDS.
Scratching the itchy rash associated with dermatitis can cause open sores, which may become infected. These skin infections can spread and may very rarely become life-threatening.
In skin of color, dermatitis might cause the affected area to darken or lighten (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation). It might take months or years to return to your usual skin tone.
Wear protective clothing if you are doing a task that involves irritants or caustic chemicals.
Avoid dry skin by adopting these habits when bathing:
- Take shorter baths and showers. Limit your baths and showers to 5 to 10 minutes. Use warm, rather than hot, water. Bath oil also may be helpful.
- Use a gentle, nonsoap cleanser. Choose unscented nonsoap cleansers. Some soaps can dry your skin.
- Dry yourself gently. After bathing, gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel.
- Moisturize your skin. While your skin is still damp, seal in moisture with an oil, cream or lotion. Try different products to find one that works for you. Ideally, the best one for you will be safe, effective, affordable and unscented. Two small studies showed that applying a protective moisturizer to the skin of infants at high risk of atopic dermatitis reduced the incidence of the condition by up to 50%.
Dermatitis care at Mayo Clinic
Aug. 21, 2021
- Wolff K, et al. Eczema/dermatitis. In: Fitzpatrick's Color Atlas and Synopsis of Clinical Dermatology. 8th ed. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Education; 2017. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- Goldsmith LA, et al., eds. Atopic dermatitis. In: Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine. 9th ed. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Education; 2019. https://www.accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- Eichenfield LF, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of atopic dermatitis: Section 1. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2014;70:338.
- Eichenfield LF, et al. Current guidelines for the evaluation and management of atopic dermatitis: A comparison of the Joint Task Force Practice Parameter and American Academy of Dermatology guidelines. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2017;139:S49.
- AskMayoExpert. Atopic dermatitis. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2019.
- Rice bran. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com. Accessed April 30, 2019.
- Tea tree oil. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com. Accessed April 30, 2019.
- Aloe. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com. Accessed April 30, 2019.
- Warner KJ. Allscripts EPSi. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. April 29, 2019.
- Ash S, et al. Comparison of bleach, acetic acid, and other topical anti-infective treatments in pediatric atopic dermatitis: A retrospective cohort study on antibiotic exposure. Pediatric Dermatology. 2019;36:115.
- Eczema and bathing. National Eczema Association. https://nationaleczema.org/eczema/treatment/bathing. Accessed April 30, 2019.
- Ibler KS, et al. Hand eczema: Prevalence and risk factors of hand eczema in a population of 2,274 health care workers. Contact Dermatitis. 2012;67:200.
- Over the counter. National Eczema Association. https://nationaleczema.org/eczema/treatment/over-the-counter. Accessed April 30, 2019.
- Nguyen HL, et al. Contact dermatitis to medications and skin products. Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology. 2019;56:41.
- Nguyen GH, et al. Climate change and atopic dermatitis: Is there a link. International Journal of Dermatology. 2019;58:279.
- Stander S. Atopic dermatitis. New England Journal of Medicine. 2021; doi:10.1056/NEJMra2023911.
- Bruce AJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. April 14, 2021.
- High WA. Special considerations in skin of color. In: Dermatology Secrets. Elsevier; 2021. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed May 5, 2021.
- Eczema in skin of color: What you need to know. https://nationaleczema.org/eczema-in-skin-of-color. Accessed May 5, 2021.
- Kelly AP, et al. Pediatrics. In: Taylor and Kelly's Dermatology for Skin of Color. 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill Education; 2016. Accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. Accessed May 27, 2021.