contact dermatitis on faceShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Alexis Lira

Got a nasty rash on your face? A big, irritating splotch is never fun, especially when it’s on full display. So, what the heck are you dealing with and how can you make it go away ASAP?

Red, itchy face rashes are often cases of contact dermatitis — rashes caused by direct contact with a substance that’s irritating or that triggers an allergic reaction. Getting contact dermatitis on your face isn’t unusual, and it’s not dangerous or contagious either.

It’s also, for the most part, easy to treat and prevent. Here’s a handy guide to getting that pretty face back to normal.

Contact dermatitis is a red, eczema-like, itchy rash that can develop when your skin comes in contact with an irritating substance or allergen. You can get contact dermatitis on your face or anywhere else on your body.

Sometimes the rash will form right away, but often, it develops after a few hours, or sometimes a few days.

There are two types of contact dermatitis that can occur on your face:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis happens when your skin comes in contact with an irritating substance — anything from bleach, to pepper spray, to a harsh soap or cleaning agent.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your skin has an allergic reaction to a foreign substance, like nickel, or poison ivy.

The classic sign of contact dermatitis on your face is a red, eczema-like, itchy rash. You might experience other symptoms too, depending on what caused the rash and how severe your reaction is.

Irritant contact dermatitis symptoms:

  • blisters
  • cracking, dryness
  • swelling
  • burning pain or itching

Allergic contact dermatitis symptoms:

  • cracking, dryness, or scaling
  • itching
  • swelling
  • blisters

Contact dermatitis on your face (or elsewhere) might not look great, but it’s rarely something to worry about and is usually easy to treat.

Still, face rashes have the potential to affect your eyes, nasal passages, or mouth. So, it’s a good idea to call your doctor as soon as you notice the rash, even if it seems mild. They can check it out and determine the best way to treat the rash. And hopefully, keep it from coming back.

Contact dermatitis on your face can often be treated at home. But before taking measures into your own hands, it’s a good idea to have your doctor examine the rash. They’ll be able to gauge the rash’s severity and recommend the best way to ease your discomfort and get rid of the redness.

Sometimes contact dermatitis on your face will go away on its own within 2 to 3 weeks just by avoiding the culprit substance and repairing the skin.

But there are also options that can help you to quickly feel better in the meantime:

  • Skip makeup. Give your tender skin a break by going bare-faced until the rash clears up.
  • Use a barrier. The one exception to the no-product rule? Apply a thick layer of a hypoallergenic cream (i.e. CeraVe or Vanicream) to stave off dryness, repair the skin, and help prevent further inflammation. Vaseline is also an option, but it has the potential to cause acne.
  • Keep the elements at bay. As much as possible, to try protect your skin from cold, dry air, or hot sun. Pull a soft scarf up over your cheeks in the winter or wear a wide-brimmed hat in the summer.
  • Apply cool compresses. These may ease inflammation and sooth your skin.
  • Avoid scratching. It’ll further irritate the rash and slow your healing. And if you break the skin, it ups the chance for infection.
  • Try an OTC med. Depending on your rash, your doctor might recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) corticosteroid cream or an oral antihistamine like Benadryl to help with the itching.

Usually steering clear of the allergic or irritating substance is enough to keep contact dermatitis on your face from coming back.

If you’re having trouble pinpointing the cause of the rash, try keeping a log. Note the date of your flare-up, the products you used that day, plus anything unusual that might’ve irritated your skin (Was it especially cold and windy outside? Did you change your jewelry?). Having a record should help you suss out the suspect.

…could be the name of a Nancy Drew book, but really we’re just summarizing how difficult it can be to figure out what triggered your face rash.

A number of different irritants or allergens could be to blame. A rash can show up the first time you’re exposed to a substance, like when you use a new skin care product.

Other times, you might not show symptoms until you’ve been exposed to a substance repeatedly. A person could be using a product for months or years without any irritation, and then suddenly BAM, allergic contact dermatitis occurs.

Either way, when the skin on your face doesn’t like a substance it’s been exposed to, it gets inflamed. And it’s that inflammation that causes the redness, itchiness, and other unpleasant side effects.

So, what kinds of things can trigger a rash on your face? Below are some of the most common culprits.

Causes of irritant contact dermatitis:

  • intense cold or windy, dry air
  • pepper spray
  • harsh chemicals like solvents, rubbing alcohol, or bleach
  • excessive washing (water is an irritant… who knew!)

Causes of allergic contact dermatitis:

  • nickel (from jewelry)
  • rubber (not latex)
  • airborne allergens like pollen or ragweed
  • poison ivy
  • some medications like topical OTC antibiotics
  • personal care or hair products containing strong perfumes, preservatives, or detergents

Very harsh substances — think bleach — could cause a rash almost immediately after touching your skin. But in many cases, a rash might not pop up for 2 or 3 days after exposure.

  • Contact dermatitis on your face isn’t usually serious.
  • But you should always loop your healthcare provider in, even if the rash seems mild. Allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis are also two different disorders.
  • Rashes can form immediately or within a few days of coming in contact with the culprit substance. If you’re not sure what caused the rash, keeping a log can help.
  • Avoiding the substance (allergen in allergic contact dermatitis, and irritant in irritant contact dermatitis) is key for getting the rash to go away.
  • You can speed up the process and ease your discomfort by skipping makeup and other products, applying a hypoallergenic topical cream, and keeping your skin shielded from the elements.