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Textile dermatitis: Polyester allergy

Person with itchy skin from polyester allergy
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An allergy is characterised as an immune reaction that your body has to a food, substance, or material that is not usually harmful. Allergies are incredibly common, with more than 25% of people estimated to be affected by some form of allergy in their lifetime.

A polyester allergy, which falls under the category of textile or contact dermatitis, is one in which your skin reacts to coming into contact with polyester. Polyester is a commonly used material for clothes, bedsheets and other textile-based items.

Read on to find out more about what causes polyester allergies, the symptoms of the condition and the available treatment options.

What causes polyester allergies?

Polyester is a widely used synthetic fibre that is used to make clothing, towels, soft toys, household furnishings such as bedding, curtains, cushions, and carpets, and industrial fabrics.

It can cause dermatitis for a few different reasons. Firstly, as a synthetic fabric, it isn’t as breathable as other materials such as cotton and linen, and this can cause you to sweat more. When your skin holds sweat for a prolonged period, this can cause an inflammatory response.

Dyes or chemicals used in the processing of polyester can also irritate the skin. Even detergents and soaps held in the fabric can cause a reaction.

Symptoms of polyester allergy

A polyester allergy predominantly causes visible symptoms on the skin, and these can appear anywhere on the body that polyester comes into contact. Symptoms may be more prominent in areas where the fabric is tight against the body or there is continued friction such as the elbows, crooks of the arms, the backs of the knees and the groin.

Symptoms will usually appear within a few hours but can appear a few days after exposure to the fabric. Normally, symptoms will clear on their own in a couple of weeks, so long as you aren’t exposed to the fabric again.

Symptoms of a polyester allergy include:

  • Mild to severe itching
  • Redness of the skin
  • Swelling
  • Rashes
  • Raised bumps (hives)
  • Skin tenderness
  • Skin which has a burning or stinging sensation
  • Skin that feels hot
  • Dry or scaly skin
  • Skin peeling
  • Tenderness
  • Hands that turn bright red

Who can get this allergy?

Anyone can be affected by a polyester allergy, but some are more susceptible to textile dermatitis than others.

Women are more likely to experience it than men as generally, they wear clothing that is more tightly fitted. Those who are overweight or obese are also more prone to the condition, especially when they sweat. Those that work in hot or humid conditions or those that must wear a full-body uniform at work have a greater chance of getting textile dermatitis. A cook, for example, that may wear a long-sleeved chef’s white and works in a busy kitchen may be more susceptible.

Treatment for polyester allergy

You should wash any affected skin with warm water and a gentle soap to reduce the likelihood of any irritants staying on the skin. You can also apply a cool compress to the area to alleviate redness, reduce swelling and soothe the skin.

Pinpointing a polyester allergy can be difficult and as such, there is no specific treatment for polyester allergies but there is a range of dermatitis treatments available that can alleviate the symptoms.

Your GP or local pharmacist should be able to recommend an over-the-counter treatment that can provide some relief and reduce visible symptoms. Over the counter remedies for textile dermatitis include:

If your allergy is severe, your doctor may prescribe you stronger creams or lotions and may even suggest a course of oral corticosteroids.

Polyester alternatives and prevention

If you believe you may have a polyester allergy or you want to avoid the risk of getting textile dermatitis, the best course of action is to avoid the fabric as best you can. You can check clothing labels to establish what materials they are made from. Be sure to also look at what fibres have been used to make other items you commonly come into contact with such as your bedsheets, towels and household furnishings.

For things you cannot replace, such as carpets in your house, avoid sitting or lying on the fabric and be sure to always wear something else as a barrier such as socks, shoes, or other clothing.

Wearing loose clothing can also help prevent skin irritation as it is less likely to rub against the skin and gives more room for your skin to breathe.

If you are worried you may have a polyester allergy or you generally have sensitive skin, there are a range of alternative fabrics you can switch to that will reduce your likelihood of experiencing a skin reaction.

Cotton and linen, which comes from the flax plant, are both natural fibres. They create more breathable fabrics compared to polyester, so you are less likely to sweat when wearing cotton or linen garments. Silk, hemp, and wool are other natural fibres that make good alternatives to polyester for clothing and household furnishings.

In summary, a polyester allergy is a form of contact dermatitis that occurs when the skin comes into contact with polyester. It’s one of many common allergies and usually causes some form of visible skin reaction. It usually goes away on its own but can be treated at home with over-the-counter remedies such as an emollient, similar to eczema cream. You can prevent a polyester allergy by wearing clothes and using household items made from other materials such as cotton, linen and bamboo.

If you want to find out more about caring for your skin and how to spot skin conditions, why not read our guide about eczema or find out more about psoriasis.