Diagnosing contact dermatitis 

Your GP can usually diagnose contact dermatitis from the appearance of your skin and by asking about your symptoms.

They will want to know when your symptoms first appeared and what substances you have been in contact with.

Identifying allergens and irritants

If your GP has diagnosed contact dermatitis, they will try to identify what has triggered your symptoms. If the allergens or irritants can be identified, you can take steps to avoid those substances and reduce the risk of your symptoms flaring up.

Your GP will look at your medical history and ask questions about your lifestyle and occupation. They may also ask whether there is a history of dermatitis or eczema in your family.

Referral to a specialist

If the allergens or irritants causing your contact dermatitis cannot be identified, you may be referred to a dermatologist (a doctor who specialises in treating skin conditions).

You may also be referred to a dermatologist if the trigger has been identified, but your symptoms are not responding to treatment.

Testing for allergens

The best way to test for a reaction to allergens is by patch testing. During a patch test, tiny amounts of known allergens are applied to your skin. The substances are attached to your back using a special kind of non-allergic tape. They may sometimes be attached to the upper arms.

After two days, the patches are removed and your skin assessed to check if there has been any reaction. Your skin will usually also be examined again after a further two days, as most allergic contact dermatitis reactions will take this long to develop.

Testing for irritants

It's very difficult to test whether specific products irritate your skin, because testing for these is very unreliable.

In some cases, a repeated open application test (ROAT) is useful, particularly to assess cosmetics. A ROAT involves reapplying the substance onto the same area of skin twice a day for 5 to 10 days, to see how your skin reacts.

This is a particularly useful way for you to check your own cosmetics at home for reactions.

Page last reviewed: 21/10/2014

Next review due: 21/10/2016