Since college, Yan Sham-Shackleton, a Los Angeles-based writer, always used the same detergent for her laundry, Seventh Generation.
One day, Sham-Shackleton went to a different grocery store than usual to do her shopping, and they didn’t carry her regular detergent. So she picked up one from another brand, one labeled hypoallergenic and fragrance-free for sensitive skin.
Soon after trying the new laundry detergent, Sham-Shackleton began getting itchy when she wore certain clothes.
“I started getting really large welts on my skin,” says Sham-Shackleton. “I didn’t know what it was, and I thought it must be from something I ate.”
Sham-Shackleton would wear one t-shirt and be fine and then another t-shirt and the reaction would flare up.
She figured out that something was up with the three or four loads of laundry that she washed with the new detergent and stopped using it, but the reaction didn’t go away.
When Sham-Shackleton would take hot showers her skin would get even more irritated. Her whole back would break out in welts.
“I suffered for a few more weeks, and then I went to see an allergist,” says Sham-Shackleton.
It turned out, as Sham-Shackleton had suspected, her new detergent was the problem. It caused an allergic reaction called urticaria.
However, simply going back to her regular detergent wouldn’t resolve Sham-Shackleton’s symptoms. Her fateful detergent choice would be the beginning of an ongoing journey with allergic reactions.
With the help of her doctor, Sham-Shackleton was able to determine that the switch in detergent was the root of her allergic reaction.
When Sham-Shackleton also mentioned that she seemed to be constantly congested, her doctor recommended she do some testing.
“I got my panel done,” says Sham-Shackleton. “I found out I was also allergic to all sorts of things like pollen and animals.”
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, over 15,000 substances can cause an allergic skin reaction. Sham-Shackleton’s doctor said it would be hard to pinpoint what chemical was responsible for triggering her urticaria.
While Sham-Shackleton does not know exactly what ingredient in the detergent caused her reaction, there are several substances commonly found in detergents that may contain allergens. These include:
- Fragrances: According to research, there are over 100 substances that may contain allergens found in fragrances used in personal care products and cosmetics.
- Enzymes: Used for breaking down stains,
Researchsuggests that enzymes may cause skin inflammation and other irritations.
- Dyes: Though
legislationhas been enacted to help protect people against certain color additives considered dangerous, some people still experience allergic reactions to dyes found in cleaning products, cosmetics, and more.
- Parabens: Often found in detergents, cosmetics, and personal care products, there is concern that parabens can cause allergic reactions and potentially other health issues such as cancer.
Urticaria is a common condition that is often referred to as hives. It presents as wheals, raised itchy bumps or welts that can be a few millimeters to centimeters wide.
These bumps show up when your body releases histamine, a substance stored inside your cells. This substance is released as your body’s response to a specific trigger, such as an allergic reaction. Some allergy triggers that may cause urticaria include:
- Foods such as nuts, shellfish, and dairy products
- Insect bites
- Contact allergens
- Pet dander
Other triggers that can cause hives include:
- Light exposure
- Physical triggers from rubbing or pressure like tight clothing
Often urticaria will resolve on its own within 24 to 48 hours. In some cases it may last only a few minutes or hours. However, chronic urticaria can last for 6 weeks or more.
If you are experiencing persistent hives, a medical professional such as a board certified dermatologist can determine your diagnosis and the best way to treat your condition. This may include:
- Avoiding triggers
- Over-the-counter topical relief such as anti-itch creams
- Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Allegra
- Prescription medications such as corticosteroids
- Auto-Injector or EpiPen
- Light therapy
Testing, including patch testing, can be conducted to find allergens that may be triggering urticaria and other reactions. Patch testing is done by exposing your skin to small amounts of allergens and then covering each area with a patch.
After 48 hours, your doctor will remove the patches to see which allergens resulted in allergic reactions. Your doctor will then monitor you for a few days for any further reactions.
Though her detergent reaction didn’t occur until she was an adult, Sham-Shackleton remembers disliking the smells of cleaning supplies even as a kid.
“I always covered my nose and mouth when I went down the aisle for cleaning products at the supermarket. I remember my mom always thought I was being really dramatic,” she says.
Sham-Shackleton shares that growing up in Hong Kong, she doesn’t remember much talk about allergies.
“I just hated the taste of seafood like shellfish, but I never thought, ‘Oh, I might be allergic to it.’ So, I would just never eat seafood.”
“As I got older and people would talk about allergies, that’s when I realized that my throat would itch when I ate shellfish,” says Sham-Shackleton. “In the same way, I’ve always been really attracted to clean products because I’ve always had some sort of reaction. Then this detergent just set it off.”
After her initial reaction, Sham-Shackleton would also get similar reactions to other cleaning and personal care products. “I’d be using some sort of soap and it (the allergic reaction) would come out,” she says.
Sham-Shackleton’s allergist had her go on Allegra for six weeks to get her allergy under control. “He said that would strengthen the walls of my cells again and stop the histamine from leaking,” Sham-Shackleton says.
According to research, Histamine is a chemical that can play a role in inflammation and irritability when it comes to allergic reactions. Allegra is an over-the-counter antihistamine that helps relieve allergies.
To this day Sham-Shackleton continues to take Allegra or the generic form of it to manage her allergies. She’ll take it for six weeks and take a break, but after a few weeks something will come up that sets off her allergy all over again such as a hand cream or personal care product.
Her throat will start itching and then she’ll begin getting welts, usually popping up on her inner elbow first. As her skin becomes itchy, it gets harder not to scratch.
“Right now because we’re using so much hand sanitizer I’m taking it (Allegra) every day,”
When making purchasing decisions, Sham-Shackleton doesn’t look for specific ingredients, but she tries to buy “clean” products that are fragrance-free. She doesn’t always trust labels since the detergent that first triggered her allergy was labeled hypoallergenic.
Sham-Shackleton’s doctor let her know that allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, may be another option for treating her allergies.
Immunotherapy works by injecting a small amount of allergen into the skin to build up tolerance over time. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, it can be effective in treating allergens including plants, mold, dust, animal dander, and insect stings.
So far Sham-Shackleton has not tried the shots, but she is considering doing them in the future.
One thing Sham-Shackleton hopes others can learn from her experience is to see a doctor right away if you experience symptoms like hers. “I waited because I thought it would go away on its own, but it just got worse,” she says. “If somebody experiences allergies and welts, they should see an allergist as soon as possible.”