Atopic vs Contact Dermatitis: Causes and Triggers

With so many types of eczema out there, it’s hard to distinguish the differences between the types. Specifically, there seems to be a lot of confusion with the differences between atopic and contact dermatitis, two common forms of eczema. As eczema sufferers know, knowing what triggers eczema flare-ups is key to controlling it. We’re here to help distinguish the difference between their causes and triggers to help get eczema under control. For general information about what eczema is, check out the information here.

Atopic vs Contact

Telling the difference between the two is tough because they both have similar symptoms. Both create symptoms of red, dry, cracked, swollen, itchy patches of skin. The main difference between the two is the nuanced differences between the causes and triggers. While the causes of both types haven’t been fully figured out yet, the triggers between the two types create a clear distinction between the two.

Simply speaking, atopic dermatitis is caused by weak skin and an abnormal immune system. When one’s genes don’t create a normal skin barrier, the result is weakened skin that’s missing elements important in blocking allergens and bacteria from getting into the skin. On top of that, one’s genes also don’t create a proper immune system defense to kill the bacteria that’s getting into the skin easier. Instead, the body has to excessively use red, swelling inflammation that’s characteristic in atopic dermatitis to kill allergens and bacteria.

Contact dermatitis has an overactive defense rather than the body having a weak defense like in atopic dermatitis. This means one’s immune system unnecessarily views certain things in the world as a huge threat and excessively uses red, swelling inflammation to attempt to kill it. 

Basically, atopic dermatitis is like your body’s immune system is too weak, and contact dermatitis is like your immune system is being too paranoid.

Atopic Dermatitis Triggers

Atopic dermatitis’s triggers include typical allergens and irritants, bodily conditions, and environmental factors. Although atopic and contact dermatitis are both triggered by allergens and irritants, those of atopic dermatitis are typically commonly seen allergies. Allergen and irritant triggers of contact dermatitis are distinctly harsher chemicals. 

Allergens and Irritants

This includes typical allergens like foods, pollen, mold, fabrics, dust. The foods include nuts, soy, wheat, dairy, eggs, and more. 

Irritants that could trigger atopic dermatitis include strong soaps, shampoos, detergents, and household cleaners.

Bodily Conditions

This includes dry skin, stress, skin infections, hormonal changes, and sweating. 

Weather Conditions

Dry air, low humidity, and weather conditions contributing to dry skin trigger atopic dermatitis. This especially happens in the dry winter months.

Contact Dermatitis Triggers

The main difference with contact dermatitis’s triggers is that they’re irritants or allergens that actually touch the skin. Irritants are substances that are harsh and injure the skin barrier. Allergens, on the other hand, are things that the body considers a threat. Irritants are the more common causes of contact dermatitis. 


Irritants that cause contact dermatitis include bleach, rubbing alcohol, detergent, hand sanitizer, and pepper spray. 


Chemical allergens are the main allergens that trigger contact dermatitis. This includes nickel, medication, plants, and insecticides. 

Controlling Eczema

The key to controlling atopic and contact eczema is finding what triggers your flare-ups, avoiding those triggers, and using treatments to calm the flare-ups that do happen. Triggers differ from person to person, but a dermatologist can use patch tests to find what irritants or allergens your eczema might react to. One could also try and discover triggers through trial and error or seeing if flare-ups coincide with the presence of any of the triggers listed above. 

Various medications, like corticosteroids and systemic medications, can control eczema once flare-ups happen. They generally work by reducing inflammation that causes redness, itching, and swelling. Stronger medications like dupilumab work from inside the body to regulate the parts of the immune system involved with eczema. 

Simple things one could do at home like moisturizing and proper sanitization can prevent flare-ups too. Overall, a combination of prevention, daily habits, and medications can make living with eczema easier. Consult a dermatologist to find out what steps one could take to control eczema. 

Eczema and SkyMD

When it comes to controlling eczema, no one knows how best to help like a dermatologist. Eczema control is a lifelong struggle, but we’re with you every step of the way. Our patients love having 24/7 access to their dermatologist with prescriptions sent to their nearest pharmacy. For our patients suffering from eczema, getting their much-needed prescription refills is only one app away!


**The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice.


Bradley Ventayen

Bradley is a medical assistant at SkyMD. He graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a Physiology B.S. He is a part-time medical writer and an aspiring physician. He is blessed with the best mentors in the telemedical field to help him achieve his dreams and pursuit of knowledge.