Weathering Fabric Allergies

Cooler ‘sweater weather’ means pulling out the heavy sweaters, coats, scarves, hats and gloves that have been living the back of the closet all winter. But for those with a textile allergy, the season can be anything but jolly and indeed can pose a real challenge. (My own personal heartbreak? Angora. I so adore its rich plush softness but because of its dander, I break out in the worst rash ever if I get anywhere near it.)

Contact allergy dynamics

On the skin, a contact allergic reaction can manifest itself as a rash that may or may not itch. It’s not uncommon a contact allergy to also trigger red eyes, a runny nose and sneezing fits. So what’s going on? Essentially, at the microscopic level an allergic reaction occurs when the body mistakenly identifies a particular molecule as potentially dangerous.

What makes one person allergic to something and another one not? The scientific answer is we don’t really know.

The other thing that is particularly tricky about allergies is that they can develop later in life and for no apparent reason. I have a patient who had no problems with wool until she was in her thirties. Now, even being in the vicinity of Merino turns her into an itchy, squirming mass of misery. Why now? Wait for it . . . we don’t really know.

The fiber

Wherever there’s a fiber derived from wool – whether it be sheep’s wool, cashmere, camel’s hair or alpaca – the potential for a contact allergy exists for those sensitive to lanolin, which is produced by the animals’ sebaceous glands. Ironically, for those who can tolerate it, lanolin has been a popular and highly effective moisturizer that’s been used for centuries.

Silk allergies are quite rare so generally it’s safe for most people. Though also rare, allergies to plant-based fibers like cotton or linen can also occur. But if these are causing a reaction chances are it’s not the fiber itself that’s the culprit.

The finishes

What complicates the picture is that more often than not it’s not the fiber itself causing the reaction but the dyes, finishes or preservatives used in processing that can cause disruption and eruption in those who are sensitive. And despite the ecological and sustainability movements, these chemicals aren’t going away any time soon.

One example of good intentions gone horribly wrong in fabric finishes is the use of flame- retardants in children’s pajamas, bedding and plush toys. Many of these have been outlawed but it’s been a vigorous battle that’s not over yet. Not only can flame retardants – the most common of which is Chlorinated Tris – trigger contact dermatitis but can be so toxic that their connections to cancer, learning disabilities and fertility problems later in life are very real. These are the last thing you’d want anywhere near your kids.

Vintage news

Vintage clothing is becoming increasingly popular but can also pose some allergic challenges for the skin sensitive. Old fabrics and furs that have not been cleaned properly or not been stored in a dust-free garment bag can harbor years’ worth of dust and dander that can really raise a rash. Anything that’s been in mothballs can kick up a pretty serious allergy too. So if you buy anything recycled, get it cleaned properly before wearing just to be safe.

Eco-friendly solvents that progressive dry cleaners are offering now react no differently from the older, more polluting ones as far as the skin or allergies are concerned. But my feeling is that if you can take the eco-option, it’s the better way to go because we’re all in this environment together.


If you have multiple sensitivities that are seriously interfering with your life, then it’s time to come in for a T.R.U.E. (Thin-Layer Rapid Use Epicutaneous) Patch Test. These are grid-like panels performed on a patient’s back that test for several of the most common allergens at once so you can pinpoint once and for all what’s bothering you. The organization’s website is an invaluable resource for the allergy-prone and well worth a look.

Contact allergies happen but they don’t have to bother your skin.

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