A rash of new allergies is leaving some dermatologists flooded with new patients, and it all stems from an issue in the restroom. A growing number of Americans are using pre-moistened toiletry wipes with a preservative known as "MI" (methylisothiazolinone), and some are experiencing painful, itchy rashes because of it.
"In the last two or three years, we've suddenly seen a big increase in people with this type of allergy," says Matthew Zirwas, M.D., director of the contact dermatitis center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "I can't even begin to tell you how miserable these patients are. They're walking around 24 hours a day with this rash equivalent to poison ivy."
Zirwas says the chemical preservative is MI (methylisothiazolinon) and it has been around for years. MI is found in many water-based products like liquid soaps, hair products, sunscreen, cosmetics, laundry products, and cleaners, as well as pre-moistened personal hygiene products and baby wipes.
The irritated skin can be red, raised, itchy, and even blistery, appearing much like a reaction to poison ivy. The three most common areas affected by the allergic reaction include the face, from using soaps and shampoos, the fingers and hands, from handling the wipes, and the buttocks and genitals, from using moistened flushable wipes.
"Concentrations of the preservative have increased dramatically in some products in the last few years, as manufacturers stopped using other preservatives like paraben and formaldehyde," says Dr. Zirwas. For some patients, their rash has been unexplained for quite some time.
Julie Omiatek, an Ohio mother of two who endured rashes on her hands and face, says it took a year to figure out her allergy.
"I tried to look for patterns and I journaled every time I had a flare-up," says Omiatek. "My allergist referred me to Dr. Zirwas' clinic and, lo and behold, it was a preservative in the baby wipes I was using. I was really surprised because I thought that the allergy would have appeared with my first child."
"If someone suspects an allergy to moistened wipes, they need to stop using them for at least one month. A week or two isn't enough time," says Dr. Zirwas.
It isn't clear how many Americans might react to MI, but Dr. Zirwas says manufacturers are aware of the growing allergy problem and are working on alternatives.
Dr. Zirwas is nationally known as a 'dermatologist detective.' He has spent nearly 10 years sleuthing out the causes of mysterious rashes that others can't solve. Over the years, he has identified allergies to shoe glue, hot tub chemicals, nickel in food, and even a chemical in escalator handrails.
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