What Causes Wool Allergies?

Did you know that many people who think they have wool allergies actually do not?

Many people who appear to have an adverse reaction to wool have sensitive skin that is harmed by the rubbing and abrasion of scratchy wool fiber.

Even people with a true allergy problem are actually reacting to substances in the wool, not the wool itself.

Wool Allergy Vs. Sensitive Skin

Wool allergy symptoms are typical of any allergen. They include:

  • Red, puffy, itchy, or watery eyes.
  • Runny nose.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Coughing.
  • Sneezing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Rash, which may take up to a week to appear after exposure to wool.

A problem caused by wool rubbing on sensitive skin is strictly confined to the skin, with no respiratory or other allergy symptoms. Symptoms of delicate skin that has been physically abraded by wool include:

  • Itchy skin.
  • Rash.
  • Hives.

Also note that wool sensitivity symptoms will appear when the affected person comes into contact with any coarse, scratchy fiber, not just wool.

Tips For Identifying a Lanolin Allergy

It is possible to be allergic to the naturally occurring lanolin found in wool. Lanolin, also known as wool wax or wool grease, is a natural protective grease that contains alcohols. These alcohols are thought to be the cause of true wool allergies. Note, however, that lanolin allergies are extremely rare.

A lanolin allergy can be hard to identify. What makes it easier (particularly for women) is that lanolin is common in many beauty creams and similar products due to its properties as an emulsifier. If you have a known issue with some beauty products, pull out the ingredient list—lanolin might be culprit.

Other products that often contain lanolin and thus can be used as a litmus test include:

  • Moisturizers.
  • Shampoos.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Shaving cream.
  • Hairspray.
  • Steroid creams.
  • Veterinary ointments.
  • Shoe polish.
  • Leather.
  • Air fresheners.
  • Printer ink.

Other Substances in Wool That Might Cause an Allergic Reaction

Again, lanolin allergies are quite rare. Typically, the real culprit is one of these substances:

  • Cleaning chemicals. These are sometimes added during the process of yarn manufacture and can be a major problem for those with chemical sensitivities.
  • Dyes. Likewise, some commercial dyes can cause allergies.
  • Dust mites. Wool fiber tends to hold in a great deal of foreign matter that can cause allergy symptoms. If you have a known dust allergy, there is a good chance that the dust trapped in your sweater is causing your symptoms.
  • Pet dander. Likewise, pet dander is easily trapped in the coarse fibers of wool. If you happen to be allergic to dogs or cats (or are knitting for someone else who is), keep your yarn and garments away from pets.

Now What?

If your problem is actually sensitive skin, there’s good news—you can continue to wear wool! Here are some tips for enjoying this fiber in comfort:

  • Dress in layers, making sure that your skin is protected from all contact with the wool garment.
  • Avoid wearing wool on days when you are likely to sweat. Sweating makes skin irritation worse.
  • Find a fine wool or wool blend. Most people with sensitive skin do not have a problem with fibers less than 22 microns in diameter. Merino is often a good option, while a blend of merino and cashmere is even better.

If you have a lanolin allergy, you will need to find a different fiber to wear, such as llama, alpaca, or cashmere. You might also enjoy working with plant fibers, such as cotton or bamboo.

Those with chemical allergies may enjoy working with yarns that have not been dyed. Or they might have fun dying their own yarns with natural substances!

And, finally, those with dust or pet dander allergies may need to avoid wool garments altogether. Wool rugs can also be a source of difficulty, so purchasing new rugs may be in order.