I Have “Sofa Dermatitis” — Here’s What It’s Like to Be Allergic To Your Couch

published Apr 28, 2022
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In the early months of the pandemic, when I spent so much time at home cozying up on the couch marathon-watching movies, I developed intense, unrelenting, full-body itching that seemed to never subside no matter what I tried. More than two years later, I know now that what I have is something called “sofa dermatitis,” a cute name for a condition that’s anything but.

Despite its vague yet buzzy marketing omnipresence among beauty brands, I’ve always been someone with “sensitive skin.” For me, that has always meant that trying a new laundry detergent or wearing a cheap pair of earrings could trigger an allergic reaction, leaving me with itching, hives, welts, and the like. Two years prior to my couch turning on me, I’d visited a dermatologist, where an allergy test that revealed I was sensitive to a few common allergens, like gold and formaldehyde. I began avoiding those ingredients and went along my merry way, relatively itch-free.

During the pandemic, the itching came back in full force, so this time, I visited an allergist for more extensive testing. In total, I was deemed allergic to more than two dozen chemicals commonly found in cleaning, beauty, and skincare products. Suddenly, not even popular brands of hand sanitizer or “made for sensitive skin” products were safe for use, and my allergist, who was in his eighties, noted I was the worst case he’d seen in his entire career in medicine. Lucky me!

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I spent months paring down my routine, ridding my home of any mass-market products in lieu of allergy-safe alternatives. The itching continued, prompting me to seek a second allergist opinion. I began to accept that I was now facing a chronic health condition and became accustomed to a rotating daily regimen of multiple antihistamines, which left me feeling lethargic, uncomfortable, and unlike myself in many ways.

Finally, 18 months into the pandemic, my husband and I embarked on our first vacation in a year and a half, and I went armed with three different types of antihistamines, fearing the detergent used on hotel linens and towels would trigger my allergies. Incredibly, the itching disappeared during my trip. After so much time relying on antihistamines, I thought maybe stress was causing my itching and that a relaxing getaway was just the remedy.

Within hours of returning home and hitting the couch, the itching returned yet again. It immediately dawned on me that the cushy sectional we splurged on after moving into our home in early 2019 was the culprit. I began looking up “allergic to couch,” and discovered that anti-mold and antifungal agents commonly used in furniture items can trigger something called “sofa dermatitis” — a reaction caused by coming into contact with these chemicals.

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Though people can also develop contact allergies to fabrics and dyes, I suspected it was the stain-repellant technology I purchased with my pricey sectional causing my reaction, as I have a recliner from the same retailer without stain-resistant coating that I can sit on with no problem. I tried to figure out a way to safely sit on the couch, but everything I tried seemingly failed. I also called the corporate headquarters and local store where I purchased the sectional to ask exactly what was in the stain-repellant, but frustratingly they couldn’t provide any information — one person told me it was a “plant-based solution,” but had no further intel.

So what is sofa dermatitis and how can you avoid it on your next furniture purchase? “Sofa dermatitis is a skin rash that can occur when coming into contact with dimethyl fumarate (DMF),” says Dr. Kathleen Dass, an immunologist at the Michigan Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center. “Symptoms primarily include itching and a rash that is typically red, sometimes swollen, and usually uncomfortable. The rash can be scaly or papular (pimple-like).” Though the rash usually forms where you come into contact with a couch, like your back or legs, some people (like me), develop all-over itching.

DMF is such a potent irritant that the European Union has banned the use or production of it, which probably explains why I was able to enjoy my vacation in Greece itch-free. “While some countries regulate DMF, the United States is not one of them,” notes Dass.

Unfortunately, it can be tough to prevent buying furniture without chemicals like DMF, as you might find them on both upholstered and leather furniture, and the lack of regulations and clear labeling makes things tricky, Dass says. Avoiding stain-repellant technology might help, and wearing a fabric swatch on your skin for 24 to 48 hours prior to buying furniture could help determine if you might develop a reaction.

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Other clues to look for would include the phrase “mold inhibitors,” “anti-mold,” and silica gel packets in furniture or shoes, as it’s also found on shoes frequently, adds Dass. DMF can also be called: fumaric acid, dimethyl ester, allomaleic acid dimethyl ester, dimethyl (E)-butenedioate, and methyl fumarate.

“If you think you have a DMF allergy, it’s always important to start with an allergist and dermatologist who can take your history and rule out other causes,” she says. “If DMF is the concern, patch testing will need to be performed.” Though sofa dermatitis is not common, if you do develop an allergy, “treatment typically includes topical and/or oral steroids and emollients [moisturizers] to help heal the skin,” she adds.

Unfortunately, “the best treatment is avoidance,” notes Dass. “Usually, the furniture (or clothing item) needs to be removed altogether. Handle silica gel packets with care and gloves. Using emollients can help protect your skin. Cleaning the couch can help, but this may not fully remove the DMF.” 

In my case, the itching largely subsided when I sat on the living room recliner, but I’ve noticed that even being in the same room as the sectional triggers the itching. Now that I know I can’t peacefully coexist with my couch, I’m on the hunt for a new, chemical-free sectional. I jokingly call it my $4,000 mistake, but in all seriousness, I’m just grateful to have figured out the cause of my itching once and for all — and I hope my hard-earned wisdom can prevent someone else from developing sofa dermatitis, too.