The winter season is here. That means colds and flu, and overly-drying, heated air in our homes and workplaces. Add necessary frequent hand washing to this combo and you may end up with a very uncomfortable situation – contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis can be divided into two categories – irritant and allergic. Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type. It can be as mild as a rash, or as debilitating as dry, itchy skin that can crack and bleed. It occurs because the outer layer of your skin has been damaged. Most often, this is due to harsh soaps and damaging chemical solvents. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when an allergen triggers an immune response in your skin. It shows up as a red rash, with bumps and sometimes blisters. It can be caused by natural rubber, the sulfur-based chemical accelerators used in the production of many non-latex gloves, as well as perfumes, cosmetics and hair dyes.
A Pricey Problem
Dermatitis is a widespread problem. Up to 35 percent of all occupational diseases are skin diseases, with contact dermatitis making up the majority of the cases. In 2005, The Society for Investigative Dermatology and the American Academy of Dermatology reported that contact dermatitis was associated with more than 9 million physician office visits resulting in more than $1.4 billion spent on treatment.
Because of increased exposure to chemicals, detergents and frequent hand washing, workers in health care, construction, food service and cleaning are especially vulnerable. Individuals with a history of eczema, latex allergy, prone to sunburn, and repeated exposure to water should be especially careful in order to avoid dermatitis.
What You Can Do
To avoid occupational contact dermatitis, carefully take stock of your environment and habits:
Health Care Workers – After washing with soap and water, are you drying your hands gently, so that you do not cause unnecessary damage to your skin? If you are starting to notice a rash, has your facility recently changed to a new brand of hand soap? Your skin may be irritated by a chemical in the new product. Because alcohol-based hand rubs do not cause dermatitis, the CDC recommends they be used whenever possible in health care settings. These foams and gels often contain emollients and substantially reduce skin irritation and dryness.
Industrial / Cleaning / Food Service Workers – What chemicals, oils and cleaning agents do your hands come into contact with? Are you wearing the right glove material (nitrile vs. latex) to protect your hands from that irritant? Are you around wet cement, cement dust or paper dust? These irritants can also cause dermatitis. Make sure you are wearing disposable gloves to protect your hands. If your hands do come into contact with cement or chemicals, wash your hands immediately with a fragrance-free, neutral pH hand soap with emollients, and gently dry your hands without excessive rubbing. (Alcohol-based hand rubs are not recommended for food service workers, as its effectiveness is reduced when in the presence of food proteins.)
You will likely experience dry hands this winter. The cold air and wind chaps your hands, and the low humidity level further removes moisture from your skin. By paying careful attention to how you wash and dry your hands, and protect your skin from harsh detergents and chemicals, you can greatly reduce your chances of developing painful contact dermatitis.
Could your gloves be the problem?
The sulfur-based chemical accelerators – carbamates, thiurams and mercaptobenzothiazoles (MBT) – commonly found in non-latex gloves can lead to contact dermatitis. If you suspect your gloves are causing your current skin irritation, request a sample pack of FreeStyle1100 Accelerator-Free Nitrile Exam Gloves and Scion700 Nitrile Exam Gloves with Low Dermatitis Potential.