There is nothing more distracting than itchy skin. While on the job you suddenly become aware of a localized patch on your hands screaming to be scratched. But you just started a task and you’re in NO position to stop what you’re doing and itch. It simply has to wait. And for the next several minutes you’re practically sweating you’re concentrating so hard on getting your work done while your hand is demanding your undivided attention. Finally, task completed, you can give it. On your hand you note a small area that’s bright red and feels crazy itchy. What you’re experiencing is Contact Dermatitis.
According to the CDC’s NIOSH page on Skin Exposures and Effects (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin )(1) it is estimated that 13 million plus workers in the U.S. are potentially exposed to chemicals while on the job that may be absorbed through one’s skin. In turn, this skin—or dermal—exposure to chemical hazards can lead to a variety of occupational diseases, the second most common type of occupational diseases being Occupational Skin Diseases (OSD) including Irritant Contact Dermatits, Allergic Contact Dermatitis and Skin Infections just to name a few.
The Healthline website article titled “What is Contact Dermatitis?” by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN (https://www.healthline.com/health/contact-dermatitis ) (2) summarizes symptoms, possible causes and includes pictures. As I have reviewed articles concerned with occupational skin exposure and skin hygiene, I’ve learned the following:
Maintaining the overall health of your skin’s outermost layer called the Stratum Corneum is crucial for minimizing workplace exposure to chemical irritants resulting in Contact Dermatitis.
The Stratum Corneum (SC) is the topmost layer of your skin’s epidermis and it measures only about 20 micro-meters thick (20 X 10-6 meters) or 0.000020 meters (3). This very thin layer is crucial in protecting one’s body from exposure to chemical irritants provided it is healthy in two general ways: a) It is not made vulnerable as a barrier to the environment on account of the SC becoming soft in response to being wet or moist (4); and b) It is not made vulnerable on account of the SC becoming rough-to-the-touch dried out or injured (think scratches, cuts, sores).
Skin absorption of irritating chemicals happens through diffusion (1). If the SC is soft, dried out or injured, chemical molecules from the irritant may pass right on through into the rest of the epidermis and into the body.
The CDC NIOSH page on Skin Exposures and Effects illustrates three ways diffusion may happen: Figure 1: Intercellular Lipid Pathway, Figure 2: Transcellular Permeation and Figure 3: Through the Appendages (Hair Follicles, Glands) (1). One item to note in reviewing these three figures: The SC is the dark colored band near the top of each drawing. It is truly the first “line” of defense.
Protect, Protect, Protect!
In my previous post The Value of Cotton Gloves (https://www.nolimitstextiles.com/2017/04/the-value-of-cotton-glove-liners/ ) (5) I wrote how skin plays a vital role in our overall health in that it keeps harmful microbes out of our bodies and that, “if you take care of your skin, your skin takes care of you.”
Here the emphasis is on the fact that our skin plays a vital role in our overall health because skin keeps harmful chemical irritants, microbes and germs out of our bodies. This benefit of skin requires, however, that the overall health of one’s Stratum Corneum be maintained while on the job—and off. Here are some suggestions:
- In the United States, employers are obligated to provide their employees personal protection equipment (PPE) appropriate for the work the employees are hired to do (https://www.osha.gov/as/opa/worker/employer-responsibility.html) (6). As it concerns hand safety and minimizing exposure to chemicals through direct contact with wet surfaces or splashes, wear the safety gloves provided.
- For added protection and improved hand comfort wear gloves liners underneath your safety gloves. The good reasons for this are:
- Glove liners enable “easy on / easy off” of outer rubber gloves by providing a smooth fabric barrier between the rubber glove and the skin. It is very important that safety gloves are removed from one’s hands in a way that minimizes contact with—and possible contamination by—chemicals located on the outside of the rubber glove (https://glovesbyweb.com/blogs/news/15201877-hand-health-preventing-hand-dermatitis-when-using-gloves) (4). Enabling “easy on, easy off” through the use of glove liners is helpful in this regard.
- Glove liners help keep your hands dry inside outer safety gloves. Cotton glove liners absorb sweat from your palms. Polyester glove liners move sweat away from your skin into the liner fabric. Glove liners may be easily changed out and replaced with a “fresh” dry pair as needed. Recall the importance of keeping the SC non-vulnerable by keeping it dry.
- Glove liners protect your skin from making direct contact with the inside surface of safety gloves. Depending on the type of safety glove and the standards it is manufactured to, safety gloves as PPE may be a source of irritating chemicals on account of how they were manufactured. Two examples where glove production methods include chemicals that may result in contact dermatitis: the plasticizers used in the dipping of rubber gloves as well as chromium sulfate that is used during the tanning of the leather prior to the leather being cut and sewn into gloves (7).
- When washing your hands, take care NOT to dry out your skin. Avoid using hot water and instead favor warm or cool water. Avoid using harsh soap and instead favor using mild soap (2). Furthermore, take care NOT to rub your skin off in the act of drying them. Instead pat the hands dry. Frequently washing your hands removes any chemical irritants that may be on your skin while allowing you the opportunity to inspect your Stratum Corneum for any red, itchy spots or other injury and to treat suspect areas on a timely basis.
For the prevention of painful, itchy skin while on the job it is critical to maintain the health of the Stratum Corneum — your SC. As the outermost layer of your skin it plays the vital role of protecting your body from irritating chemicals that may cause contact dermatitis or other forms of Occupational Skin Diseases. Remember always: If you take care of your skin, your skin will take of you.
- “SKIN EXPOSURES & EFFECTS.”Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 May 2017. <http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin>.
- Nall, Rachel, RN, BSN. “What Is Contact Dermatitis?”Healthline. Healthline Media, 19 May 2017. Web. 31 May 2017. <https://www.healthline.com/health/contact-dermatitis>.
- Drexler, H. “Skin Protection and Percutaneous Absorption of Chemical Hazards.”International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health5 (2003): 359-61.
- Phalen, Robert N., Ph.D., CIH. “Hand Health: Preventing Hand Dermatitis When Using Gloves.”Gloves By Web. Gloves By Web, Division of Auric Enterprises, Inc., 25 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 May 2017. <https://glovesbyweb.com/blogs/news/15201877-hand-health-preventing-hand-dermatitis-when-using-gloves>.
- Golding, Anne. “The Value of Cotton Glove Liners.”com. Occupational Textiles Solutions LLC, 5 Apr. 2017. Web. 31 May 2017. <https://nolimitstextiles.com/posts/>.
- “Employer Responsibilities.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration. United States Department of Labor, n.d. Web. 31 May 2017. <https://www.osha.gov/as/opa/worker/employer-responsibility.html>
- Rose, Rebecca F., Paul Lyons, Helen Horne, and S. Mark Wilkinson. “A Review of the Materials and Allergens in Protective Gloves.”Contact Dermatitis 3 (2009): 129-37.
Anne Golding is the owner / operator of Occupational Textiles Solutions LLC. Occupational Textiles Solutions LLC manufactures and sells stretchy glove liners—including cotton ones—through her No Limits Textiles brand.