This week's blog post was kindly provided by Robert N. Phalen, Ph.D. and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH).
Dermatitis is no fun.
I should know because I have dealt with it personally. Twice.
The first time was when I worked in the automotive industry and I noticed my fingernails were getting pitted and thinner. It turned out that one of the solvents or oils we worked with was damaging my cuticles and I was told that I had developed contact dermatitis. The solution…I wore washable cotton gloves, avoided skin contact with all chemicals, and the problem went away.
The second time was in a laboratory working with pesticides. I was responsibly wearing disposable nitrile gloves and I washed my hands regularly to make sure they were clean and free of any pesticides. But despite my efforts, my fingers were often cracked, bleeding and covered with Band-Aids.
Causes of My Dermatitis
My hands were not healthy. One issue was that the gloves trapped moisture and kept my hands moist, which can soften and damage the skin. Another was that I was washing my hands too much, which can remove protective oils and layers of skin.
But the key issue was that I was not removing or handling my contaminated gloves properly. I would sometimes touch the outside of the glove when I removed them, which would transfer the pesticide to my fingers. I also realized that I would use a pen with gloved hands and then use that same pen without gloves. The dermatitis was the most severe in those fingers that held the contaminated pen.
Needless to say, I was motivated to fix the problems and keep my hands healthy.
Thankfully, I was able to figure out these issues. Working with dermatitis was painful: it affected my productivity, and it affected my interactions with others as well. The Band-Aids especially made me feel self-conscious about shaking other people’s hands and I often felt uncomfortable in public. I even had someone accuse me of infecting him with my disease, which further convinced me that others saw me differently.
Fortunately, there are solutions to help avoid these types of issues.
Essentially, hand health is important, regardless of whether you are using gloves to protect your hands from chemicals or to protect a product from contamination. Dermatitis (a type of skin inflammation with several possible causes) is a leading occupational disease that can affect anyone working with chemicals or using rubber or plastic gloves. You are more at risk of dermatitis when the skin is constantly wet or damaged, which can affect the natural barrier properties of the skin.
Here are some simple ways to protect your skin and keep your hands healthy.
- Use lotion. If you use rubber or plastic gloves a lot or if your hands get wet often, then it would be good to also use a lotion designed to promote healing of the skin. These lotions or ointments can be found at almost any drugstore. Most brands that are backed by clinical trials contain petrolatum, oat, or dimethicone. If you find your hands get dry, crack or inflamed easily, then try using a lotion that sooths your skin. You can apply the lotion before bed, in the morning, and after work, as needed.
- Keep your gloved hands dry. If you use gloves around water, then make sure you are not submerging your hands to where the water gets trapped inside the glove. If your hands are constantly wet, then this is when the skin can become softened and easily damaged. Use a glove with a longer cuff or use a special tool to retrieve items from the water.
- Do not leave gloves on for prolonged periods of time. Remove the glove when you no longer need it for protection. Leaving gloves on will soften the skin and make it susceptible to damage. Also, leaving a contaminated glove on increases the risk of exposure to the chemical. The chemical has more time to penetrate the glove and the soft and moist skin underneath could even enhance skin absorption and your exposure.
Be careful when removing gloves. Do not touch the outer surface with bare hands. There is a standard technique used for bloodborne pathogens that should also be used when working with chemicals. You can view videos on YouTube that explain proper disposable glove removal. The general steps are:
Step 1: With both hands gloved, pinch the outer wrist region on one glove and start to peel the glove towards the fingers, turning the glove inside out. Only touch the outer surface of the glove.
Step 2: Pull the first glove completely off the hand, but still keep it pinched in the gloved hand.
Step 3: Ball the removed glove into the palm of the remaining gloved hand.
Step 4: Slide two ungloved fingers inside the inner cuff of the remaining gloved hand, being careful not to touch the outer glove surface.
Step 5: Peel the second glove off in a similar manner to the first, turning it inside out and trapping any contaminated surfaces inside.
Step 6: Properly discard the gloves in a receptacle.
Step 7: Properly wash and dry your hands, as needed.
- Be careful what you touch with gloves. Be aware of the things you touch and use when you are wearing gloves and make sure that you do not handle those same items without gloves.
- Avoid reusing disposable gloves. The likelihood of contaminating your skin is high with disposable gloves.
- Wash reusable gloves. If you are using thicker, chemically-resistant gloves that will be re-used, then you may wish to wash and decontaminate them before taking them off. This will reduce your exposure the next time you don the gloves. Some organizations will decontaminate the gloves after each use, in a special washing system (much like a dish washer).
Hopefully, these tips can help you avoid the pain, discomfort and embarrassment of dermatitis. My last advice is that if you are experiencing skin irritation and pain, then it is best to seek professional help from a dermatologist.