Protecting our biggest organ

Dermatitis is most commonly a result of the skin coming into contact with a substance (irritant) that damages the outer layer of the skin or from a substance which causes the immune system to respond in such a way to affect the skin.

You may be at increased risk of dermatitis if you work with irritant substances such as
frequent exposure to soaps and detergents or by short term exposure to stronger irritants like solvents, acids, alkalis or mineral oils, or if work requires you to do a lot of wet work.
Getting the condition in this way is known as occupational irritant dermatitis and is common in occupations such as agricultural workers, hairdressers, cleaners, construction workers, social care workers and mechanics.

Alternatively, coming into contact with an allergen can cause your body to become sensitised, the immune system can then react to subsequent exposure making it red and itchy.
This form of dermatitis is referred to as allergic contact dermatitis and some common causes include cosmetics, metals, rubbers, glues and some plants. Anyone can contact dermatitis in this way and some individuals are more prone than others.

Symptoms can range from minor irritation and redness, to cracking, scaling, flaking with minor swelling, to blistering and major swelling leading to permanent damage to the skin. Being able to identify the symptoms of dermatitis quickly, is essential if the cause is to be identified and measures taken to prevent or reduce the level of exposure to a tolerable level that allows the person to work in comfort without fear of long term injury or disability.

Prevention in the first instance should always be the goal, and through having an in depth look at what we do, how we do it and with what, will reduce the likelihood of unnecessary contact with dermatitis causing substances.

Risk assessing the process as well as the product being used is essential as changing the way a substance is used could help to reduce exposure. Changing a substance application method e.g. from hand application to spraying, may reduce the likelihood of skin contact therefore reducing the risk. Reducing the exposure time and frequency will also reduce the risk.

Substitution of a harmful product for a less harmful one should also be one of the first considerations, this immediately reduces or removes the risk. This is quite often not feasible but worth investigation. While personal protective equipment is always one of the last control measures to be considered in risk assessing, something as simple as wearing the correct type of glove for a particular task may be all that is required to reduce the risk to a tolerable level.

Control measures may be different in each instance but the basic idea of preventing contact to the skin by harmful substances will ultimately prevent this painful and debilitating condition from occurring. As the title suggests, the skin is the largest organ in the body, it needs care, look after it. We wouldn’t knowingly expose our hearts in this way so why do it to your skin.

Having a hairdresser wife whom I see having to deal with dermatitis on a daily basis has brought home to me what life changing effects it can have.
Years of contact with chemicals and haircare products has damaged her skin to the point that it never heals. It’s swollen in parts, it cracks and splits which causes it to weep, it can get very itchy especially when hot which requires her to wear cotton gloves which provides some relief. Latex gloves have to be worn for any task that involves water or chemicals and even washing her own hands causes a reaction. Only the strongest of creams have any effect now, but overuse causes damage too so this has to be administered sparingly.

So, for those exposed to the possibility of dermatitis the advice is simple, try not to expose your skin to anything that may cause a problem. Wear gloves and barrier creams and keep exposure to a minimum.

NHS Website: View website
HSE Website: View website

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