If you are a massage therapist, you must have heard the term contact dermatitis. It’s a peril that comes with the massage trade. And it can leave the practitioner with a lot of pain, both personal and professional. When we first heard about contact dermatitis from one of the Registered Massage Therapists, it was a revelation that led to many discussions among our peers. Information about it was only available in bits and pieces. We were surprised that there we couldn't find more obvious resources for such a common complaint.
After much research from Internet sources, we found only medical reasons for contact dermatitis, and a single, decade-old survey done on massage therapists. So, what exactly is contact dermatitis?
What is contact dermatitis?
Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that is caused by contact with an allergen or an irritant. Common allergens and irritants – metals, chemicals, cosmetics, fragrances, jewelry, animals, and plants. This condition isn’t contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable, especially if your work depends upon it.
Common symptoms of contact dermatitis:
- Dry, flaked or scaly skin
- Red rash
- Bumps and blisters
- Swelling, tenderness and burning
- Skin cracking at the knuckles or on the scalp
Diagnosing contact dermatitis
Be aware that contact dermatitis usually occurs on those body parts which have been exposed to the reaction-causing substance. If you are a massage therapist and allergic to a chemical – the most obvious reaction may occur on your hands or arms. If you are allergic to metal and wore metal earrings – the reaction would be on your ears. The rash starts developing within minutes to hours depending upon your immune system and can last up to weeks. But if you don’t halt the use of allergen or irritant, it can become a permanent problem.
Before we jump to the cure, we must understand the type of rash and why someone gets it in the first place. Understanding types of contact dermatitis helps us pinpoint and address the issue better.
Types of contact dermatitis
There are three types of contact dermatitis. The first two are common but the third happens rarely.
- Irritant Contact Dermatitis: The most common. It develops when the skin touches an irritating chemical, comes in contact with heat or skin is rubbed very vigorously. The irritating substance breaks through the skin barrier and causes inflammation.
Irritant contact dermatitis develops from common everyday substances – water, too much pressure or friction on the skin (if you are a massage therapist, there is a high chance of you getting this) and change of weather. Do you get flaky skin at the beginning of spring or fall? That is irritant contact dermatitis caused by weather.
- Allergic Contact Dermatitis: A slower reaction than the first. Allergic contact dermatitis can take up to 48 to 96 hours to develop after coming in contact with an allergen. The reason being when the skin comes in contact with a new allergen, it sends a signal to the immune system for analysis which gets stored in its memory bank. The skin doesn’t react right away. But if the same substance is used over and over again, the immune system remembers it and skin starts reacting. So if a rash or an itch develops after 3-4 days of using a product which you have used earlier without any reaction, it is probably allergic contact dermatitis.
Common allergens include – metals, fragrances, antibacterial ointments, formaldehyde, isothiazolinone, cocamidopropyl betaine, and paraphenylene-diamine. All of these chemicals are found in personal care or cosmetic products.
Product Labels You Should Read To Avoid Allergic Contact Dermatitis
- Allergen: Isothiazolinones. It protects the product from oxygen and light damage, and to prevents the growth of bacteria. It is a common ingredient in shampoos, body washes, cosmetics, and wet wipes of any kind.
- Allergen: Cocamidopropyl Betaine. This is used as a surfactant, when mixed with water or oil, it helps to wash dirt away. It is a common ingredient in cosmetics, personal care, and house cleaning products.
- Allergen: Formaldehyde. It's almost always used as a preservative and is a common ingredient in household disinfectants and adhesives.
- Allergen: Paraphenylene-Diamine is used as a dye. It is a common ingredient in hair dye and black shoe polish.
Contact Urticaria is better known as hives. This allergic response happens right away. Happily, it usually doesn’t last long. It is a kind of alarm system in your skin that announces something you have touched (or inhaled or eaten) is causing an immune response.
How to treat contact dermatitis
The best way to treat contact dermatitis is to avoid the substance which has caused the reaction in the first place. In our opinion, totally avoiding a product may not be a real solution if your livelihood depends on it. But there are less-aggressive but highly-effective alternatives that you could try. If it's not practical to stop using a massage lotion, try switching to an alternative version of it that is free from chemicals at issue.
We recommend keeping a journal of things you have used when you get a reaction in order to choose the best alternatives.
How to Record Contact Dermatitis Reactions
- Note all products you have used before the reaction. Go back five days to make the list
- Remember the common allergens and check the label of all the new products you have used in the last five days
- In case you have pets at home, they can be a source. Check if they have been in contact with any allergens
- We suggest you keep a record somewhere you and your family can access anywhere, anytime. This way you can be mindful while shopping for products. Use a WhatsApp group or shared notes on your Apple devices
- Ask your family doctor to refer you for an allergy test
Remedies and Preventive Measures for contact dermatitis:
It’s difficult to work with contact dermatitis. We recommend you take the following preventive measures to protect your hands.
- Apply anti-itch creams and lotions to soothe the skin – calamine lotion is very good
- Cease the use of essential oils for a time and record the results
- Cold compress made of baking soda and water
- Use hypoallergenic and fragrance-free products
- Use powdered vinyl gloves
- Keep skin moisturized to stop it from drying out, especially in cold months
- Wash your hands after the massage and use a product that suits your skin-condition and skin-type
- Replace products which have known allergens – formaldehyde, isothiazolinones, cocamidopropyl betaine, paraphenylene-diamine – with all-natural and organic products
- In case natural oil or its fragrance is the source – find its alternative online or simply use fragrance-free products
- In case you have sensitive skin, we recommend using products with Seal of Acceptance
- Do a patch test at home before using a new product
- Try not to scratch the affected area – it will make the problem worse
- Avoid latex gloves
- Ask your family doctor for a referral to a dermatologist
Massage therapists rely on their hands to treat their clients. They provide much-needed therapy our bodies need. They help us get rid of prolonged aches. They lend us their ears, we sometimes end up finding our catharsis in them. So what about them? Isn’t it time your hard-working hands get the love and care you give to your clients?