Contact Dermatitis among Massage Therapists

If you are a massage therapist, you must have heard the term contact dermatitis. We hope you have not contacted it, though. It’s a peril that comes with the trade. And often leaves the person with a lot of pain – personal and professional. When we first heard about contact dermatitis from one of the Registered Massage Therapists, it was a revelation and it led to many discussions among our peers. The information was available in bits and pieces. What was astounding – there was not even a single strong voice for taking steps to find a solution for it.

Later we racked pages after pages on the internet — only to find medical reasons for contact dermatitis and a decade-old survey done on massage therapists. The first and foremost question that popped into our heads was – what exactly is contact dermatitis?

What is contact dermatitis?

Contact dermatitis is a skin condition that is caused when you come in contact with an allergen or an irritant. Common allergens and irritants – metals, chemicals, cosmetics, fragrances, jewelry 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
  • Itching
  • Bumps and blisters
  • Swelling, tenderness and burning

How would you know you have contact dermatitis or something else?

Be aware 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 – on your hands or arms. If you are allergic to metal and wore metal earrings – on your ears. The rash starts developing within minutes to hours depending upon your immune system and can last up to weeks. But in case you don’t stop 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 instantaneously. But if the same substance is used over and over again, the immune system remembers it and skin starts reacting. So next time you wonder why have you got a rash or an itch after 3-4 days of using a product which you have used earlier without any reaction – know it’s allergic contact dermatitis.
    Common allergens include – metals, fragrances, antibacterial ointments, Formaldehyde, Isothiazolinones, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Paraphenylene-Diamine (all these chemicals are found in personal care or cosmetic products.)

Product Labels You Must Read To Avoid Allergic Contact Dermatitis

    • Allergen: Isothiazolinones. Protects the product from oxygen and light damage, and to prevent the growth of bacteria. Common ingredient in shampoos, body washes, cosmetics, and wet wipes of any kind.
    • Allergen: Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Used as a surfactant, when mixed with water or oil, it helps to wash dirt away. Common ingredient in cosmetics, personal care, and house cleaning products.
    • Allergen: Formaldehyde. Used as a preservative. Common ingredient in household disinfectants and adhesives.
    • Allergen: Paraphenylene-Diamine. Used as a dye. Common ingredient in hair dye and black shoe polish.
Product labels you must read to avoid allergic contact dermatitis
  • Contact Urticaria: Commonly known as hives, this reaction happens right away. The good thing – it usually doesn’t last long.

The big question - how to treat contact dermatitis?

The best way to treat contact dermatitis is to avoid the substance which has caused the reaction. 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 must try. Let’s say – you can’t stop using a massage lotion, but you can surely switch to a better version of it – free from chemicals that are causing the problem. But before we discuss them, we suggest you start keeping a journal of things you have used when you get a reaction – so you can pick the right alternatives to avoid it.

How to Record Contact Dermatitis Reactions

  • Note all products you have used before the reaction – go back 5 days to make the list
  • Remember the common allergens and check the label of all the new products you have used in the last 5 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 all will be mindful while shopping for products – use WhatsApp group or shared notes on your Apple devices

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
  • 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

Massage therapists rely on their hands to treat their clients. They cure us in many ways. They provide much-needed therapy our bodies need. They help us get rid of prolonged aches. They lend us their ears – and – 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?

We have compiled a list of products which are better alternatives than the popular ones readily used in the business.

Ending this article with a very moving quote by Sandra K. Anderson, ‘The best approach for massage therapists is to be as fit as possible for this incredibly physical profession. The most important piece of equipment a massage therapist has is their own body.’

*We make no claim or recommendation about the medicinal benefits of the products listed in this article. We advise you seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.