Could Your Job Be Triggering Your Eczema?

Judi Ebbert, PhD, MPH, RN | Oct 16, 2017

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If you suspect your job might be making your eczema worse, you may be right. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 13 million US workers are exposed to chemicals that can be absorbed by the skin. And 90 percent to 95 percent of occupational skin diseases in the workplace are the result of eczema, or atopic dermatitis, caused by exposure to hazardous agents.

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Which agents signal a hazard for people with eczema?

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Hazardous agents can be irritants that damage the skin. Other substances can trigger an allergic reaction. Whether the agent is an irritant or an allergen, the outcome is the same: exacerbation of eczema, and the highest incidence of job-related eczema, or atopic dermatitis, occurs with machine operators, fabricators (metal workers), laborers and service workers.

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Irritants or allergens?

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Irritants that can lead to eczema include cleansers, acids and bases; industrial solvents; chemicals; plants; fabrics; airborne particles; and cosmetics, various foods, and medications. Allergens that can lead to eczema include nickel sulfate, balsam, fragrance mix, quaternium-15, neomycin and bacitracin, formaldehyde and more.

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Where do workers encounter hazardous agents?

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Factories, farms, warehouses, hospitals, clinics, hardware stores and beauty salons can house potentially harmful chemicals. And any business may have cleaning agents that can trigger a flare. People who work directly with those agents are especially at risk. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what you use at work. Keep a log of what was used and how long before a reaction occurred to help you consider how it may relate to a flare in frequency, timing and intensity.

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Some “agents” are less obvious.

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Stress, temperature extremes, certain fabrics (including itchy uniforms), and actions like repeated friction or rubbing can trigger a flare. While stress is not a direct cause of eczema, high stress levels go hand in hand with increased symptoms. The reason for this isn’t clear, but reducing on-the-job stress is a smart move that can bring relief. Stress-reduction strategies include meditation, deep breathing, positive thinking and maintaining work-life balance.

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How’s your workplace thermostat?

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Do you work outside in construction, agriculture, engineering or landscaping? Or do you work in a bakery near hot ovens? What about as a welder or a boiler mechanic? Extreme heat can irritate and dry out the skin, which is a prerequisite to a flare. Anyone whose job keeps them in a hot environment should at the very least frequently apply an emollient, or cream with high oil content.

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Extremes are never good.

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The other extreme—continuous exposure to cold—is just as detrimental as intense heat. Workers exposed to cold weather include those who repair power lines or plow roads in winter, but don’t office workers who have no way to adjust the frigid temperature of their workplace. Extreme heat and cold can dry the skin, which almost always leads to a flare.

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What’s in your uniform?

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If the fabric feels scratchy, don’t be surprised if it makes you itch, which will no doubt exacerbate your eczema. Constant rubbing by rough material alone can cause trauma to the skin, not to mention the added injury that results from scratching. Natural fibers like cotton are best for people with eczema, which is explained in detail at this story from eczema blogger Ashley Wall.

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What’s under your nails?

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Acrylates—ingredients found in artificial nail products, bone cements, and denture materials—have triggered eczema in those who are allergic to them. According to a study published in Occupational Medicine, acrylate exposure is common in certain jobs and workplaces, among them beauty salons, dental practices, print shops and construction sites. The beautiful new nails that a manicurist creates may, in some cases, exacerbate eczema.

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What can you do if your job is making your eczema worse?

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If you use something that is irritating, avoid it. If you can’t avoid it, find out what’s in it. Tell your employer about the problem. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exists to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance. And sometimes, if the exposure is unavoidable, the only solution is another position.