Contact Dermatitis (or how I learned to deal with skin conditions exacerbated by work)

Working with my hands, I have often found that my skin reacts really badly to detergents, prolonged contact with water and physical abrasions from general tasks. The palms of my hands have, split peeled, bled and felt stiff and course, much to my chagrin. At its most severe, I had constant pain and pins and needles in my hands, preventing me from doing regular stuff like playing the violin or sewing (shock!).  Over time, I have come up with a few ways to limit damage to my skin and encourage my hands to heal on days away from work.



This is a steroid often prescribed by GPs for eczema and available over the counter at the chemist at a concentration of 1 – 2%. Prolonged use can actually prevent my skin from healing, though it is good for reducing inflammation and relieving irritation in the short-term, used sparingly. I only use this occasionally (maybe once a week) when my hands are inflamed and feel like they may crack or peel. I use this one straight after washing my hands and always follow it up with a hand cream.

hand creams

Call me excessive, but I have a few in stock which I use at different times of the day. For early morning and last thing before sleep applications, I use Weleda skin food. It’s thick and has a sunflower seed and almond oil base which is great for the skin (unless you have a nut allergy, obvs). It also contains extract of Calendula which is very soothing and it smells divinely herbal and comforting. You can massage loads of it in and leave it overnight, putting a pair of cotton gloves over the top if that is your preference. I can rarely be arsed to sleep in a pair of gloves.
At work or during the day I prefer something that sinks in quickly and has a lasting effect and there are two that I frequently reach for. First, the Neutrogena concentrated hand cream (I like the fragrance free version). This is a glycerine heavy formula that sinks in quickly and leaves my skin feeling much more flexible. I find it’s great for the palms of my hands but not quite intense enough for my fingertips and cuticles, which get very dry and sore. It doesn’t do a great deal for any pain or discomfort caused by dermatitis either.
The Aveeno hand cream has an oat base and feels very cooling on my hands. It’s a light cream that sinks in quickly and claims to last between hand washes – though I cannot substantiate this! A great ‘doing things’ cream, this one doesn’t have a strong smell and is pretty friendly on the finances too. Sadly it ran out recently, so isn’t pictured above.
Last up is the Nelson’s Calendula cream – a fairly new one for me, recommended by a colleague. This too is a light formula which calms irritation and helps prevent my skin from peeling or cracking. I use this throughout the day as it doesn’t have a strong smell either. It is a good one to double up with – I often apply this first with a heavier cream over the top, getting a double whammy of irritation calming, moisturising goodness. Oh yes Sir.


be vigilant

 Letting your treatments slide and your symptoms get worse can be awful, especially in a situation where you are regularly exposed to irritants and abrasions. Keeping on top of symptoms and applying (lets face it) a ton of moisturisers very regularly is the best way to keep things in shape, meaning you won’t need to use nasty steroids or have to take a break from whatever you are doing down the line. It is kind of annoying to have to carry hand creams with you all the time and keep putting them on every half hour or so, but it makes such a huge difference in maintaining reasonable, non-reptilian skin.

find products that work for you

Lots of creams that claim to be good for skin with dermatitis or eczema in the chemist are largely composed of petrochemicals which I would argue are not always best for skin. In my experience, they offer a short lived burst of moisture but eventually dry it out. They are not particularly soothing to irritation, but they are cheap to produce, which may be why they are so prevalent. However, mineral oils do create a barrier over skin, which could be beneficial in some contexts. I prefer to use products which are free from, or contain only small amounts of mineral oil. But, research ingredients and experiment to find things that suit your condition.

avoid irritants

This advice I have heard many times, but my symptoms always get worse if I am working in a kitchen environment, which I currently am. The truth is, everything is an irritant, but I love my job and need to work. So, I can’t really avoid irritants, but can smother them in emollient.

treat skin when it flares up

when my hands are really red, inflamed and sore, I will use hydrocortisone, which does calm everything down. Be aware of your symptoms and treat flare-ups as quickly as you can. And of course, go to the doctor if anything crazy happens.
Phew! Ok, I think I’m done. Congratulations if you made it to the end of this post, here’s hoping it is in some way helpful. If you have any comments or questions, do feel free to leave them below. As always, thanks for reading.

One comment

  1. Several things occur to me……
    ‘I love my job’ – hooray and a big slice of pork pie to that.
    ‘everything is an irritant’ – how precisely true this is. If I were to avoid all triggers for asthma I would be living in the bath – a bit like Samantha Morton in Minority Report. Nooooooo.

    Liked by 1 person

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