How to prevent skin problems due to gardening

The grass under Tim’s hedges desperately needed trimming, so one summer day he tackled the job. He never suspected that 36 hours later he’d be in the emergency room with a painful, blistering rash.

The doctor who examined him noticed that the rash appeared only on Tim’s hands, neck, and parts of his arms. Tim said that while he was trimming his grass, he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt.

After a few more questions, Tim’s doctor gave him the diagnosis — phytophotodermatitis. While the name is anything but simple, the cause is straightforward.

Tim got plant sap on his skin. When sunlight hit the sap on Tim’s bare skin, a chemical reaction occurred. This reaction causes a painful, blistering rash. It can take hours — or even a few days — for the rash to appear.

Injuries like this are more common than you may think. By taking a few precautions, you can prevent many injuries due to gardening or yardwork.

Tim could have prevented his rash by wearing gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, and sunscreen while trimming the grass.

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9 ways to protect your skin while gardening

Dermatologists recommend the following while gardening:

  1. Cover up. When working with plants, everything from the plant’s sap to its thorns or spines can injure your skin. Touching certain plants can cause an allergic skin reaction. The best way to protect yourself is to cover your skin.

    When working with plants, dermatologists recommend wearing:
  • Gloves
  • Shirt with long sleeves
  • Pants
  • Socks
  • Shoes that cover your feet, such as running shoes

Dermatologists also recommend wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses while outdoors. This helps to protect you from the sun.

Wearing gloves and long sleeves help to prevent many injuries caused by gardening.

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  1. Use sunscreen. To protect your skin from the sun, you’ll also want to apply sunscreen that offers:
  • Broad-spectrum protection
  • SPF 30 or higher
  • Water-resistance

Be sure to generously apply the sunscreen to all bare skin, including your face, neck, and ears. To protect your lips from the sun, use a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher. You can stay protected by re-applying sunscreen every 2 hours.

Covering up and using sunscreen can also help to reduce your risk of getting sunburn, skin cancer, and early signs of skin aging, including age spots and wrinkles.

  1. Avoid the sun when it’s strongest. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. When possible, dermatologists recommend staying indoors during these hours.

    If you must garden during these hours, try to stay in the shade. This will also reduce your risk of heat stroke, heat rash, and skin cancer.

  2. Take precautions to avoid bug bites. You can prevent many injuries and illnesses due to bugs by:
  • Spraying insect repellent with DEET on your clothing once you’re outdoors
  • Avoiding gardening and yardwork during dawn and dusk, which is when bugs are most active
  • Flicking a bug off rather than killing it, which can prevent the bug from biting or stinging
  • Checking your skin from head to toe for ticks when you finish gardening, being sure to check the skin between your toes, hairline, and underarms.
  1. Read labels on pest control products, plant foods, and fertilizers before using them. Many gardening products that we use from insecticides to weed killers can cause injuries ranging from a mild rash to severe burns. In rare cases, people have developed life-threatening injuries.

    Following all precautions on the label can help prevent these injuries. For example, when the label calls for a respirator, use one or don’t use the product.

    When using fertilizer, wear gloves. After using a fertilizer, immediately and thoroughly wash your hands.

  2. Gloves help prevent dirt from settling in the lines of your hands, dry skin, and peeling nails.

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  3. Avoid touching your face while gardening. You could get plant sap or something else on your face, which might injure you.

    If you need to wipe away sweat, keep a clean washcloth handy. Use it to blot your face dry.

  4. Treat wounds right away. If you have a minor injury, such as a puncture wound from a thorn, it can be tempting to ignore it and keep working. Don’t. Even a minor wound can become infected.

    To prevent an infection, immediately treat your wound as follows:
  • Wash the wound with soap and water.
  • Apply an antibiotic ointment.
  • Cover the wound with a bandage.
  • Keep the wound clean by changing into clean gloves and clothing before you continue.
  • Clean the wound and change the bandage every day until the wound heals.
  1. Skip foods and drinks that contain citrus — or follow this precaution. When citrus juice gets on your skin, it can react with sunlight and can cause a blistering rash or painful swelling. Foods that contain citrus include lemons, limes, grapefruit, and oranges.

  2. You can prevent the swelling and pain due to citrus juice mixing with sunlight by doing one of the following:


    • Avoid citrus while outdoors.
    • Rinse your skin with lots of water immediately after touching anything with citrus and then apply sunscreen.
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  3. Shower when you finish gardening and change into clean clothes. Sap, pollen, and other parts of plants can get on your clothes and skin. To protect your skin, shower and put on clean clothes immediately after gardening.

    Make sure you also machine wash the clothes that you wore while gardening before wearing them again.

When to see a board-certified dermatologist

While many skin problems caused by gardening can be prevented, an injury can still occur.  You can treat most skin injuries at home by:

  • Cleaning and caring for wounds right away.
  • Treating itchy or irritated skin with a cortisone cream.
  • Alleviating allergy symptoms, such as itchy eyes and sneezing, by taking an antihistamine.

If an injury doesn’t heal or worsens, a board-certified dermatologist can help.

Additional related articles


References
American Academy of Dermatology, “Take precautions against pesky plants, insects.” News release issued March 3, 2017. Last accessed April 24, 2018.

Tabner A, McQueen C, et al. “Summertime and the patient is itchy.” BMJ Case Rep. 2014 Nov 19;2014.

Vaiman M, Lazarovich T, et al. “Pantoea agglomerans as an indicator of a foreign body of plant origin in cases of wound infection.” J Wound Care. 2013;22:182, 184-5.

Sakharov S, Csomor J, et al. “Toxic epidermal necrolysis after exposure to dithiocarbamate fungicide mancozeb.” Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2016;118(1):87-91.