The term ‘housewife hands’ may seem not seem politically correct and even inaccurate at a time when many men have taken on the role of stay-at-home Dad. However, it does point to an ailment that is more likely to afflict people who are involved in domestic chores whether it is a woman or a man. Therefore the term dishpan hands may seem more appropriate since it is caused and worsened by doing the dishes, as well as a number of other chores where the skin on the hands is exposed to water for long periods, detergents, soaps and household products.
What is dishpan hands?
Dishpan hands is a common term to describe a skin condition known as contact dermatitis. This is a type of eczema that is caused when the skin comes in direct contact with substances that either cause an allergic reaction or irritate the skin. It is therefore correctly either allergic contact dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis. In most cases of dishpan hands, it is the latter. Usually dishpan hands is not a serious problem even though it can present with a severe skin rash. Treatment is effective and the condition will resolve with proper management.
Human skin is known to be resilient as it is bombarded with a number of physical, chemical and electromagnetic insults throughout the day. However, this resilience is limited particularly when a person has a sensitivity to some substance or when the skin is exposed to a substance that is too strong or for too long. This is the problem in dishpan hands, or more correctly in contact dermatitis.
Causes of Dishpan Hands
With allergic contact dermatitis, the immune system reacts to an otherwise harmless substance (allergen). It affects only some people and only certain substances will affect certain people. Irritant contact dermatitis can affect anybody. It occurs when a substance irritate, inflames or damages the skin. Some people will react sooner than others. While strong substances like ammonia and bleach will irritate any person’s skin, the skin rash can been be caused by what seems like harmless substances like water and perspiration with prolonged exposures.
In terms of dishpan hands, the main irritants or sometimes allergens includes:
- Water – repeatedly touching water, not drying the hands thoroughly.
- Detergents – laundry detergent, dish washing liquid and so on.
- Soaps – hand wash, bathing soap and shampoos.
- Domestic cleaners – ammonia, bleach, acids and other solvents.
- Latex/rubber gloves used for household chores may trigger allergic contact dermatitis in people who are sensitive.
- Adhesives like glue.
Symptoms of Dishpan Hands
The rash of dishpan hands is similar to most other types of dermatitis. The distribution is mainly on the fingers and hands but can extend to the wrists and even the forearm. Often the skin under a ring or where a watch is worn shows signs of a more intense rash.
- Red, itchy skin
- Dry, flaky skin
- Peeling skin
- Tiny fluid-filled blisters
- Burning, especially with vigorous scratching
Treatment for Dishpan Hands
Dishpan hands can usually resolve on its own when the cause of the allergy or irritant is removed. Despite the term ‘dishpan’ it may not always be water and dish washing detergent that is the cause. Other household chemicals can be just as much of an irritant.
It is advisable that a person uses hypoallergenic gloves at all times so that the skin does not come into contact with the allergen or irritant. The choice of glove has to be carefully made as it can sometimes be made of materials that act as triggers. However, it is important to note that water and sweat which may become trapped around the hand and glove can also be an irritant. Therefore gloves should be worn for short periods and thoroughly dried each time.
Topical applications are usually needed. This includes:
- Antimicrobial creams is an infection has set into the damaged skin.
- Corticosteroids for severe rashes.
- Emollients to soothe and protect the skin.
While oral antihistamines may help relieve some of the itching, it is more effective for allergic contact dermatitis.