New Delhi: For 26-year-old Rahi Shah, a project manager with a construction company in New York, wearing a mask has become a troublesome process. For the last three weeks, he has had a fungal infection behind his ears, right where the straps of a mask would hold the protective gear in place.
“I have to work in the heat and grime for at least 10 hours everyday… when I am on the site I cannot remove my mask for four to five hours at a stretch. The constant sweating along with the elastic band digging into the skin has led to the infection,” he said.
Given that he works five days a week, Shah said that he has barely managed to give his skin time to heal. “Two days are not enough for the infection to heal, and going out mask-less is not an option. I use ointments prescribed by the doctor and over the weekend a new layer of skin develops, but an hour into Monday morning, the itching starts and by the end of the day, my skin is back to being itchy and red.”
Here, in Delhi too, complaints of dry, irritated and itchy skin have become a recurring problem since Covid-19 took over our lives, bringing with it the compulsory use of high-alcohol level sanitisers, latex gloves and masks.
Masks became an essential wardrobe addition as they prevent the spread of the Covid-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus that is transmitted through an infected person’s cough and sneeze droplets. The droplets can also contaminate surfaces, which means wearing gloves and maintaining a minimum distance from people became standard. Doctors also advised constant washing of hands, for 20 seconds each time, and sanitising to ensure any inadvertent infection would be dealt with.
However, the prolonged use of such measures has led to different, unforeseen side-effects.
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Hands, the first front
The first body part that usually gets affected due to prolonged use of sanitisers and excessive washing is hands. The problem is exacerbated for people with sensitive skin.
Drying skin was something 24-year-old graduate Srishti Shekhar had not faced before. Yet, now her hands are marred where the dry skin has peeled off. “The skin on my hands has become tender. It peels off every few days and comes back. The doctor tells me that my skin is drying up due to the use of soaps and sanitisers.”
A similar problem plagued Shivanshu Arya, a 29-year-old programme manager who works with an FMCG company in Mumbai.
“In April, I wore latex gloves for a period of three days. I would wear them for four to five hours during the distribution process and ever since I have had a horrible reaction in my top most epidermal layer of skin,” he said. Arya had volunteered to distribute ration kits in the slums during lockdown and would wear the gloves as a Covid-preventive measure.
Arya said the contact with latex made his skin swell and itch. “The problem persisted for two months … I would be miserable every time I had to do any kind of household chores that involved use of water,” he added, saying that even water has become a skin irritant.
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Excessive use washes off protective skin layer
Dermatologists say they’ve seen an increase in such complaints in the past three-four months, around the time Covid protection measures were strictly advised.
“Of all the cases, about 10 per cent of cases now are about skin problems caused due to incessant use of sanitisers. The body part being affected the most are hands,” said Dr Kabir Sardana, dermatologist with the Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital in Delhi.
“Sanitisers remove the oily layer of the skin which protects it from damage. If not replenished timely, it can cause hand dermatitis. If that is left untreated, it can lead to eczema and subsequently the skin can get allergic reaction to any compound that comes in contact with it.”
He added that the problem is with the alcohol content in the sanitiser — the main component of the germ-killing liquid. For Covid purposes, experts had advised using sanitisers with 60 per cent alcohol.
Somesh Gupta, a dermatologist with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, further explained, “Every time you sanitise your hands, the alcohol evaporates and takes with it the oily protective layer from your hands. This causes dryness and may further lead to itching. This is known as irritant dermatitis. With constant washing and sanitising, this can further lead to secondary infections.”
Another common problem that has surfaced is contact dermatitis. Once your skin is stripped bare of the initial protective layer, it becomes sensitive and vulnerable to elements in the environment. Contact with anything can trigger a reaction and lead to contact dermatitis.
“Post-Covid, every second or third case of dermatitis is due to these reasons. You will find the upper class of the society struggling with this problem more often because the minute they get an infection, they start cleaning with renewed vigour and that just makes it worse,” said Dr Gupta.
The two doctors also said excessive use of antiseptics such as Dettol and Savlon was another cause for an increase in skin problems. On direct contact with skin, not only does it cause irritation but also leads to blisters and burns in some cases.
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How to protect your skin
Dr Sardana at RML Hospital advises the use of a simple soap and water instead of sanitisers.
“Let sanitisers be used in ICUs and Covid hospitals. For others, washing hands with soap and water is a cheaper and healthier alternative which people need to adopt to prevent skin infections.”
Further, for skincare during the pandemic, he said people should keep moisturising often.
“People need to break out of the misconception that 90 per cent of alcohol in sanitisers will help them disinfect. Anything with 70 per cent spirit content is fine but should be used with caution,” said Dr Gupta.
Talking about the fragrances used in soaps and sanitisers, he said, “More and more studies now show that this virus doesn’t spread through the surface and people need to stop over sanitising. These days, it is difficult to find any product without fragrance, but during these times, use of non-fragrant products is advisable. Fragrances might be aesthetically pleasing but they are allergenic.”
Both doctors suggested the use of N9 gloves, but only when required. Latex is a commonly known irritant for the skin and should be avoided at all costs, they added.
Using Nitrile gloves is another option as well as taking topical steroids, but under a dermatologist’s supervision, they said.
Also read: How the hand sanitiser came about — from 12th century to 1997
Print equals reliable and sensible journalism. Please don’t use scandalizing and attention seeking titles, this one verges on offensive towards people who have actually suffered from medical as well as economic impact of coronavirus, when you categorize irritated skin and minor treatable skin infection as new pandemic.
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