Aug. 16, 2004 -- Massage therapists rely on their hands to knead and unknot clients' muscles. But their hard-working hands may be at risk for hand dermatitis, and part of the problem may be the contact with fragrant oils, frequent hand washing, and lotions they use.
Hand dermatitis, also called hand eczema, is a skin condition in which the hands develop a rash and become red, dry, cracked, and inflamed. Hand eczema is not contagious. The condition can eventually cause pain on contact with even simple solutions such as water.
It's an occupational hazard in the massage business. In the study of 350 Philadelphia massage therapists, 23% had hand dermatitis during a 12-month period.
That's far more common than the rate for the general public, according to the researchers, who were led by Glen Crawford, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center's dermatology department.
The study showed that 15% of the massage therapists surveyed had been diagnosed with hand eczema; 23% reported symptoms of the condition.
Risk factors for hand dermatitis include frequent hand washing and contact with fragrances, dyes, detergents, latex and other irritants, and allergens found in massage oils, creams, and lotions.
Aromatherapy Products Can Cause Problems
Part of the problem may be the aromatherapy products used by many massage therapists.
The researchers noted a statistically significant association between "the reporting of hand dermatitis and the use of aromatherapy products in massage oils, creams, or lotions."
That may surprise some massage therapists. Only 4% of the study's participants listed aromatherapy products as potential aggravators of their hand dermatitis.
Overall, 47% said they used aromatherapy products in oils, creams, or lotions, while 39% reported using aromatherapy candles, burners, or incense.
The specific essential oils most commonly cited in the study include tea-tree oil, lavender, jasmine, rosewood, lemon oils, orange oils (including oil of bergamot), citronella, cassia oil, ylang-ylang oil, and clove oil.
This study focused only on massage therapists, many of whom use these products all day, every day.
There are an estimated 260,000 to 290,000 practicing massage therapists and students in the U.S. today. That's more than twice the number in 1996, according to the study.
Researchers recommend getting the word out to massage professionals about the potential irritants.
"It may be useful to conduct an educational campaign regarding the potential hazards of aromatherapy products," write the researchers in the journal Archives of Dermatology.