Surprisingly Ouchy Plants

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 08, 2011
4 min read

Even experienced gardeners have to deal with irritating plants that can cut, sting, and cause painful or itchy, irritated skin. Here are some ways to relieve the discomfort and treat skin abrasions from plants.

A cactus is pretty obvious in showing its thorny side. Other plants are more subtle, but no less ouchy. "Some plants are just very irritating to the skin," says Rajani Katta, MD. "Some from the presence of thorns or needles, but other plants have sharp edges or hairs on them that can cause skin irritation."

Katta, who is the director of the contact dermatitis clinic at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says plants that cause skin abrasions and irritated skin may have these features:

Sharp-edged or pointed leaves. Plants such as agave or yucca have needle-sharp leaves, and getting too close can leave you with a cut or skin abrasion. Some decorative plants such as pampas grass look soft, but actually have razor-sharp edges that can easily slice skin. And holly plants, while pretty to look at, can deliver a sharp poke if you touch their leaves.

Thorns. No surprise here. Classic beauties such as rose bushes and bougainvillea – just two examples of thorny shrubs -- are notoriously prickly.

Spines and glochids. One look at a barrel cactus and you know to keep your distance. But some types of cactus, like the prickly pear, are covered with very fine, hair-like, barbed thorns called glochids. Glochids can become embedded at the slightest touch and are hard to see to remove.

Stem and leaf hairs. These fine hairs can be found on the stems and leaves of plants such as borage, an herb sometimes used in cooking, and seemingly innocent flowering plants such as forget-me-nots and dogwood trees. Because they are harmless-looking, stem and leaf hairs can catch people by surprise and cause skin irritation.

Barely visible irritant fibers. Home gardeners may be surprised to find out that tulip bulbs can cause skin abrasions. "Because these fibers are so small, you don't think of tulips as being dangerous in any way," Katta says. But people who frequently handle tulips bulbs can get a condition called "tulip fingers," caused by a combination of the irritating fibers and a certain chemical in the bulb.

Thorns and spines can cut your skin. And exposure to tiny hairs or fibers can cause red bumps or patches, swelling, pain, or itching. "But anytime you have inflammation of the skin, a lot of the treatment is the same," says Katta. First rule of thumb: avoid further irritation. "Anytime your skin is irritated, you really want to baby it."

Clean the wound. Wash the skin with mild soap and water right away. Katta says to avoid witch hazel or rubbing alcohol, which can irritate skin.

Remove any remaining spines or barbs. Use tweezers to remove visible thorns. For tiny hairs or glochids, one method is to apply cellophane tape, and then peel it off -- along with any remaining barbs. If that doesn't work, one study found that applying a thin layer of household glue to the skin, topping it with a layer of gauze, and removing it after 30 minutes removed the majority of spines.

Ease pain and itching. A simple method to calm irritated skin is to use a cool water compress, says Katta. Just soak a clean washcloth in tap water and apply it to the skin for 15 minutes. You may also try an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or antihistamine to relieve itching and discomfort from a minor scrape.

Soothe skin with moisture-rich creams. With just a cut or scratch, pure petroleum jelly applied to the cut provides a little extra moisture that seems to aid in wound healing, says Katta.

Cover with a bandage. This can help prove a little extra protection during the day, then you can remove the bandage to let it air out at night, says Katta.

Monitor the area for signs of infection. "Anytime you have a long scrape in your skin, for instance because you bumped up against a saw palmetto plant, you can get a secondary infection if you're not careful," says Katta.

If irritated skin is not healing properly, you see pus, or an increase in redness or warmth over the span of a few days, then that can indicate that an infection is developing, she says. In that case, it's best to call your doctor.

When it comes to prevention, Katta says to keep your eyes open. "Some of these plants can sort of sneak up on you; you're not necessarily expecting to be brushed by a tree that has sharp leaves or by an agave plant on the ground."

If you'll be in an area where you may be exposed to irritating plants -- whether in your own yard or out hiking in the woods -- be sure to wear long sleeves and pants, and always use protective gloves when working in the garden. Keeping skin moisturized and healthy can also help prevent skin irritation from plants.