When There's Skin in the Game

Gloved hands cleaning tile

We look at our face in a mirror pretty much every day as part of our personal grooming routine. We wince when putting a top on after too much sun exposure and we worry about unsightly blemishes on our body that seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere. We remark about the softness of a baby’s skin and we apply moisturizer and anti-aging cream to ward off the weathering of our skin with time. But we don’t give too much thought to the vital functions of skin and, most likely, we’re not aware of chemicals that cause skin disease or can seep through our integument to induce systemic effects.

The consumer version of the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy lists the following main functions for skin which, by the “weigh”, is the largest bodily organ comprising about 12 to 15 percent of total body mass.

  • Protection from trauma (as our external, physical barrier)
  • Temperature regulation
  • Maintaining water and electrolyte balance
  • Sensing external stimuli (both pleasant and painful)
  • Participating in the synthesis of Vitamin D

Moreover, the complexion of skin can also aid in the diagnosis of underlying conditions such as jaundice, a yellowish pigmentation of the skin indicative of liver dysfunction and other related disorders.   

Regarding skin hazards, chemical agents are the main cause of occupational skin diseases/disorders in being primary irritants or sensitizers that can result in eventual allergic reaction. Metalworking fluid (coolant) is a prime example of a chemical mixture that can cause both irritant and allergic types of contact dermatitis. Hydrogen fluoride or its aqueous (wet) solution, hydrofluoric acid, is an example of a chemical agent that not only causes deep tissue burns but can also cause cardiac arrest or hypocalcemia through systemic toxicity, depending on the extent of skin surface contact. Indeed, many workers, quite literally, have skin in the game with their employment. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “It is estimated that more than 13 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin.” NIOSH has assigned skin notations for hundreds of chemicals in their Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards with a searchable index of skin notation (SK) profiles published to inform employers and workers about the direct, systemic, and immune-mediated effects of skin exposure to chemicals.

In order to protect workers from occupational skin diseases or disorders, employers should apply a hierarchy of controls starting with elimination of the chemical and substitution with a less harmful compound. If these measures are not feasible, engineering controls such as isolation booths or local exhaust ventilation should be implemented to reduce exposure concentration. Lastly, administrative controls like employee education through hazard communication training along with personal protective equipment (PPE) need to be employed. The publication, Recommendations for Chemical Protective Clothing: A Companion to the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, provides an A-to-Z index of chemicals with recommendations for protective clothing barriers in order to prevent chemicals from getting on or under the skin. So, have a look at these NIOSH resources for the inside skinny on skin protection against chemical absorption. Also, check out MEMIC’s outdoor safety blogs for information on sun safety for your skin before stepping out in the hot sun.