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Massage Therapy and Contact Dermatitis

When it comes to contact dermatitis and massage therapy, attention is usually drawn towards the client. How will the oil or lotion affect the client? Are they experiencing a flare up? Is the area contraindicated because of a rash, blisters, or cracked skin? These are all valid concerns that massage therapists take very seriously when made aware. This means that skin conditions need to be indicated on intake forms and at appointments. So, what happens when the massage therapist has contact dermatitis? Well, first let's define what contact dermatitis actually is.

What is contact dermatitis? In general, contact dermatitis is a non-contagious skin condition that is brought on by irritation from an allergen, substance or in the case of massage therapy - friction. Yes, friction from constant skin to skin contact combined with the drying effect from washing hands and arms. Having contact dermatitis does make massage therapist more susceptible to infections (like ringworm) because of the broken skin. Most massage therapists, including myself, never talk about their battle with contact dermatitis.

I've been providing massage therapy for 16 years and I've dealt with contact dermatitis my entire career. Even with using unscented massage oil, prescribed anti-itch creams/ointments and moisturizing skin after washing hands and arms I still experience flare ups. It's pretty much unavoidable when you provide 15-20 massages a week and your skin is not given sufficient time to heal.

Why would a massage therapist ignore their own skin needs? There are various reasons. For me, it's because:

  • I love what I do. I know I'm anointed to give massages.

  • The massage therapy profession is about relieving pain and tension in others.

  • There are many anti-stress benefits from skin-to-skin contact.

  • I need to provide a minimum number of massages per week to support my family.

  • Fear of losing clientele if I try other measures to protect my skin - like wearing gloves.

During the month of January (2023), I did a trial run wearing disposable gloves during massage sessions to see if it would make a difference in the conditon of my skin. Some clients noticed a difference in their massage, others did not. Some even inquired about why I was wearing gloves. There were also a few who stated that if I continued to wear gloves that it was a "deal breaker" for them - that's unfortunate. Deciding to wear gloves was not an easy decision but I am happy to report that I noticed a huge difference in my skin.

Will I continue to wear gloves? I would like to continue wearing gloves but I do understand that it is not the ideal way to receive a massage. At this point in my career, I am not fearful of losing clientele. However, I enjoy working with all of my clients and hope they continue to receive services. Since the contact dermatitis is not on the palm of my hand but rather on the skin of my thumbs, wrist and forearms I am willing to compromise (slightly) if wearing the gloves prevents you from experiencing a relaxing, therapeutic massage. Here are a few ideas I have to keep the massage experience pleasant for both of us:

  • Not providing forearm massage directly on the skin

  • Incorporating more active and passive stretching techniques

  • Wrapping my wrists in bandages since this is the area most affected

  • Wiping down each area of the body with a towel prior to massage

  • Wearing gloves if my or your skin is irritated with a current rash, blisters or cracked skin

If these strategies still do not help reduce the contact dermatitis flare ups then YES, I will continue to wear gloves.

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