A Look at the Chemical Skin Sensitization Process

As one of the most commonly encountered occupational hazards, skin sensitization is an issue of key concern for businesses everywhere. These include businesses that manufacture, process, and handle chemical substances, as well as a host of others. While biologically a relatively simple process, skin sensitization can have a profound impact on quality of life and wellbeing. In this blog post, we take a brief look at skin sensitization and the process involved.

Skin Sensitization

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a sensitizer is defined as "a chemical that causes a substantial proportion of exposed people or animals to develop an allergic reaction in normal tissue after repeated exposure to the chemical". With skin sensitization, a reaction to a contact allergen results in the generation of an inflammatory skin response. This process involves two principal phases:

  • Phase 1: Induction
    • After initial exposure to a sensitizing substance, an immune response is generated (priming). This represents the tolerance of the exposure by the immune system.
  • Phase 2: Elicitation
    • Following subsequent exposure to the sensitizing substance, a secondary (often more aggressive) localized inflammatory skin response is elicited at the exposure site. This represents the reaction from the sensitized individual.

An important distinction exists between skin sensitization and skin irritation. With skin irritation (irritant contact dermatitis), the skin is affected by direct contact with a substance. With skin sensitization (allergic contact dermatitis), however, effects are caused by the body's immune system.

Reactions in response to skin sensitization can be impacted by several factors, including individual chemical properties, duration of exposure, exposure concentration, and overall susceptibility. While they may vary in intensity, such reactions have the potential of being significant. Following initial exposure and sensitization, responses to later exposures may be severe regardless of the amount of the sensitizing substance. Such responses may be exacerbated further by irritant substances that are not specifically sensitizers.

The basis of skin sensitization prevention lies with the avoidance of dermal exposure. Use of personal protective equipment (PPE) can help prevent chemical contact with an individual’s skin (and other vulnerable areas). Chemical substitution, replacing hazardous substances with safer alternatives, is another important strategy that can be employed. A wide range of other factors, including proper identification of sensitizing chemical substances, accurate potency evaluation, and utilization of recommended prevention and risk management strategies are key in working toward achieving this goal.

Authoritative Information Is Essential

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