If you’re a technician, every day you deal with a witches brew of chemicals. Alcohols, esters, aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons and assorted acids and bases are all a part of a technician’s daily routine, and each one has the potential to damage a very important organ: the skin.
The biggest organ
The skin is the body’s largest organ, containing over six million cells and over a meter of blood vessels per square centimetre. Keeping chemicals out of those cells and blood vessels means a regular cleaning and conditioning with products powerful enough to remove dirt and grime, but preserve the one mm thick outer layer of the skin, the epidermis. The epidermis is the real barrier layer, but the need to get harmful chemicals away from the skin’s surface means that modern technicians typically clean their hands anywhere from five to 10 or more times a day. While it’s good to minimise the exposure time of automotive chemicals, if the cleaning routine leaves the epidermis dry and cracked, re-exposure to those chemicals now leaves a convenient route into the body, through the cracked, chapped skin. GOJO Industries research scientist Dr. Eleanor Fendler explains: “The skin is the body’s natural barrier. Whenever it is damaged, it becomes less effective in being able to protect the body. When grease, grime and other chemicals are trapped into the tiny cracks or crevices or stay on the surface of the skin without being washed away, the skin may gradually absorb some of the substances in the cracks or on its surface into the blood stream. Eventually, those same ingredients may be carried to the liver or kidneys, where they can build up over time. While scientists might not know the extent of the damage yet, clearly, this isn’t a very healthy situation.”
Getting it all off
The need to get automotive chemicals away from the sensitive surface layer of a technician’s skin is obvious; the irony is, however, that the powerful cleaners used to remove the dirt and grime often leave the skin exposed to further damage. The first principle in protecting vulnerable skin is to use the least powerful cleaner which will remove the contaminants. Ideally, a mild product that will clean hands in 20 to 30 seconds is ideal. Another problem is that contaminants may be liquids or semi-solids such as greases or brake fluid, or may be fine particulates, such as brake dust. It may be necessary to use different cleaners for dusts and liquids. Parts cleaners are for just that-parts. Commercial degreasing products and solvents such as gasoline are as bad, or worse, than the grime the technician is trying to remove. Many are known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), so cheating with a little solvent is a very bad idea. Home-made mixtures such as commercial cleaners and sugar or coffee grounds do work, but consider the way the added granules get the grime off: abrasion. If clean hands are raw or cracked, the potential for future damage increases.
After cleaning, hands should be treated with a skin conditioner to repair and protect rough, dry, or cracked skin. The skin treatment should be applied at the start of the working day and after each washing. In extreme cases, or in very cold weather, an application at night helps repair the damage.
Choose your weapon
Hand cleansers have come in various forms over the years, with formulations trending towards less harmful cleaning agents and better skin protection.
Powdered Hand Soaps: A combination of a natural soap and an abrasive such as borax or ground corn husks. The product was rubbed into wet hands and cleaned mainly by abrasion, with an assist from the natural soap.
Paste Cleansers: White viscous creams which contained natural and synthetic detergents and petroleum solvents, including aggressive aromatic solvents. Pastes were usually scooped from open cans resulting in contaminated product.
Lotions: Early lotions were more convenient than pastes, usually dispensing through pump jugs, but worked with a combination of petroleum distillates and pumice as an abrasive. Early lotions were effective cleansers, but at the cost of dry, rough skin.
Creams and Gels: The successor to paste cleaners, but use safer aliphatic solvents instead of aromatics. Slightly less effective than aromatic-based cleaners but much easier on the skin. Abrasive-containing formulations contain pumice or polystyrene beads, and most contain skin conditioners.
Lotions: Many are based on a natural, citrus-derived solvent called d-limonene, combined with pumice or vegetable abrasives such as cornmeal. Solvent-free formulations are also available. Solvent -free cleansers are effective on greasy soilings, but will not remove adhesives, paints or resins.