poison ivy plant

Protecting Yourself Against Pesky Plants and Insects

How can you guard against an array of skin irritations related to plants and insects? Experts from the American Academy of Dermatology explain:

While poison ivy is probably the most well-known hazardous plant, there are a multitude of other plants, as well as many insects, that can irritate your skin.

“The skin can be affected by a wide variety of things you might find in your backyard, or even inside your home,” says board-certified dermatologist Amy Y-Y Chen, MD, FAAD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in Canton, Conn. “While there are simple precautions that you can take, you have to be aware of what you might run into so you can protect yourself.”

“The best way to avoid skin irritation is to identify the plants and insects that can cause adverse reactions and avoid exposure to them,” adds board-certified dermatologist Julian Trevino, MD, FAAD, professor and chair of dermatology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. “If you think you’ll be coming into contact with something that could cause skin problems — either because it has affected your skin in the past or you have heard it can cause a reaction — you can take preventive measures.”

For example, Dr. Trevino says, people can prevent rashes from poison ivy and poison oak by keeping away from plants with “leaves of three.” For additional protection while hiking, gardening or working in areas where these plants are prevalent, he also recommends wearing protective clothing and applying a barrier cream to the skin. He says those who have been exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac can limit the resulting rash by immediately rinsing the affected skin area.

“People may think they’re more likely to develop a rash while hiking in the woods than enjoying a drink by the pool,” Trevino says. “But if that drink happens to be a margarita or a beer with a lime, they could end up with itchy red skin at the end of the day.” He says the combination of ultraviolet radiation and exposure to certain plants, including citrus fruits like lemons and limes, may result in a condition called phytophotodermatitis, which causes a rash followed by hyperpigmentation. To avoid this condition, he suggests rinsing the skin and reapplying sunscreen after eating or drinking citrus while outside in the sun.

According to Trevino, people may not even need to leave their home or garden to develop a plant-induced rash, as several common plants and foods found in the home and garden may cause skin reactions. He says some flowers and bulbs — including chrysanthemums, Peruvian lilies, and tulip and daffodil bulbs — contain chemicals that can irritate the skin or result in an allergic reaction. Additionally, he says, some plants used in spicy foods, like chili peppers and horseradish, contain chemicals that can cause skin irritation.