Thursday, 22 April 2010

Cured (and coincidentally Green)

I'm allergic to a lot of things. Technically I react badly only to nickel and formaldehyde, but in reality just about any commercial cleaning product causes a rash on my skin.

It builds up, too. As a child I don't recall being particularly bothered with itches, but one summer holiday, when I was about 20, my feet became blistered all over from walking in salty sea water. From then on, my skin became more and more sensitive, and constant exposure to printing ink at art school didn't help. I'd wake up in the middle of the night to find I'd scratched my hands till they were bleeding (and then spend 1/2 an hour with my hands in the freezer, to try to numb the itching). I couldn't chop tomatoes without wearing gloves. My own sweat caused blisters. I even got a rash inside my eyelids from a reaction to a contact lens solution. When I worked in a shop, I looked like a mummy, my fingers covered in plasters to hide the blisters - counting money all day is not a good idea when you're allergic to nickel!

Jewelery, watches and cosmetics were out of the question. Shaving, too - luckily I was going through a phase that involved Doc Martens and home haircuts. I spent a fortune on special soaps and creams, mostly cortisone, though I had to be careful there; one prescription ointment inflamed my skin so badly that I couldn't bend my fingers. There didn't seem to be any way to avoid all of the things that were dangerous. I mean, you have to wash your hair!

It took about 5 years to get to the worst point, and it's taken about 5 years to get it under control again (after several years of extreme sensitivity). Now I can slice lemons, wipe sweat off my face, get ink on my hands, even use the toxic liquid soaps some people insist on keeping in their bathrooms, if there's nothing else around. It's been trial-and-error, but what I think has happened is that I've increased my skin's tolerance to bad things by limiting my exposure to the worst offenders.

The first thing I learned was to moisturise itchy skin, although that seems counter-intuitive when you have weeping blisters all over your hands. But believe me, the rash will heal faster. Coconut oil does the trick! It's the best moisturiser I've ever used.

A bag of rooibos tea in the bath every night is the next line of defense. Rooibos soothes inflamed skin amazingly well. (You can drink it too, the tea, not the bath water, if you can handle the taste of it.)

Throw away all cleaning products and detergents - use bicarbonate of soda, vinegar, and plain soap instead. I use bars of blue soap, the cheapest kind - there's a blob of it on the left hand side in the photo. It stinks, but it cleans the dishes. Oh, and I threw out my rubber gloves, too, because I got a rash from them. With these ingredients, rubber gloves ceased to be necessary.

Don't use fabric softener, and use the simplest washing powder you can find.

Make your own deodorant. (This post on How about orange has a good recipe.) I've been using this for more than a year, all the way through a very hot summer, and it works better than any commercial product. I'd use it even if I wasn't allergic at all.

And washing your hair? Don't. I tried the bicarb wash method for a bit, but it dried my hair out badly. Now I just use water, and apple cider vinegar for the occasional rinse. Coconut oil on the ends if it seems dry. (I've never had good hair, till now. Suddenly it has body, behaves itself... it's never going to look like a shampoo ad, but how often do you see that anyway? If all the shampoos did all the things they were supposed to, we'd be constantly blinded by the shimmer and shine coming off everyone's heads.)

Soap... now there's a tricky one. Pears was wonderful, but since they've changed the recipe, I'm on the hunt again. Good soap has probably been one of the most important things in fixing my skin. I tried a few other soaps recently, when I found out about Pears going over to the Dark Side, and although they were low on ingredients and 'safe' and 'natural', they stung. Maybe not on the first use, but by the third or fourth I felt that familiar itchiness. I'm planning to try making my own soap.... I have to, because I've started to get into the habit of wearing jewelery again. Cheap jewelery. Made from nickel. Just because I can.

And the Green bit? It just happened. Turns out all these things I don't use anymore weren't just bad for me; they're pretty bad for everybody.


katie b. said...

Thanks for sharing all of this Jesse! I moved to a big city (that has pretty bad pollution issues) about three years ago and had a really bad allergy flare up myself a few months after the move. At first, I was sneezing like mad all day every day - it was horrible! Then, I went and saw a dietitian and he helped me to change my eating habits and the symptoms have gotten a lot less severe. I also got rid of the chemical ridden cleaning products and made home a much more organic place to be.

He told me that an allergy is a reaction when your body can't filter out all of the toxins that you come into contact with each day. Reduce the number of toxins and you reduce the allergy! So, you are exactly right about how the little changes you make in your daily routine can make a big difference.

Oh, and that contact lens reaction you had I got too! I have never met anyone else who experienced that. Wild.

Fox & Locket said...

Wow Jesse, this is the most awesomely interesting post. (although sucky for you it sounds!) I'm going to try it all...I've been popping 3 expensivo Patrick Holford anti-allergy pills every single day for months with no positive effect....I'm gonna give your green allergy tips a try!

Susana said...

Hi! I haven't commented before, but i love your work. I have a relative who is hypersensitive to, well, most things. He's done well with pure olive oil soap. The one I know of is from here:, but you might try to find a local producer(I'm in Portugal, and so is this particular soap). I've tried it, and it's wonderfully moisturizing and residue-free.

Littleclouds said...

wow that is horrible (sorry!) I didn't realise some peoples skins were this sensitive, what do you do for printing? do you use special chemicals to clean etc?
I feel very lucky that I'm without allergies (touch wood) after reading this.

Karen said...

Oh poor Jesse, I can't believe your allergies! What a life struggle. Thanks for sharing your experience and tips, I'll try the shampoo and deodorant thing and definitely walk into a greener way when it comes to everyday products. I'm sure there's so much toxicity in them. I have myself become much more allergic in the last years: earrings are out of the question, I usually get a rash on my hands with creams, cleaners, dust, whatever, and the unbelievable, last year I was allergic to wine, beer and balsamic vinegar! The only reaction I got were swollen and burning lips (and the skin close to them) just seconds after having a sip, so I ended up looking like the Joker. Yes, beautiful. As it came it went away.

My skin itches now after reading this post!

mizu designs said...

Wow! Such a powerful story about allergies! I feel so lucky not to be affected (so far). Good on you for posting about it and telling people what works.

flowerpress said...

Hey Jesse,
I have minor skin issues sometimes, bandaids and powdered washing powders, so I can't imagine dealing with so many basic allergies. You poor thing.
Great that you have worked much of it out. I'm sure all that natural stuff is so much better for you anyway.
I saw that natural deodorant recipe. I might have to try it!
I try to only use natural cleaning products too. We have an orange oil spray here that's good and I'm a bicarb of soda girl all the way. Clothes washing is phosphate free 'green' products.
Similarly I never use antibacterial products which I'm sure are bad for the world - plus they are realising more and more that a few germs are good for you :-) especially in regards to asthma and allergies.

Danya Ristić said...

How interesting and funny (ha ha, not peculiar), but how dreadful for you to have had to go through all those uncomfortable and painful experiences, and still go through some of them! But you seem to have worked out what's best for yourself (and the planet) in some really useful ways - hope it continues improving.

Bec Clarke said...

So glad to hear more people are discovering the green side of living. I started making soap when I had my first baby and now my husband won't use anything else. It's so liberating to not rely on the big chemical companies. I love the deordorant recipe, I was using a bought one that is just like it but now I will be able to make my own. I also found a recipe for home made laundry soap here:

Tracey said...

There is a recipe/ instructions for soap-making here
I don't know if the ingredients will be ok for you, hope it is of some use.

starry said...

Thanks for sharing all these wonderful green stuff.I can vouch for coconut oil.I am from India and growing up that is all my mother used on our hair and it made our hair shiny and soft.

ragamuffin yogini said...

Have you tried Dr. Bronner's soaps? I'm not sure you can get them on your side of the world, but they are fabulous. I too have lots of problems with fragrances and chemicals and such and this is my choice for both personal and household cleaning. I use the Baby Mild and it is GREAT!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is quite something.
Tell me, which moisturiser do you use? My husband's nephew gets horrible rashes and nobody knows which cream should be used.

I have to say, I feel terrible for you about your allergies, but I'm amazed at your journey through it.

Well done on finding great alternatives to use.

Interestingly enough, my dad hasn't used shampoo for many many years. I don't know why, he doesn't have allergies, but he still does that.
He has a full shiny head of hair and he has very few grey's even though he is 63.
I'm thinking that the coconut has something to do with it.

Jeanette said...

I'm lucky enough not to be sensitive to many things, but Pears Soap is evil stuff. I once ran out of the plain veg soap I usually buy and Pears seemed safe, I spent the next week or so itching like crazy, covered in red welts and high on piriton!

Duncan said...

Only thing is that Safari products are not too green, laced with Sulfur Dioxide (which gives me asthma and often exacerbates skin issues for others).

Hélène Magnússon said...

For house-cleaning, I simply don´t use any detergent anymore since I discovered the microfiber cloths. I use them wet or dry adn they´re amazing. I clean them in the washing machine at high temperature without any soap of course.

Jesse said...

Thanks for all the comments! Sorry to hear that so many of you also have allergic reactions to things!

Katie b - So glad you're better!

Fox& Locket - hope it helps.

Susana - thanks for the advice, I'll look for some olive oil soap.

Littleclouds - I use waterbased ink, mostly, so clean-up isn't too bad. When I do use oil-based ink, I clean up with turps - luckily my allergies have improved to the point where I can tolerate it, as long as I don't use it every day.

Karen - Dust! Yes, I forgot to mention that. Vinegar also used to be a problem, I couldn't eat it at all, my lips swelled up terribly.

Flowerpress - apparently vinegar kills bacteria as well as any ant-bacterial product.

Bec Clarke and Tracey - thanks for the soap recipes.

Fatima - different things work for different people (see Jeanette's comment) but I first got relief from a cream that contained mostly lanolin and beeswax. Now I use coconut oil, and in a pinch, I'll use petroleum jelly too (I know it's a petroleum by-product, therefore bad, but it's cheap, easily available, and probably one of the things least likely to cause a reaction - for me.)

Jeanette - How horrible!

Duncan - Thanks for pointing that out. I consider the vinegar green in comparison to the Handy Andy, fabric softener etc that I substitute it for; but it must be possible to buy greener vinegar, and I'll have a look.

Helene - I haven't tried those yet!

Rosie said...

Thanks for this post. Five years ago I suddenly became allergic to animals (although we'd always had cats when we were growing up), developed hay fever and an intolerance for make-up. I had never had any allergies or skin problems as a child so it was very frustrating to suddenly become sensitive to so many things. Thanks for sharing, it's nice to know that I'm not alone.

Tamara said...

Thanks for sharing! I just had to chime in and let you know I had the exact same issue with my hands in my early twenties. I wasn't super sensitive until...yep, art school. I was a painter/ screenprinter and never wore gloves. I had always been very sensitive to nickel as a kid, but after exposing my poor little hands to all those metallic based pigments, solvents, etc. the flood gates really opened! Trying not to scratch was almost unbearable. No medicine worked so I would sit on my fingers when I could so I wouldn't scratch. I also worked at a shop and the glass cleaner we used on the counters would have my hands so itchy, pussy, and swollen (eww!) sometimes I couldn't bend my fingers. Finally, I ended up making changes...vinegar and water or borax for cleaning, natural soaps, body products, etc. It's been about 8 or 9 years since, and now every once in awhile I'll get a bit itchy but it has definitely gotten 1000 times better.

Anyway, glad to know you've conquered your "mummy hands" too :), but sorry to know someone else had to go through that. Not fun.

Hélène Magnússon said...

The microfibre clothes are amazing: I got the tip from my husband who got it from a friend. Apparently it´s a guy´secret to clean an polish cars. It removes all the dirts and dusts and fats and smashed insects like nothing else.
By the way, I too am allergic to nickel, sunscreens, perfumes, plastic gloves...

Rosy Lady said...

What an interesting post. I have the nickel allergy so, can't wear any earrings but, am fine with watches, necklaces etc. I have even bought nickel free earrings but, have to take them out after an hour. My husband gets really bad skin rashes and nothing seems to help. I like your idea of a redbush tea bath so, he's in for a treat tonight. Can't get him to drink it though (oh well, more for me :) I also like aloe vera creams, especially the ones from 'Alcare' a company near Hartenbos. We visited them a few years ago with bad sunburn and they marched us off to their restrooms armed with loads of products to put on (for free), that was funny but, it helped. We came back with loads of their stuff.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, opening a door for discussion about allergies. Now I don't feel like a anomaly as some people have made me feel because of my allergy to "weird" things. It helps to know that there are people out there with similar conditions.

One of the allergy landed me in the hospital, unable to breath as my throat closed up. My doctor recommended I try the Elimination Diet to find out my food trigger. The theory is that many foods are known allergens and while you may not be allergic to the foods themselves, they can trigger your other allergies.

My food trigger turned out to be dairy, so I gave up diary from my diet for a year. It has helped with my allergies considerably, most of them disappeared. Even though I have re-introduced dairy (minimal amount) to my diet, most of the allergies are still gone (knock on wood) and the most severe allergy to certain products are minimal.

I know it sounds weird, but it worked for me and maybe it could work for you too. Just throwing it out there, in case you want to give it a try.

V said...

ORGANIC CLEANING PRODUCTS : Wynne's Clean green... and woolworths makes organic cleaning stuff as well. Keep your eye on my blog, I am going to put photos up of all the products i use.

ORGANIC BODY STUFF: Woolworths again makes fantastic face wash, body cream, body wash and toner and moisturiser... I use it all.

You know where to find me missy...

Jesse said...

Tamara - that's exactly what happened to me: we never wore gloves at art school. And yes, I've sat on my hands as well to stop myself scratching.... So glad to hear that you've gotten the better of it!

Rosy Lady - the rooibos helps a lot! Cold rooibos tea also soothes rashes; I used to keep some in the fridge just for that.
I've had bad experiences with some aloe vera creams, so I try to keep clear of anything but the most basic creams and oils.

Eunjoo - wow, that's scary. I haven't really tried to identify food triggers, but it's something to think about. Thanks!

V - thanks for your list of products!

Freshly Found said...

How interesting! My daughters are fairly allergic to a lot of things, and I have been an eczema sufferer for most of my adult life.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info Jesse! :D

Heloise said...

Cricky moses Jesse i had no idea! I've been trying to weed out the worst offenders from under my sink for a while now - some successfully some not yet. Bicarb is a brilliant thing with so many uses. I have to say the deodorant sounds like a good thing so I'm going to give it a try. This was a very enligtening post thanks

Anonymous said...

Your trials and triumphs on green body products prompted me to do a little research and this is what I've found:

it looks great, what do you think?

indiebird said...

This is my fave soap It's a UK company but she sends abroad... it's the best I've found... her showergels are a revelation because they don't use the normal (even natural) soapbase. I haven't quite got to the only water stage on my hair.... yet but I can feel it heading that way tbh... I have read a lot about using Rhassoul clay for hair washing/ skin cleaning, haven't tried it myself but might be something to look into... Also when my skin is really bad I often just put on a layer of the trusty coconut oil BEFORE I get into the shower and this is wonderfully protective.. I'm not convinced that you always need soap to clean yourself with. Hthxxx

Jennifer Hancock said...


My son (11) has allergies, after fighting with the pediatrician for months that it wasn't scabies... . :( once at an ER visit for it, the MD said it looked like Chicken Pox gone bad... I went to one of the dermitoligists in Chicago. He said it was a nickel allergy. Ivory soap, no wash clothes, no baths (only showers). I found out that Suave has a deep clean (clear) shampoo he can use and we only use Tide or Gain.. the deodorant he can use can't be anti-persporant cause that contains aluminum. And He just got his first pair of jeans!!! (the inside of the buttons cause a rash) Levi uses the european policy of no nickle. Woo-Hoo! Hydrocortizone is still a best friend but not as often... I'm glad you found what works for you. Jenn

CrowNology said...

I love this post!
Thank you for sharing. I've been developing allergies and need to be aware more than ever!