The frequent hand washing required in many occupations to prevent the spread of bacteria might actually promote their transmission by breaking down the hand skin barrier, according to physicians at a roundtable discussion at a meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in Anaheim, Calif., last month.

"There definitely appears to be a correlation between frequent hand washing and irritant hand dermatitis, especially in individuals using detergent or abrasive cleansers," said Dr. James Del Rosso, clinical assistant professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Nevada School of Medicine. Studies have shown that those who must wash their hands frequently, such as healthcare and foodservice workers, often experience a breakdown in the top epidermal skin layer, increasing vulnerability to redness, itching and irritation.

The physicians also noted that new hand protectant technology is now available that can safeguard the hand skin barrier even after repeated washings.

"Each time the skin is washed it undergoes transient changes, but in workers for whom frequent hand washing is required, long-term changes can result in chronic damage," said Dr. Rainer Maas medical director of Healthpoint, Ltd., which developed and recently introduced TheraSeal Hand Protection to prevent signs and symptoms of hand dermatitis, including chafing, chapping, cracking and dryness.

Dr. Maas noted that in studies of healthcare professionals, up to 45 percent were found to have irritant contact dermatitis. In addition, a recent study by Dr. Elaine Larson, professor, School of Nursing and the Marlman School of Public Health at Columbia University, found that nurses with damaged hands were twice as likely to be colonized with a variety of bacteria.

The new hand protectant technology may provide a practical solution to this problem, according to Dr. Maas, because it is easy to use, remains effective even through frequent washings and protects against irritants. In an in vitro laboratory study with dimethyl sulfoxide, TheraSeal was found to block 99.99 percent passage of the chemical through a nylon membrane.