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"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

If you shave a guinea pig, and then sandpaper the animal's skin until it is pink, but doesn't bleed, it can be shown that the animal has become as sensitive to poison-oak as people are.

Skin Care

Harmful substances, like poison-oak sap, are kept out of our bodies by the stratum corneum, a layer of overlapping coin-shaped cells, 1 to 150 cells thick. The tiny cracks between these cells are often filled with skin oil (sebum). Many observations about the effects of poison-oak relate to the thickness of or amount of oil in this layer.

For example, people with open and healing wounds should bandage those areas prior to exposure. Also, bathing or vigorously washing your hands just before exposure is bad; it takes 4 hours to replace your sebum.

Most modern cosmetics contain an excipient a spreading agent. Therefore, they make an additional layer for poison-oak to penetrate, which may provide enough protection to keep you rash free. An example is Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock Lotion (SPF 30). It can be smeared on your face, including eyelids; hands, including under your jewelry; and genitals.

If you are mildly sensitive, you can also experiment with cooking oils, e.g. corn, canola, peanut and sesame seed oils as liquids or sprays; clays of all kinds, including mud from puddles; the saps of other plants, for example mugwort; collodion, available at specialty glass shops it prevents people who handle glass a lot from getting splinters; mechanics waterless grease remover; or whatever else youd like to try.


We have rattlesnakes, ticks, brush and rocky soils to contend with, in addition to poison-oak. So we dress to deal with all five.

The topic of clothing is a big one. For example, bare feet are sometimes fine on a sandy beach. However, this section only discusses clothing for trail work.

For routine trail work, sneakers; ankle-height socks; long pants; long-sleeved shirt; gloves and a hat are helpful. Many of us wear boots instead of sneakers. Some of us also tape our pant cuffs to keep the ticks off our legs; one-inch-wide painters masking tape works well for this.

For crashing around in the brush off trail we wear gaiters to keep the duff out of our boots.

For operators of power trimmers a mist is generated that drifts through wire mesh face guards and wets our faces. We are trying Stihl concrete cutters hard hats; they have a polycarbonate face shield, integral ear muffs, and for a few cents extra can be equipped with a neck drape. Our equipment operators are also familiar with picking sleeves and gaiters.

We sometimes prefer to pull out poison-oak by its roots. For this job a good pair of glove is essential (see Gloves below). A designated hot pair of hand clippers, picking sleeves, a mesh face mask, and a hooded shirt or parka are also helpful.

Finally, to keep your family safe after your adventures wash your own clothes. Only you know what you got into, and how hot your duds are. This goes for dry cleaning, too; if theres any question, put the items in a bag, and instruct the staff to put them in a machine without touching them.

My Gloves

I am moderately sensitive, like 60% of people. Therefore, I offer my routines for limiting exposure to poison-oak as a starting point for others.

Leather gloves are easily penetrated by urushiols. They make my hands itch the second time I use them to hold and pull poison-oak.

I fell in love with neoprene gauntlet gloves early in my work with poison-oak. Heres my first pair, just before they got thrown away:

Stained Gloves

I always wore cotton liners inside of them. I'd put the liners on, and then pull the gauntlets on by the cuffs. Removing them I'd pull one gauntlet off, keeping the liner on, and then pull the other gauntlet off by the fingers. I used them two years before they became too hot to handle.

Stained Gloves

Here are the cotton liners. Eventually I felt safe tearing poison-oak out by its roots with this combination!

Later on I tried using neoprene gloves by themselves, which gave me greater dexterity and was cooler. However, I found that California Blackberry thorns pierced them, transmitting just enough poison-oak sap to make my hands itch. So, for pulling poison-oak I'm using the combination; when cutting poison-oak I wear just the gauntlet gloves.

Handling contaminated tools I get enough protection wearing just the liners. When my hands begin to itch I launder them. I do this several times before I throw the liners away.

All content copyright Dr. Curt Beebe. Please do not use without permission.