I'm allergic to gardening.
I know — that sounds a little crazy coming from a woman who helped found a community garden and a lot like a hypochondriac. I mean, who's allergic to gardening? What does that even mean? Well, my skin reacts badly to working in the garden. When the pollen from most plants coats my skin, I immediately start to itch. I break out in little raised, red bumps. When combined with the sweat that usually accompanies gardening, it feels like I've been attacked by mosquitoes and then rolled in salt. And I know I'm not alone. Some of the most seasoned gardeners I know complain, albeit less so, about a similar sensation.
Perhaps calling it an allergy is a little over the top. The rash usually clears up after I've washed off the offending irritant. I suppose calling it a sensitivity is more accurate. My husband would tell you it's because I have Irish potato skin. He made up that term, but I've begun to think its not too far off. I'm generally pale as a potato and my skin is just as easily damaged. I am often credited with passing this incredibly sensitive skin onto my children. As a toddler, my son was allergic to changes in the barometric pressure. No, really. When a storm came through, he would break out from head to toe with a bumpy, itchy red rash that he would scratch until it bled. And I couldn't do anything to prevent it. My daughter's skin was nearly as bad. My friends got sick of picking up the phone and hearing, “I think the kids have chicken pox. They’re covered in a rash.” As did my pediatrician who had to come out to the parking lot to examine the rash, in case it was chicken pox. It never was. It must have been the Irish potato skin, or contact dermatitis.
According to the Mayo Clinic, contact dermatitis is a kind of skin inflammation that occurs when substances touching your skin cause irritation or an allergic reaction. The resulting red, itchy rash isn’t contagious or life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable. Irritants can include soaps, detergents, fragrances and plants. Sometimes, a wet compress can be helpful in reducing the inflammation and itching. Topical steroid creams and lotions were often recommended for my children. I don’t like to put things on the skin without reason. Our skin is our largest organ and whatever we rub in or spray on inevitably ends up in our system. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, potential side effects of topical steroid use include “skin damage, such as skin thinning, changes in pigmentation, easy bruising, stretch marks, redness and dilated surface blood vessels. Steroids can be absorbed through the skin and affect internal organs when applied to widespread areas of skin, used over long periods of time, or used with excessive occlusion.” My kids were uncomfortable, but did I think the benefit of these medications outweighed the risks? I wasn’t confident they did so I researched my options, as I am known to do, and found some alternatives to topical steroid creams like cortisone.
One of my favorite treatment options for an itchy, irritable child has to be a good old oatmeal bath. Of course, it’s a tremendous mess. But an oatmeal bath serves more than one purpose; if the water temperature is kept on the cool side, the oatmeal itself does a nice job of soothing irritated skin, and the bath is a great distraction for a grumpy, uncomfortable child. They can while away quite a bit of time sailing toy boats through their homemade, chunky sea.
Of course, the best choice is to avoid the irritants in the first place, but that’s not always possible. Several years back, I found a homeopathic cream manufactured by Boericke and Tafel called Florasone that helps ease the discomfort of rashes and bites. Homeopathic remedies have no side effects and are a great option for mild dermatitis. Florasone is widely available online.
As I age, my skin is also becoming drier which increases my need for a topical solution. I wanted to use a mild cream everyday but after reading several ingredient lists, I became discouraged and started making my own. This recipe is a little more labor-intensive than most I offer, but it’s really just so fabulous that it’s worth the effort. It’s quite soothing to irritated skin and my children often seek it out when the potato skin acts up. I adapted this recipe from Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal.
⅔ c. calendula tea (boil water and steep ¼ cup dried calendula leaves), cooled
⅓ c. aloe vera gel
⅛- ¼ tsp. vitamin E
¾ c. grapeseed oil
⅓ c. coconut oil
½ - ⅔ oz. beeswax (depending on desired consistency)
Combine the waters in a glass measuring cup. Set aside. In a double boiler over low heat, combine the oils. Heat them just enough to melt. Pour the oils into a blender and let them cool to room temperature. The mixture should become thick, creamy, semi-solid, and cream colored. When the mixture is cool, turn on the blender at its highest speed. In a slow, thin drizzle, pour the water mixture into the center vortex of the whirling oil mixture. When most of the water mixture has been added, listen to the blender and watch the cream. When the blender coughs and chokes and the cream looks thick and white like frosting, turn off the blender. Pour into glass cream or lotion jars (jelly jars are an excellent choice). Store in a cool location.
Laurie Nigro, a mother of two, is passionate about natural living. Laurie resides in downtown Riverhead and is co-founder of the River and Roots Community Garden on West Main Street.