Skin, Gloves and the Food Industry

The food industry includes a diversity of workers such as chefs and cooks, bakers and pastry cooks, kitchen hands, deli workers, waiters and bartenders.  Food handlers need their hands to be in good condition to be able to prepare and cook food, and are at risk of developing work-related contact dermatitis.  Apprentices are often at the highest risk of developing contact dermatitis.

Work-related skin conditions include irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis and contact urticaria.  Contact dermatitis may become complicated by secondary bacterial infection.  Contact dermatitis can be caused by frequent wetting and drying of the hands as well as from handling meats, fish, fruit and vegetables.  Inappropriate use of certain gloves for hygiene purposes may cause allergy, while others can cause excessive sweating.  The combined effect of these factors can be very damaging to the skin.

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common cause of occupational contact dermatitis.  Continual wetting and drying of the skin, as well as handling of some particular substances will de-fat the skin and cause it to dry out, flake, split and crack.  This will occur more rapidly in people with sensitive skin, especially those with a history of eczema (even mild eczema as a child) and also of asthma or hay fever.

Common irritants in the food handling industry include:
Water, from wetting and washing hands frequently
Handling moist food such as meat and seafood
Frequently drying hands with paper towels
Alcohol in beverages, which may dry out the skin
Flours which can dry the skin
Spices which can irritate the skin, such as chilli
Soaps, detergents and cleaning agents which dry the skin
Heat and sweating, which can occur when wearing occlusive (waterproof style gloves) for long periods of time.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis is fortunately less common.  It can occur at any time in a food handler’s career and often happens after irritant contact dermatitis has already damaged the skin.  Allergic contact dermatitis often looks similar to irritant contact dermatitis causing a rash on the hands which is usually red, scaly, itchy and sometimes involves blisters.

The skin will flare up within 4-24 hours after the particular substance has been in contact with the skin.  The rash can take days or weeks to settle down again.  Once allergic contact dermatitis has developed there is no cure other than avoidance of the causative allergens.  Prevention is the key.

Common allergens in the food handling industry include:
Rubber chemicals found in gloves
Fragrances found in disinfectants and detergents
Garlic and onion, lettuce
Spices such as cinnamon
Preservatives in hand cleansers and liquid soaps
Nickel, especially in old or worn cooking utensils

Contact urticaria and latex allergy

Contact urticaria is a different type of allergic reaction.  It occurs immediately, within 10-30 minutes of contact with the offending substance.  It usually settles down approximately an hour after contact ceases.  It is a reaction to specific proteins, which may produce welts on the skin, itching and swelling.  It can also cause a runny nose, sneezing and asthma and rarely, a severe generalized allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening.  Repeated episodes of contact urticaria may lead to dermatitis, known as protein contact dermatitis.

In food handlers this type of allergy is caused by particular proteins, such as those found in seafood, meat, poultry, wheat or rye flour and some fruit and vegetables.  Contact urticaria can also develop to natural rubber latex gloves.

Latex allergy

Latex allergy has a significant public health impact, because it can cause potentially life threatening reactions. Latex proteins from natural rubber latex gloves (especially the powdered variety) can be transferred to food during preparation. Those people in the general public who are allergic to latex are at risk if they eat food that is prepared by someone wearing natural rubber latex gloves.

Latex allergy is also of concern in the food industry because of the number of food handlers wearing natural rubber latex gloves, increasing the risk of latex allergy in themselves.  Latex allergy can be serious enough to cause the severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.

If gloves are required to be used during food preparation, the recommended glove types are plastic or vinyl.

Skin care

Skin care plays a vital role in the prevention and treatment of contact dermatitis. The following are helpful ways to do that:


  • Regularly apply an appropriate moisturiser such as greasy sorbolene cream, at the end of the working day and before bed.
  • If possible, use a moisturiser during the day. There are brands available which are suitable for the food industry.

Hand cleansers

  • Use mild hand cleansers whenever possible
  • Use a soap substitute at home
  • Use alcohol based hand rubs when possible


  • Wear suitable gloves for the job such as vinyl or plastic. Do NOT wear latex gloves, either powdered or non-powdered
  • Change gloves regularly
  • For wet work, such as dish washing, use PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or rubber gloves with cotton gloves underneath to reduce sweating 

Important tips

  • Take rings off at work, as soaps, detergents and water get trapped under rings, causing dermatitis to start here
  • When suitable, use tongs or deli tissues when handling foods, to limit the number of times hands need to be washed and to reduce direct contact with food
  • Remember, once the skin is damaged with dermatitis, it increases the chance of developing further problems.
  • A doctor should be consulted if skin problems persist.