What Role Does Skincare Play for Firefighters?
Dr. Sanober Pezad Doctor, MD (aka Dr. Doctor)
Firefighters risk their lives to save others, but do they know what risks their own? While I have nothing but admiration for our heroes, I feel obligated to shed light on some important facts pertinent to skin care… something that I, your holistic dermatologist mama, am truly passionate about.
An article published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene journal found that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and various other aromatic hydrocarbons released during household fires were detected in firefighters’ body samples after fire suppression and overhaul activities in fire simulations.
As you might have guessed correctly, the primary route of entry was through their skin, with the neck being the common site of exposure and absorption due to the lower level of dermal protection provided by hoods.  Firefighting continues to be one of the most hazardous yet least studied occupations in terms of exposures and their relationship to occupational diseases.  And when it comes to skincare, there is no question that prevention is easier than fixing a problem. Hence, it is essential to understand the ‘WHAT’ (is happening) before I reveal the ‘HOW’ (to correct the situation).
Human body 101
Credited as the largest organ of the human body, our skin is bestowed with a huge surface area and a plethora of critical biological functions, especially serving as a barrier to toxins and regulating temperature. These properties are essential to ensure proper cooling of the body. Had it not been for the various micro receptors and sensors present within the skin, you wouldn’t know when the heat is too much causing damage.
The skin is also laden with numerous pores to excrete sweat and sebum which can serve as potential entry points for various toxins that settle on the skin’s surface. It also has an extensive network of blood vessels which makes absorption and distribution of harmful chemical compounds to other organs of the body quite easy. To understand this even better, I want you to imagine the skin’s pores as if they are tiny fish mouths. They open to breathe, sweat, and maintain the so-called ‘homeostasis’ of the body. It would help if you kept in mind, that with every 5 degrees that the body temperature rises, the number of pores opening up increases exponentially to thermoregulate. This in turn leads to an increment in the skin’s absorption rates by as much as 400 percent! Therefore, it is of utmost importance to understand the role that skin plays in protecting you and absorbing harmful toxins, if not taken care of.
Now let’s consider, that it was your lucky day and that the toxins you were exposed to did not get a chance to squeeze in through the open pores. But that does not stop them from readily migrating to the hands or eyes, whilst they lay over the skin’s surface. This makes it very easy for substances to not only be ingested but also get absorbed through the eye which has an abundant blood supply.
Another important point to note is that the skin cells, like all the other cells of the body, are rich in lipids- the fancy term for fats. In fact, it is this oily characteristic of the skin that provides a myriad of essential properties such as elasticity, suppleness, and protection of the body from a number of substances getting into the body.
Barriers of protection
The sweat glands and subcutaneous tissues have a lot of lipid or fatty structures too. While this has been designed to protect and benefit the human body, it serves to the contrary when exposed to toxic chemical compounds. As many toxins are lipid soluble, they can dissolve and pass through the layers of the skin or get deposited in the lipid layer. Even the commonly used flame retardants known as polybrominated biphenyls have an affinity to lodge in lipid layers or fat cells of the body.
When it comes to skin exposure, I want our firefighting community’s vocabulary to remember these four terms & be wary of them always: furans, dioxins, benzene, and radical aldehydes. So, now that you are aware of the critical role the skin plays in protecting you, what can you do, you may ask? The simplest way I like to remind is – “Sweat it out” or “Wash it away”.
Should you sweat it out?
If “sweating it out” seems like the way to go for you, by all means, do it. Certain firefighting communities have been using saunas and bicycles to detoxify themselves after a fire. In fact, the University of Alberta has identified that sweating is the best way to remove heavy metals and other toxins from the body. Also, keep towels or disposable fire wipes handy to remove soot and unseen particulates or toxins from the skin in the rehab sector.
After an incident, you must shower and clean the turnout gear thoroughly. I cannot emphasize enough how critical an immediate shower can be. You should not be returning to bed or lounging on station furniture without removing as many of the combustion products as possible.
Skin cancer awareness
Finally, be aware of the risk of melanoma you might be subjected to and seek guidance from your primary provider if you notice new or enlarging skin moles. Melanoma remains a significant risk to firefighters due to sunlight exposure and the skin’s exposure to carbon and coal tar, which has been linked to skin cancer for years. It is good to get used to the application of a physical sunscreen and make it a staple in your skincare routine.
I am sure you have become more aware and conscious of the important role our beautiful skin plays in protecting us.
Take Care and Stay Safe.
- (Fent KW, Eisenberg J, Snawder J, Sammons D, Pleil JD, Stiegel MA, Mueller C, Horn GP, Dalton J. Systemic exposure to PAHs and benzene in firefighters suppressing controlled structure fires. Ann Occup Hyg. 2014 Aug;58(7):830-45. doi: 10.1093/annhyg/meu036. Epub 2014 Jun 6. PMID: 24906357; PMCID: PMC4124999.)
- (Baxter CS, Hoffman JD, Knipp MJ, Reponen T, Haynes EN. Exposure of firefighters to particulates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. J Occup Environ Hyg. 2014;11(7):D85-91. doi: 10.1080/15459624.2014.890286. PMID: 24512044; PMCID: PMC4653736.)
Bio- Dr. Sanober Pezad Doctor, also known as Mrs. Dr. Doctor, is a double-board certified dermatologist, clinical homeopath, holistic health coach, and the creator of Baby SkinWise™ & AGEnesis™- The Holistic Aging Blueprint. Sanober holds multiple national and international awards, scholarships, research studies, and recognition for novel therapies to her credit in dermatosurgery, pediatric dermatology, and trichology. She is a proactive, compassionate medical practitioner with a thorough understanding of overall mind-body-spiritual wellness. She is also a simple mommy to the core and strongly believes that prevention is better than cure. Her ultimate goal is to help everyone be the healthiest version of themselves.
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