What is it?
Urushiol is the extremely potent ingredient found in the sap of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. It is said that only one fourth of an ounce of urushiol is enough to start a rash on every person in the world! As a matter of fact, this chemical is so potent that a sample of ancient urushiol (several hundred years old) was still powerful enough to cause a reaction in sensitive individuals. However, urushiol normally remains active on any surface (including dead plants) for about one to five years. The name "urushiol" is derived from the Japanese word "urushi," meaning lacquer (a type of varnish). (Source: TDI/DWC)
Urushiol is found in almost every part of the poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac plant - excluding only the pollen, anthers, hairs, and wood cells. Because of some of these exceptions, the honey made by bees draw from poison ivy is not toxic. What's more, several types of animals (including birds, deer, cattle, and goats) eat parts of the plant that would cause a severe reaction in a human being. Please note that you should NEVER eat poison ivy or its relatives under any circumstances, and you should not feed it to your pet (dog, cat, etc.). The results can be extremely painful or even tragic.
Chemically, urushiol is a combination of catechol compounds, the most prevalent one in poison ivy being pentadecylcatechol. Since urushiol is a foreign substance, our immune system automatically attacks it. Although this seems like an appropriate and beneficial response, urushiol would actually be harmless if it were not for our immune system's reaction.
How do I treat dermatitis caused by urushiol?
If you think you have touched poison ivy, oak, or sumac, you should take immediate action! It only takes urushiol a matter of minutes to sink into your skin (you usually have about 10 minutes to prevent the first reaction). In other words, the sooner you take preventative measures, the better. (Source: TDI/DWC)
Rubbing alcohol and water
It is often recommended that you wash the area liberally with rubbing alcohol and/or water. Nevertheless, there are a few drawbacks to using rubbing alcohol (isopropyl) and water.
First, urushiol, since it is classified as an oil, is not entirely soluble in alcohol or water, so they can't entirely remove the substance all by themselves. Basically, the urushiol needs an alternative solid place to go to besides your skin. Alcohol can mix with some of it, but it evaporates quickly. Thus, it is a good idea to mix something absorbent and solid with your alcohol when you apply it to your skin. This could be a paper towel, flour, or starch.
Applying rubbing alcohol should be followed by rinsing thoroughly with water. Some sources recommend using cold water since warm or hot water opens one's pores and consequently helps to spread the urushiol. Other sources, however, recommend warm water. Whether your water is hot or cold, it is probably still a good idea to rinse off your skin with some H2O.
Unfortunately, using rubbing alcohol also temporarily gets rid of your skin's natural protection and thus makes you more susceptible to getting infected with urushiol. Thus, if you use alcohol, it is not a good idea to return to the woods again the same day.
This does not mean that rubbing alcohol and water are not effective preliminary treatments - this procedure is a good plan A. It just isn't guaranteed to completely relieve your urushiol pains, and there is a bit of argument as to their effectiveness (although water seems to be consistently beneficial). Frankly, no treatment is certain to work for everybody. All the same, there are many recommended cures for urushiol rashes, and it is likely that at least one will work for you.
Prevent the spreading of urushiol
Since the urushiol is the direct cause of all of the itching and irritation, a blister or rash caused by poison ivy, oak, or sumac is not contagious (only the original oil is dangerous). However, the urushiol can get trapped underneath your fingernails and thus infect anywhere you itch. This is another good reason to rinse extensively with rubbing alcohol and water after your exposure.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and its effectiveness
Of course, we recommend trying jewelweed soap both to prevent urushiol dermatitis and a treatment for urushiol dermatitis. There is, however, some disagreement as to its effectiveness. Some controlled experiments have indicated that jewelweed is no more effective than water. Many websites seem to trace the proof of jewelweed's ineffectiveness to this Pennsylvania State University study.
All the same, there is a wealth of accounts online and many personal experiences that support the effectiveness of jewelweed against urushiol irritation and other forms of dermatitis. Some credible sources include Brandeis University, Brevard College, Harvard University, the University of Arkansas, and the University at Buffalo.
The jewelweed plant naturally has a compound known as lawsone, which is shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine properties. In addition to being an urushiol antidote, jewelweed is also said to be a good remedy for mosquito bites, bee and wasp stings, slight burns, acne, fungal skin diseases, and other forms of dermatitis. (Sources: Wildman Steve Brill, Brandeis University).
As well as facilitating the healing of a developed urushiol inflammation, jewelweed can also help to prevent getting a rash on your skin even when you're in contact with poison ivy. (Source: Wildman Steve Brill)
Soap and its effectiveness
There is some debate as to how useful soap is against urushiol dermatitis. Some say that it helps to decrease the urushiol, but it is also suspected to simply spread the urushiols around - particularly when you don't have much water available. Thus, if possible, you should rinse with large amounts of water after using the soap.
Just a few more of the many potential antidotes for a poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac rash include the following:
- baking soda;
- aluminum acetate (Burrows solution);
- kaolin; and
- calamine lotion.
DID YOU KNOW: Several Native American tribes (e.g. the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Ojibwa) used jewelweed for a variety of illnesses, including dermatitis, headaches, and the measles.
Urushiol dermatitis can be a serious medical condition and if you believe you have any kind of urushiol dermatitis, you should seek medical attention. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional medical advice.