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If you've spent significant amounts of time outdoors, especially in heavily-wooded areas, you've likely seen or experienced the effects of Toxicodendron radicans—commonly known as poison ivy. This three-leafed vine may look innocuous to the untrained eye, but even slight contact with your skin can lead to painful irritation, an itchy rash, or even blisters. Experienced hikers are always on the lookout for “leaves of three”, and know to “let them be”.
As a result of the harmful effects of poison ivy, and similar species such as poison oak and poison sumac, many ointments and soaps have been developed to protect against its symptoms. However, Jim Brauker, a Ph.D biomedical scientist with 25 years of experience studying skin inflammation, feels that these specialized treatments are unnecessary.
These poisonous plants create an invisible oil called urushiol, which clings to skin and causes irritation. With the right treatment, the oil can be removed before it causes a rash. Jim explains more about how to avoid poison ivy rashes in the following video:
As you can see, the urushiol oil behaves similar to any other greasy substance on skin. Thorough lathering with dish soap or any other oil-removing soap helps, but the key is friction. If you've tried to remove grease and grime from your hands after a long day at work, you'll know it tends to get everywhere and can be near impossible to remove. Now imagine how much harder that grease would be to remove if it was invisible—this is the key danger of urushiol.
So, any time you think you may have come into contact with poison ivy, remember to scrub any affected areas thoroughly with soap and water. Also clean your tools, boots, and clothing thoroughly, since the oil can remain active for years after it leaves the plant. If you remember these tips and are sufficiently cautious, you may never have to deal with poison ivy rash again.