She is looking for what itches, stings and peels

A detective work that reflects society in terms of both working life and fashion trends. This is how you could describe Cecilia Svedman’s task as a dermatologist and researcher, specialising in contact allergies.

Cecilia Svedman BRED

Cecilia Svedman.

Cecilia Svedman is the director of the main hospital in Helsingborg, who at the same time manages a research group at the Division of Occupational and Environmental Dermatology in Malmö. She meets many patients who are unhappy and perplexed about flaky skin, eczema and redness. This is when her detective work begins, in trying to find out what in the patient’s work or home environment may be causing the problems.

Once she has managed to figure out the cause of the eczema, she often faces two objections: “But I’ve been using this product for 20 years!” and “But it only consists of natural ingredients!” Her research has shown that neither argument is sustainable.

“Even if you have used a certain shampoo for 20 years, the content of the product may have changed. Or you might have come in contact with a particular substance in the shampoo to a degree that is sufficient to develop an allergy”, she says.

“And natural products may very well be allergenic. Perfumes, for instance, are often based on fragrances from plants, but obviously not everything in plants is harmless….”

The skin is the largest organ of the body, which, among other things, is to protect us from harmful substances in the environment, thereby constituting a mirror that reflects how work environments and fashion trends have changed.

“A classic example is the cement industry. Cement has been used since Roman times, but in the 1800s, new production methods were introduced. This led to so severe skin reactions that many of the workers had to leave their jobs”, says Cecilia Svedman.

The culprit was a special form of chromium included in cement, and which can be very allergenic.

“When the tunnel across the English Channel was built, nearly one in five cement workers developed skin problems. However, Sweden was early to introduce legislation that prompted a change in the production, so when the Öresund Bridge was built, not a single worker became allergic.

Another type of allergen is acrylate. Acrylates are used to replace amalgam in dental fillings, among other things. When acrylates were introduced in the early 90s, a number of skin problems occurred among dental workers, especially hand eczema.

“However, the dental workers have strong unions and a good organisation. It was therefore possible to efficiently disseminate information on the safety measures that were needed”, says Cecilia Svedman.

Another group who works with acrylates in their profession, but who have had a harder time, are nail builders. They are often young women working as independent contractors, who grind and file on the acrylate materials without sufficient protective gear. At-home-kits for nails are also available online, and excessive contact with these substances may cause users to have an allergic reaction.

False nails, special nail polish, hair colours and false eyelashes…the beauty industry is full of potentially harmful substances, and new trends involve new risks. One example is the huge false eyelashes that now encircle many women’s eyes.

“The eyelash glue is not as allergenic as acrylates. But the more people who use a particular chemical substance, the greater the risk of allergies. We have also seen people who have reacted to the associated products, such as the patches placed on the eyes so that the fake eyelashes don’t stick to the skin…”, says Cecilia Svedman.

At her division, a lot of work is devoted to finding the correct doses to be used for patch tests on patients, to determine the cause of their skin problems. The dose should not be so high that it damages the patient’s skin, but not so low that it does not cause a reaction even if the patient is in fact allergic to the substance in question.

A lot of the research at the division is based on actual cases. Currently, a project is conducted on hair dyes and perfumes, plastics, safety gloves and textile dyes.

The latter has resulted in one of Cecilia Svedberg’s more unusual research articles, entitled “The danger of wearing dreadlocks at work”.

Although rough hair does not appear to be inextricably linked to contact allergies, there is a connection. The article is about a particular patient – a man with dreadlocks who worked in Norway with dying wool, and who had terrible eczema.

“The eczema on the body disappeared with the help of protective clothing and daily showers, but the eczema on the neck remained. Finally, he cut off his dreadlocks and discovered that they were completely black inside. Although he had been able to clean the outside, the colour pigment had penetrated the braids and caused him to have a constant skin reaction”, says Cecilia Svedman.

She appreciates the diversity of expertise within her division, which includes physicians, biomedical scientists, a counsellor and chemists. She also enjoys the detective work involved in finding the cause of a patient’s eczema. This could result in significant improvements in the work environment and support for new legislation on chemicals in the environment.

Text & Photo: Ingela Björck