Morsani College of Medicine

Dermatology & Cutaneous Surgery

Skin Health Hazards from Crude Oil Spill

While our skin is a marvelous barrier that keeps us protected and minimizes absorption of most toxic chemicals, it was not designed to deal with crude oil or tar balls.  The volatile components of crude oil can irritate the skin producing redness and dryness and can also be absorbed to a limited degree.  They can also produce eye irritation. The heavier tarry components of crude oil can stick to the skin and produce mild irritation. They can also coat hair. When the crude oil has been exposed to the air for a while, most of the volatile components evaporate, leaving tar balls.  The tar balls can stick to our skin and hair. The detergent-like dispersants used to treat oil escaping from a ruptured oil well can also irritate the skin if they are in high enough concentration in the water.


The best approach is for you, your children, and your pets to avoid contact with crude oil and tar balls.  Check the beach for any evidence of crude oil or tar balls and if present do not swim and avoid contact.  If you, your child, or your pet does get exposed, gently wipe off any crude oil or tar with paper towels and use soap or dishwashing detergent that cuts grease to cleanse the skin.  Shampoo or dishwashing detergent can be used on hair also, taking care not to let the soapy water run into the eyes.  Tar balls stuck to hair may require clipping the hair to remove the tar ball.  Once the skin is clean, use a good moisturizing lotion to treat dry skin and use over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to treat redness.  If redness is severe or does not clear after a few days, see your dermatologist.


By: Philip D. Shenefelt, MD., Associate Professor of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of South Florida

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