Wildfire smoke can cause skin damage, even for those living 100+ miles away, UCSF study finds

Doctors at UCSF sampled a two week period during the 2018 Camp Fire. She says the change in air quality 175 miles away in San Francisco was so significant, that it forced people with sensitive skin conditions to seek treatment.
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Smoke from the recent wildfires in Northern California has forced thousands people to shelter in their homes, turning to masks or filters to avoid breathing in the smoky air. But now, researchers at UCSF have uncovered another layer of concern, our skin.

"This is the first study that really connects wildfire associated air pollution with adverse skin effects. And also in a very short period of exposure of just a few days," says Dr. Maria Wei, M.D., Ph.D. of UCSF.

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Dr. Wei and her colleagues at UCSF sampled a two week period during the destructive 2018 Camp Fire. She says the change in air quality 175 miles away in San Francisco was so significant, that it forced people with sensitive skin conditions to seek treatment.

"During the two week period when the air pollution spiked up, we measured a 50% increase in pediatric visits for atopic dermatitis, and a 15% increase in visits with adults," she explains.

She says chemicals in the smoke can slip past the outer barrier of the skin and penetrate the cells. Common symptoms included swelling and severe itching. The number of patients without preexisting skin conditions also increased, along with prescriptions for anti-inflammatory medicines such as steroids.

"So this is quite a serious symptom we were seeing just from the ambient air," Dr. Wei points out.

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And just like dermatologists reinforce the critical importance of sunscreen to protect against skin damage, the UCSF team is now researching which lotions or topical creams might offer some protection against wildfire smoke -- A threat that's likely to return again, after a long dry winter.

While the research continues, doctors say wearing long sleeve shirts and other coverings may also offer some skin protection.

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