A simple soap is all you need — but it has to be the right soap (tecnu).
Originally published 2004
For poison oak, there is one (and only one) truly effective remedy. It’s called “tecnu” — a liquid soap that’s specially formulated to combine with the poison oak juice (urushiol). You rub it in gently for a couple of minutes so it binds with the oil, and then wash it off with cool water. (Urishol binds with the skin, so it’s impervious to regular soap.)
Tecnu was used by the forest service for a couple of decades before making it to the shelves of grocery stores and drug stores, and I can tell you that it truly does work. Whenever I got it, it invariably spread until it reached my eyes. At that point, I would have to go to the doctor for cortisone shots, cortisone pills, and cortisone cream — all of which suppress the immune system, along with the itching. Then, in a week or two, the problem would finally go away. (After washing all of my clothes and rinsing my shoes to make sure there was no other oil around.)
Surprisingly, doctors are still prescribing cortisone as a “remedy”. (It is inane, because urishol does not produce an “immune response” at all. So there is nothing to suppress. The stuff spreads only because the oil adheres to the fingers and is transferred elsewhere when you rub or scratch. So all cortisone does is suppress the itching. But the problem remains, because that was never addressed. (Sad to say, ignorance of effective alternatives is pretty much the norm, for medical practitioners.)
The problem, of course, is that suppressing the immune system is usually a bad idea. It allows egregious side-effects to be produced by foreign invaders that pose a real threat.
Using tecnu once or twice is generally sufficient to take care of the problem. After that, you feel a mild itch as the skin heals, but nothing intense.
If you do feel severe itching in the next couple of days, it could be because you contacted some of the oil on your shoes or an article of clothing. (Wash everything!) In that case, use tecnu once again. Basically, it’s just soap, so you can use it as often as you need to.
- The active ingredients in tecnu appear to settle out, over time. So give it a seriously good shake before using it. I always keep an old bottle on hand. I use that right away, when I first notice the problem. That does a lot of good, but it may not be a complete cure if it has been on my shelf for a year or two. So off I go to the store (most drug stores and grocery stories carry it, these days), to get some more. After using that, the problem is usually completely solved.
- After you use tecnu a couple of times, it doesn’t even hurt to scratch, because the oil is gone. So you won’t pick up some of the oil on the fingers and spread it somewhere else — the main reason that people are told not to scratch, which is nearly impossible.
- You can use regular soap to wash cotton clothes and canvas sneakers, because urushiol binds with the skin, not clothing fabric. But for leather shoes, use tecnu, because leather is basically skin. (It may not be necessary, but it pays to be sure.)
- Coconut oil may help to eliminate the minor itch that remains after using tecnu. For more information on coconut oil, see Coconut Oil: Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill.
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