Allergic reactions to wood

Q. We have some concern about allergic reactions in wood. Can you perhaps tell us more about this?

A. Wood consists of cellulose (cotton), hemicellulose and lignin (the glue and stiffener that holds the wood together). These probably are not cause for concern when it comes to allergies. However, most woods also have a variety of chemicals within the wood cell, such as the root beer odor from sassafras, the cedar smell (gerbil aroma) from eastern red cedar, the resinous smell from pine, and the chemicals that give white oak, cedar and cypress its natural decay resistance. It is these chemicals that may cause some allergic problems.

Technically speaking, many species of wood have chemicals called quinones or lapachols. The amount of chemical varies from tree to tree. As an example, a 1956 report by Sandman and Barghoorn about teak allergies states, “Local races of teak and even individual trees vary greatly in desoxylapachol content. Indonesian natives have long distinguished three grades of the wood, the poorest being liable to cause skin irritation.” So, an allergy from one species may show up over time or at random times, as the chemical composition of wood does apparently vary from tree to tree.

In general, it is the dust of many North American species of wood, as well as many foreign woods and especially foreign woods that have silica in them, that can cause breathing problems and also contact dermatitis (especially in sweaty areas of the body). Further, a few woods have a reaction similar to poison ivy, probably caused by chemicals in the sap.

As different people have different allergic reactions to an allergen, it is possible to see a variety of reactions, although the "far out" reactions would be extremely rare. Obviously, with a wood contact issue similar to poison ivy, if one touched the wood and picked up some noxious oils and then touches other sensitive areas on one’s body, the reaction could show up in those areas that were touched. In the case of a severe reaction, the body will become so confused that medical attention will be needed.


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About the author
Gene Wengert

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 45 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.