If you’ve scrolled through TikTok recently, you’ve likely across a resurgence of people talking about a skincare phenomenon called toasted skin syndrome — ”otherwise known as Erythema Ab Igne in derm speak,” says Tracy Evans MD, MPH, board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology. It’s a condition that’s not quite a burn but “causes skin discoloration, itching, and burning sensations” when you have an intense heat source — like a laptop — in direct contact with your skin for an extended period of time. Over almost two years as we ditched our office desks for our living room couches, many of us have been guilty of using our laps as a pseudo work station for our laptops. Now, studies are showing that recently 90% of cases of toasted skin syndrome are happening on the legs and thighs. Coincidence? We think not.
The exact cause of the discoloration is not well known, but experts believe the elastic fibers and microscopic blood vessels in your skin are changed due to the excessive and repeated use of heat. Although toasted skin syndrome isn’t considered a burn, it’s not unlike the changes that happen to your dermis when you’re exposed to ultraviolet rays, either from the sun or from tanning beds. Though it’s not particularly dangerous for your skin (according to Cancer.org, while some people claim the prolonged heat can lead to cancer, there’s no evidence to back it up), it “can discolor the skin leaving erythematous (red) circular patches that become hyperpigmented (turn brown). The skin can also atrophy (lose thickness) and develop changes in the blood vessels that underlie the skin,” she says. Over time, “the skin can become discolored and the brown discoloration can become worse and persistent, even untreatable,” adds Evans.
While laptops are the classic culprit of toasted skin syndrome in our pandemic age, an iPad, heating pad, heated blanket, space heater, or any other heat source that emits low-grade heat of 109.4-116.6 degrees Fahrenheit can cause the condition when applied repeatedly to your bare skin.
Luckily, toasted skin syndrome is easily avoidable and treatable: “Simply remove the heat source from having direct contact with your skin. Cool the epidermis with cool clothes, not ice on the skin, which can further damage the tissue. A steroid such as an over-the-counter one percent hydrocortisone can help — or see your dermatologist for a prescription strength steroid,” says Evans. Most mild cases will probably fade on their own after a few weeks of keeping the skin away from heat sources. For more extreme cases, “prescription lighteners such as hydroquinone and prescription retinoids can help to improve the post inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” she says.
Especially in the winter months, as tempting as it can be to cozy up to a space heaters or heated blankets for hours — make sure to take breaks or set timers so you don’t have prolonged exposure. As far as your laptops, invest in an ergonomically sound desk (we’re in this WFH game for the long run, after all) or buy a padded laptop desk that keeps your devices off your skin.
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