Your Space Heater Could Be Causing This Bizarre Skin Condition
When the temps drop below freezing and your living room becomes too cold to bear, you might park yourself in front of a space heater and blast balmy air on your legs until you're toasty enough to function. And when your work-from-home days drag on, you might plop yourself down on the couch, set your laptop on your thighs, and spend the next few hours chugging through your to-dos with HGTV playing in the background.
While these activities seem relatively harmless, doing them day after day could put you at risk of developing a strange, fishnet-like pattern on your skin that looks like it's straight out of a sci-fi movie — a condition called toasted skin syndrome.
Um, what is toasted skin syndrome?
Medically known as Erythema ab igne, toasted skin syndrome is a rash that develops in response to prolonged or repeated exposure to low-levels of heat (think: temps that aren't high enough to cause a burn), says Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist based in New York City. This long-term heat exposure can damage the skin's superficial blood vessels (though researchers aren't sure what, exactly, happens to them) and cause a web-like pattern of redness or hyperpigmentation — which may mimic the look of a network of veins — to appear on the exposed area, she explains. "What makes it so unique is the pattern," says Dr. Garshick. "It literally looks like a net, and that's a very unusual thing for someone to see on their own skin."
Back when people had to stand close to wood-fired stoves and fires to stay warm, toasted skin syndrome was actually pretty common, says Dr. Garshick. Cases of the condition dropped when central heating became the standard, and now, the most prevalent cause is the use of heating pads, space heaters, and laptops, according to an article published by the National Institutes of Health. Wrapping yourself up in a heated blanket and sitting on a heated car seat for a prolonged period can also trigger toasted skin syndrome, she adds.
That means it's possible for toasted skin syndrome to pop up pretty much anywhere and on anyone, and the amount of exposure needed to trigger the condition can vary from person to person, says Dr. Garshick. "It's thought that prolonged exposure on a repetitive basis causes it for most people," she says. "But I've seen individuals who used a heat pack for one or two days or wore one at a nail salon for half an hour, and they subsequently developed it. It won't necessarily happen to everyone that's exposed to heat, per se, but it is possible to happen without necessarily having any risk factors or predisposition to developing it." (Related: Is a Winter Rash to Blame for Your Dry, Red Skin?)
Is toasted skin syndrome dangerous?
Despite the eerie look of it, toasted skin syndrome is usually harmless and asymptomatic, save for that fit-for-Halloween pattern on your skin, says Dr. Garshick. "Oftentimes people don't even realize that they have it," she adds. And because some people develop it on their back, they might not realize until somebody else sees it.
In most cases, the web-like discoloration initially shows up in a pink or red hue, and as time and heat exposure goes on, it can evolve into a brown or tan color, says Dr. Garshick. If you still haven't intervened at this point (more on that later), your skin can begin to feel scaly and thick. Eventually, it can develop blisters and feel like it's stinging or burning, though most people take the necessary steps to treat the condition before it gets to this point, she explains. (Related: What to Know About Strawberry Legs, According to a Dermatologist)
In rare cases, toasted skin syndrome can lead to the development of squamous cell carcinoma — a type of skin cancer that develops in the squamous cells located near the skin surface (though it's often easily treatable), according to an article published by the National Institutes of Health. "If somebody developed Erythema ab igne and continued to have the exposure, and it causes more long-standing changes in the surface of the skin, there is a theoretical risk of [cancer]," says Dr. Garshick. "So if someone has had it for a long time, squamous cell skin cancer is something you'd want to monitor them for." (Even if you don't have Erythmea ab igne, you'll want to hit up your derm for skin cancer screenings often.)
How do you treat toasted skin syndrome?
Turns out, healing your toasted skin syndrome is often as easy as ditching the heat source. "The majority of the time, most people find that if they take away the trigger, their condition will improve, subside, or resolve," says Dr. Garshick.
How quickly this happens depends on how long your condition has been developing and the severity of your symptoms. If you shut off your space heater soon after the red, net-like pattern appears, your symptoms could disappear within minutes or a few hours, says Dr. Garshick. But if the discoloration has turned brown, it could take weeks or months to fully go away, she says. "For some people, if it's been there for a very long time, it's possible that it fades but doesn't completely resolve," she adds. No matter which stage your toasted skin syndrome is at, though, sun protection is key. "Anything that's already discolored on the skin always has the potential to become more discolored," says Dr. Garshick. If you're going to be in the sun at all, putting sunscreen on top of the affected area would be important, she says.
Beyond cutting out the heat source, toasted skin syndrome can be tricky to treat, says Dr. Garshick. A topical chemotherapy treatment called 5-fluorouracil cream is sometimes used to treat chronic cases, and lightening creams and laser treatments can help reduce the pigmentation, but you're best off saying goodbye to your space heater or heating pads until your skin has fully recovered, she adds.
How can you prevent toasted skin syndrome?
Even though abandoning your space heater, heating pad, and hot laptop is the most effective treatment for toasted skin syndrome, it doesn't have to be this way forever. The key to prevention: Limiting direct, constant exposure to the heat source, says Dr. Garshick.
If you're working with your laptop resting on your thighs, Dr. Garshick recommends, at the very least, moving your computer off your legs and onto a table every 15 to 20 minutes or so. Using a lap desk to absorb the laptop's heat and prevent direct contact with the source is even better, she says. "If you can feel the heat, chances are it can affect you," she adds. "If you feel when your laptop's getting a little warm, even through your clothing or your jeans, presumably that would still be able to have a similar impact. It's probably less so than being completely bare, but it would still be possible." (Steal these tips to set up a seriously ergonomic home office.)
When you crank up the space heater, take intermittent breaks away from the device and turn on the oscillating function or manually rotate the device so it's not hitting just one part of your body all day long, suggests Dr. Garshick. "Some people will only experience [toasted skin syndrome] on one leg, and it's because that one's closer or really in more direct contact with the heat being emitted," she says. Remember, if you can feel the heat, it can potentially have an effect on your skin, says Dr. Garshick. So while wearing a sweatshirt or leggings might block some of the heat from hitting your skin, it's likely not a 100-percent-effective technique for preventing toasted skin syndrome.
Similar guidelines apply for heating pads: Use them in short intervals and switch up their location often, says Dr. Garshick. Placing the pads on top of your body, not underneath it, can also help; lying directly on top of a heating pad can trap additional heat, increasing the temperature and the risk of developing toasted skin syndrome, according to a review published in the journal Case Reports in Medicine.
And if you truly can't live without a space heater blowing on you or heating pad attached to you 24/7, a case of toasted skin syndrome might be a wake-up call to figure out why you need this heat in the first place. "One of the things a lot of dermatologists like about dermatology is the ability for the skin to tell you more about what's going on on the inside," says Dr. Garshick. "Oftentimes, a condition like toasted skin syndrome is a reason to check in with your primary care doctor and see what the cause of the pain is rather than just putting this bandaid on it."