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Why does lacquer “poisoning” occur?


One of the infamous characteristics of lacquer is “poisoning”. For instance, if you happen to touch a lacquer tree by mistake when you are climbing a mountain, it can lead to a bad inflammation, which is called contact dermatitis.


Because of this, lacquer is often associated with poisoning in Japan. However, this only refers to the liquid lacquer. You will not get a rash through lacquerware, the solid form of lacquer.


The lacquerware with high-quality lacquer will not provoke poisoning
Lacquer has distinctive characteristics, which are due to its main ingredient called urushiol. Through the action of urushiol, unusual properties emerge such as “it dries better when it is more humid” and “once it solidifies, it will never go back to its liquid form”.


Urushiol has an effect that provokes “poisoning” as mentioned earlier. Some people get a rash from lacquer just by walking on a mountain road. This is probably because of the fact that the urushiol contained in lacquer diffused in the air and then triggered the inflammation.


Lacquer poisoning is different with each person. Some are less likely to be poisoned by lacquer, and others get a bad inflammation without ever touching the lacquer. Some people do not get poisoned by lacquer at all.


But, if lacquer is dried after being coated on an object, the inflammation from lacquer will not be triggered even to those who are more likely to get poisoned by lacquer.


Occasionally, some people get a bad rash after touching a piece of brand-new lacquerware. In this case, the lacquer applied on the lacquerware is most likely to be of poor-quality.


Typically, lacquer dries in about five to six hours. And yet, if any rash was caused by the products after a few days from when they were shipped, the coatings probably contained some kind of impurities (bulking filler, etc.), thus the items did not completely dry.


Lacquer art craftspeople are less likely to be poisoned
When you handle lacquer, you will get a rash from lacquer with a probability of 100%. When handling liquid lacquer, if the lacquer gets on your hand or arm for some reason, it then produces redness and swelling.


These are due to some type of immune reaction. Immune cells will start functioning by the action of urushiol against the areas of the body touched by the lacquer. This is how the inflammation is triggered.


But, in the case of craftspeople who have daily contact with lacquer, even if lacquer gets on their hands, gradually, they stop having the rash reaction from the lacquer. This is because their immune system gets used to the lacquer.


For example, the same happens in the case of hay fever. If you continue to have contact with a small amount of pollens every day, your symptoms of hay fever will slowly fade away. This is due to the fact that the immune reaction will weaken against the pollens. This type of medical method to cure hay fever is called hyposensitization.


Similarly, if you have contact with lacquer on a daily basis, your immune system becomes less reactive. Of course, it significantly varies among different individuals, so there are many people who give up on being an artisan of lacquerware because of severe symptoms of inflammation from lacquer. Also, even an experienced artisan can get poisoned by lacquer when he or she is not feeling well.


The rash from lacquer produces strong itchiness. But, it will be fully healed, and it will not leave any permanent marks on your skin. It’s just that there is no fundamental treatment method, so you will need to patiently wait for the symptoms to go away.

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