There is a realistic possibility you may develop a rash from wearing your fitness tracker or smartwatch, many people do. This is a fact some manufacturers tend to gloss over. The good news is that there are things you can do to prevent this from happening.
Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets
A rash is a common symptom that can occur due to a variety of causes. It is characterized by a change in the texture or color of the skin, which can appear as redness, itching, inflammation, blisters or bumpiness. Some common causes of rashes include allergies to certain foods, medications, cosmetics, and environmental factors. Certain diseases such as chickenpox and measles can also cause rashes.
Dermatologists call this type of reaction irritant contact dermatitis. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this is an allergic or irritant reaction that results in a painful or itchy skin rash. Although contact dermatitis is unpleasant, it is not contagious. The Mayo Clinic adds that signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis vary widely.
Fitness tracker and smartwatch rashes are a common problem
Many people focus on technical specifications such as sensors, battery life, memory, and processing power when purchasing fitness trackers and smartwatches. However, it is also important to consider the device’s potential impact on the skin. Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider the skin sensitivity of the wrists and look for gadgets made with materials that are less likely to trigger a rash.
Wrist rashes caused by wearable technology can be very bothersome and uncomfortable for those who experience them. Not something that you want from a device that is meant to improve your health and fitness. Rashes can make wearing the device difficult, if not impossible, and can impair the user’s ability to track their activity and use other features.
In extreme cases, the rash may also become infected, leading to further complications. So it is best to address the issue early.
Fitbit’s recall of the force wristband: addressing skin irritation
Fitbit made headlines in 2014 when it recalled its Force wearable fitness tracker. While wearing the device, some users developed rashes on their wrists. The device had only been on the market for five months and was meant to be the high-profile successor to the Fitbit Flex.
Approximately 1 million units of the product were ultimately recalled. To its credit, Fitbit acknowledged that a small percentage of users had experienced skin irritation and offered affected customers a full refund or exchange. The company also conducted a thorough investigation. This revealed that the problem was caused by an allergic reaction to the materials used in the wristband.
Fitbit made steps to improve the materials used in its products as a result of the recall. In order to ensure the quality and safety of its products, the company also implemented stricter testing protocols.
“The reactions we are seeing with new products are not uncommon with jewellery or wearable devices that stay in contact with the skin for extended periods,” Fitbit said in a statement at the time.
“According to our consulting dermatologists, they are likely from wearing the band too tight, sweat, water, or soap behind held against the skin under the device: or from pressure or friction against the skin and should resolve quickly when users take a break from the device, usually within hours or days.”
But rashes aren’t just a Fitbit problem. In the past users of Garmin, Polar and other brands have complained about rashes, burns and allergic reactions. Back in 2016, a number of users of the Samsung Gear S2 smartwatch reported experiencing rashes and irritation on their wrists. Similar issues plagued those with Apple Watch Series 4 a few years ago.
It is worth noting that these issues are not limited to smartwatches. There have been similar reports with other wearable technology such as fitness trackers and smart bands.
Common steps you can take to avoid getting a rash on your wrist
Everyone’s skin is unique. But there are a number of common reasons wearing a fitness tracker can cause your skin to revolt. Manufacturers have an important part to play.
- Strap material: The strap material is an extremely important factor when it comes to preventing wrist rashes caused by wearable technology. The strap or wristband is in contact with the skin for extended periods of time, increasing the likelihood of irritation or allergic reactions. Certain materials, such as rubber, silicone, and synthetic fabrics, can cause skin irritation, especially in people with sensitive skin. Leather or fabric, on the other hand, are less likely to cause rashes because they are hypoallergenic, breathable, and non-irritating. So experiment with different strap materials. Most wearables these days allow you to switch straps around. So invest into a quality alternative to the default one that comes with your device.
- Allergies to metal: The nickel used to make stainless steel parts in wearables is often a culprit as some people have nickel sensitivity. Almost one in five people in North America are allergic to nickel, including 11 million children. Exposure to other mixed metals in the device and parts of the strap can also be a culprit.
- Soap: Substances such as soap are irritants to the skin. Most soaps contain a combination of ingredients like lye and oil, as well as a variety of perfumes and colouring agents, all of which can provoke irritation in sensitive individuals. Other related irritants include dishwasher soap, bubble bath, and body washes. These liquids can get trapped under a band and after a while, the harsh chemicals begin irritating the skin.
- Sweat: Miliaria arises from obstruction of the sweat ducts. If your band is too tight, your sweat ducts may become blocked. This can be particularly problematic on a humid summer day. Or when you have been exercising intensively. If your skin is interacting with sweat for longer periods, it is more likely to start irritating. So post exercise, make sure not to wait very long before jumping in the shower.
As you can see from the list above, there is no universal cause or cure. But there are a few things you can do to significantly lower your chances of developing this unpleasant problem.
Clean your wearable regularly!
The solution might be as simple as cleaning your wearable regularly. Trapped moisture and bacteria are very likely causes of discomfort. After activities where you sweat or your skin gets wet, clean and completely dry both your wrist and the fitness band before re-wearing. You can also clean your device with a mild soap-free cleanser such as Cetaphil or Aquanil. Even water and a soft cotton wipe will do. Make sure to do this on a regular basis.
A dirty band is not only bad for your skin; it may also interfere with the performance of your sensors. When you put it back on, make sure that both your skin and the strap are dry.
Don’t forget to let your skin breathe
Breathing is good for you and it is good for your skin too, so give your wrist some air. You don’t really need to wear your fitness tracker or smartwatch 24/7, 365 days per year! Reward your skin with some wearable holiday time!
Additionally, wear the band loosely enough so that it can move back and forth on your wrist. The other option is to loosen it when you are not working out. Then you can tighten it when, for example, going for a run. Also, take the band off for twenty minutes each day during uninteresting events, such as when you are showering or when you are sitting working on a computer. It’s not the end of the world if you miss logging a few steps. Your wrists will thank you for it!
Fitbit and Garmin, for example, recommend taking the device off for at least an hour after prolonged use. If you experience significant wrist irritation, stop wearing a device on your wrist for two to three days. Replace it once the redness has subsided.
You could even move the band from one wrist to the other wrist from time to time. However, if you do this for longer periods you might need to tweak the settings in the accompanying smartphone app to indicate whether you are wearing it on your dominant or non-dominant hand. When you specify this, the device will be able to track your steps, distance travelled, and other activities more accurately.
Trial and error is often necessary
Because skin irritation can stem from a variety of causes, trial and error are often necessary to find the underlying cause. Irritation from water, sweat, and soap is probably responsible for most rashes. So just make sure you take some time regularly to check that both your wrist and the fitness device are clean. It is also likely that true allergy is responsible in some cases. Best to take all this into consideration when it comes time to pick out your next wearable device.
The good news is that most of the type these types of rashes are not dangerous. So there’s no need to panic. Having said that, if you have a persistent rash caused by a wearable device, it is best to discontinue use and consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. In some cases, switching to a different device or strap type may be advised to prevent the rash from recurring.
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