Monday, December 17, 2012

Butternut Squash - skin irritant or natural beauty product?

It wasn't until a few months ago that I ever had fresh from the garden summer squash.  There was an upside and a downside. The upside was I started to dig in to learn a bit more about this plant and it's history plus I had discovered a plant that I enjoyed eating (I "hated" it as a child.)  On the downside I discovered some ill side-effects from handling the butternut squash - which also made me dig in and learn more. All of which I've summarized below. 

The summer squash, is native to Mexico and Central America. It was cultivated in the United States by Native Americans. Columbus and other early explorers introduced the squash back to Europe, where it became popular.  Most likely in part because of how long after harvest it would stay edible!  There are several hybrids and heirloom seeds out there. They seem to be pretty easy to grow (if you have the space.)

Butternut Squash that did me wrong :(
Butternut squash was the lucky squash that introduced me to how delicious and dangerous this plant can be. It's a summer squash of the "straight neck squash."  I didn't know that Butternut and Acorn squash can cause an allergic reaction when the squash skin is cut and exposed to the hands.  The first time I cut and peeled the squash within a few minutes I felt a tightness in the skin on my hands. I thought it was just the juice (or sap) from the squash drying on my hands. Then I realized that the flesh was staying moist after I cut it - it wasn't drying there, so probably not drying on my hands. Next I noticed that my hands were actually peeling from handling the squash. Revealing sensitive pink skin underneath.  Over the next few hours I scrubbed, rubbed, and picked at my hands until there were no more dry spots. It took a day or so for my hands to feel normal. 

Some articles say this is an allergic reaction (contact dermatitis - first noted in 1994 medical research), other articles say it is the sap drying on your hands. Too many online options - my experience, n=5, says something in the squash "juice" is a strong exfoliant, which may contribute to skin peeling.  The reaction to butternut or acorn squash, for me, was cracked skin, a sensation of "tightness" and "roughness." After the peeling completed my hands felt "sensitive" or "raw."  Applying lotion did not help me and even was a tad painful at that time.  Some people have developed blisters. I could definitely see this if peeling squash was your job! This reaction was immediate - within minutes of starting to handle the squash. By the next day, it was gone, creams and lotions felt great. Plus the skin on my hands was very soft :)

Please note - I also have contact allergies to cats, pine trees.... if that matters I don't know, just FYI.

I could not find any research that specifically identified the compound in the squash that triggers the reaction. There were studies that indicate it might be a reaction to a sugar or protein  Others that indicate that as the squash ages the potential for reaction declines (aging for weeks or months). This would make sense as the composition of the squash (in terms of sugars and proteins) would be changing as the fruit matures. Researchers conclude that the allergic contact dermatitis to the squash species Cucurbita moschata, including butternut squash, Kentucky field pumpkin, and calabaza pumpkin - can vary highly. The outer skin of the squash is not a trigger reaction so it's only cutting and handling the internal moist portions that are the problem. So it can be avoided. 

The best way to avoid squash sensitivity is to 

  1. Let the squash age a bit before you cut/prepare it
  2. Wear rubber or latex gloves while cutting the squash. 

It may seem strange - but I went for the gloves tonight as I prepared butternut squash. And there was no problems at all, no skin reaction. Just clumsy knife skills. Look at how stained the gloves were? Wow that would have been all over my hands.

Proper Butternut Squash Handling technique - Latex
Squash residue on gloves - great protection barrier


BTW - don't you just love the mushroom tiles in my kitchen (NOT!)

All the best - happy growing and cooking.

Today I can't get the sound of jingle bells out of my mind.

Teresa Marie