While I'm Still in the Churl-Free Mood: #5, Tecnu!

By James Fallows

I mean to bring this up at the beginning of every summer, and it always keeps getting put off. So I'll do it now: if I had my own Nobel Prize for chemistry to award, I would give it to Dr. Robert Smith of Oregon, in recognition of his genius in inventing Tecnu. [Update: I should say the late Dr. Smith, since he died at 88 last November. That would be disqualifying for the actual Nobel prizes but not for mine.]

If you don't care about poison ivy (or its western counterpart, poison oak) -- if there's none where you live, if it doesn't bother you -- you can stop reading now. Otherwise, gaze in admiration at the Tecnu giant-size bottle I keep on hand between April and November, shown below ready for action inches away from a bathroom sink, and follow along if you will:

Thumbnail image for TechNu.jpgI feel very lucky in the general health category, and perhaps in karmic atonement I am pathologically sensitive to poison ivy and similar plants. I don't even need to touch them; walking within a foot or so of their leaves can lead to trouble. One of the few public-health benefits for me of living in China is that poison ivy didn't seem to exist there. Or at least not in places I visited, since otherwise I would have known via instant outbreaks of boils and inflammation. The pictures at the gruesome Poison-Ivy.org site are not of me. But I know how the Job-like victims shown there feel.

Poison ivy (with its related Toxicodendron plants) is a specific challenge in some places I frequent around DC, notably the otherwise-perfect running paths along the C&O Canal. And it's on on the march nearly everywhere, thanks to greenhouse gases. Predictably, it thrives on extra CO2.

Comes now Tecnu. It is part of America's endowment from the Cold War years. As the Tec Lab company history says:

>>Tec Labs' flagship product is Tecnu Original Outdoor Skin Cleanser.  Tecnu was originally developed in 1960, during the cold war years, by chemical engineer Dr. Robert Smith as an effective, waterless cleanser capable of removing radioactive dust [!!!] from skin and clothing.

His wife accidentally discovered that Tecnu would cleanse poison plant oils after exposure to poison oak in their own backyard. She didn't want their children to keep suffering from the plants so she went out back and pulled them out with her bare hands, even though she knew she was highly allergic to poison oak and ivy.  She decided to clean up with Tecnu afterwards and it worked for her.

Years later, Dr. Smith's son, Steven Smith, researched and found out that poison oak was the number one workers comp claim for local utility workers in the summer. He began selling Tecnu as a solution to decrease workers comp claims.<<
Now it's mainly available through forestry-supply outlets or direct from the manufacturer. If you use it to wash your skin as soon as possible after you're near poison ivy, it really does the job. Within an hour or two of exposure, a Tecnu bath amounts to a "cure." The longer you wait, the more of a head start the poison ivy gets. But at any stage it helps.

Don't thank me; thank Dr. Smith. Well, you can thank me too. Back to bad news soon.

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