Pacific poison oak – also known as Toxicodendron diversilobum – is the most common representative of the genus Toxicodendron in Western Oregon.
It grows as a vine or a sizable shrub with dark green, shiny, lobate leaves arranged in threesomes with the middle leaf slightly longer. It can be found mostly in wooded areas of the Pacific coast. Unlike the pointy leaves of poison ivy, poison oak’s leaves have round tips. It may also have small white flowers in the spring or green berries in the summer. Around late August, the leaves turn red and eventually fall off leaving only twigs.
Besides Pacific poison oak, Toxicodendrons also include Atlantic poison oak, and all the species and subspecies of eastern and western poison ivy, as well as poison sumac, wax tree, and Chinese lacquer.
What makes them so troublesome? All those plants contain urushiol, an oil that is also present in the shells of cashews and the peel of mango.
When oxidized, urushiol attaches itself to large proteins. That combo will cause a delayed allergic response in about 80% of people. The reaction can be as insignificant as redness and as severe as large blisters hanging from the skin, usually requiring steroid treatment. It usually takes between two and 48 hours to develop a reaction which can then last for weeks.
Because of the delayed allergic response, you may not realize having been in contact with poison oak. Historically, a topical use of calamine lotion, baking soda soaks, or oatmeal baths have been recommended to alleviate the symptoms.
A Local Cure for the Common Rash
For those allergic to poison oak, who can’t avoid the plant – gardeners, landscapers, curious hikers, and parents of free-roaming pets – there is a remedy. It is called Tecnu, and it’s produced locally. Washing one’s skin with Tecnu liquid immediately after contact will prevent most reactions.
This skin cleanser/scrub was originally developed during the Cold War by chemical engineer Robert Smith. Originally used as a general wash to remove fallout from the skin and sold in five-gallon buckets to bomb shelter owners in the sixties, there was not a lot of need for its intended use.
Smith’s wife Evelyn, severely allergic to urushiol, discovered that the product was very effective in removing the oil from the skin and thus prevented the development of a rash.
An Oregon Lab was Born
With his second degree in Business from Oregon State University in hand, Robert Smith decided to create Tec Labs in Albany to produce and sell his newly packaged poison oak scrub. Things went well for them in Albany, and although Robert Smith passed away in 2010, their business continues on, selling nationwide, with their sons at the helm.
Tec Labs has developed new products over the years as well. There’s Tecnu Original, which according to Tec Labs Marketing has “stood the test of time” and can be used not only on your skin but on “your clothing, tools, and even your pets.”
Then there is Tecnu Extreme which can be used as an all-over body wash. Tec Labs employee Courtney Pouliot says, “Tecnu Extreme will gently exfoliate the skin and effectively remove poison ivy oil.”
If you’ve already developed a reaction to something, Pouliot says that Tec Labs’ Calagel Anti-Itch and Tecnu Rash Relief are the products to look for.
When asked about any issues for Tec Labs during the pandemic, Pouliot says, “We saw far more people getting outside to enjoy the beautiful outdoors, and thus finding themselves needing our products. While dealing with poison oak, ivy, or other outdoor itches is never fun, we love that we are able to help people overcome those issues.”
Tecnu products are available in Corvallis at Bi-Mart and, of course, at First Alternative Co-op.