Bar Rot

Eeewwwwww!!! WTF is it?

You corporate suits don’t have to worry about this issue too much.  At worst, your occupational hazards are going to be making your sales numbers for the quarter so that you don’t lose your monthly car stipend, and still have a shot of making Executive V.P., partner or something like that.

Blue collar bar folk, on the other hand, are incessantly getting their hands wet, then drying them, handling dirty ass cash, clutching acidic lemons and limes, shaking other peoples’ dirty ass hands, washing in soapy water, sanitizing agent laden water, blaa blaa blaa…  What this all results in is Bar Rot – also known as Paronychia.

These environmental factors all slowly remove the natural protective oils on your hands and invade the outer layers causing cracks, open wounds and eventually, infection.   Frequent fruit cutting responsibilities poses additional risk of nicks and cuts.  Those nicks and cuts often get infected for a lot of the same reasons.

Check out this lovely gash – directly on the tip. Try getting that to heal while bartending – it takes weeks/months.

It’s happened to me countless times.  Unfortunately, life must go on.  Most of the time, I’ll try to keep it clean, slap a Band-Aid on it, or even try a finger condom.  You do have food handling safety to be concerned about – but they look like dung.  A couple of times, I’ve been cut so bad on the job that I’ve had to have copious amounts of gauze and first-aid tape wrapped around my finger only to continue to serve drinks. It looks even worse.

Unfortunately, finger condoms and Band Aids make it really, really hard to count money among other bartending tasks.  We do our best even with injuries.  Unlike a regular job, there is really no calling in sick.  Call in sick, and you don’t get paid!  

Now here’s the worst part:  if you don’t keep the wound clean and dry, you often wind up with a crazy ass, puss-filled infection.  Check out this beauty on the right.

Even without a visible cut, you can get infected from the activities described earlier.  Typically, the infection occurs at the edge of the fingernails somewhere usually as a result of pushed down, damaged or weak cuticles.  Within a couple of days, the fingertips will get all swollen and start hurting really, really bad.  If you don’t take care of it one way or another, you’ll wind up at the doctor.  If it’s bad and McDreamy deems it’s too far gone to treat with antibiotics alone, you’ll have to get all the puss drained which involves shots, meds, and (gulp) a scalpel! Yuck!  Don’t neglect it. If you do, you can lose a fingernail or worse.

So what’s a bartender to do?  Well, you can’t avoid all the factors that lead to effed up hands, cuts and bar rot.  Bartending by profession will screw up your hands big time.

What you can do is try to keep from directly touching lemons and limes; that will help the most as the Citric Acid they contain are the biggest factors eating and drying out your skin.  Use a tong, bar toothpicks or whatever if you can.  The problem with this, obviously, is the difficulty in doing so increases exponentially with how busy you are.  When the bar is three deep, these recommendations are useless.  You can’t avoid the washing your hands, washing glasses, handling money and shaking hands so forget that.

I do recommend moisturizing several times a night.  Do not directly touch condiments right after moisturizing.  Also, stay away from fragrant and oily lotions while working.  I’ve tried dozens of moisturizers over the years with varying results.  Today, I stick to these two - O’Keefe’s Working Hand or Carmex.


They’re both relatively inexpensive, go on easy, are mostly odorless, last a good long time, actually aid in healing and most importantly, do so without being overly greasy.  They make your hands look and feel fantastic.

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12 thoughts on “Bar Rot

  1. As for those cuts and nicks…have you tried the band-aid glue stuff? Can get it at Walmart/Walgreens etc. and it is water-proof. I haven’t had any bad nicks yet, so I haven’t tested it in the case of bartending…But it should help seal up pretty good, I’ve used it before bartending and it works wonders as far as that goes…it can sting when applying it though.

    • Yeah. I’ve tried it. It’s effectiveness tends to depend on how active you are with the wound area and especially how much you get it wet (i.e., re-immerse it in citrus juice and wash water).

      The key to getting rid of bar rot, like other wounds, is keeping the infected area treated, clean and DRY. That’s often nearly impossible while trying to actively bartend. Thus, wounds can take an exorbitantly long time to heal. I’ve found the two creams noted in my article make you feel better (less pain) and appear to promote quicker healing.

  2. I just entered training in the bar business and I stumbled on this article. Back in the day, my dad owned a grocery store and I cut meat. I used to get these infections quite often. It is known as Paronychia as you correctly note. I found a simple solution to preventing these problems. at the end of each work day or more frequently, rinse you hands in a mild BLEACH WATER SOLUTION. BLEACH KILLS THE BACTERIA that cause this issue. But not too much bleach dont want to burn your skin.


    • We do use bleach water in the business – particularly at the end of the night. Right as you are in that it kills bacteria (which is why we use it for final surface cleaning, drains, sinks, etc) it’s probably good at SURFACE bacteria. It’s not going help you much once crap has entered your meat or bloodstream after hours on the job. At that point, you’re going to praying to the alter of White Blood Cells or even antibiotics. In extreme infection cases, you may even need surgical incision and relief along with meds.

      Furthermore, even a mild bleach/water solution will irritate your skin. Given a significant amount of time with said solution, your skin will be robbed of oil and begin to dry/crack. You’re far better off with gloves. “Not too much” is quite arbitrary. It’s not unusual to use an ounce (or about a cap full) of bleach per half-gallon of water.

  3. I use a hemp hand protector…about $20/tube from the body shop. My cuticles tend to split especially during the winter time anf this is the best I’ve found. Using a tea tree oil extract helps too

  4. I’m glad I found this article because I don’t like to talk/complain about my weird little (but extremely irritating) hand wounds and now I realize I’m not alone. I was especially thrown off when my fingertip was killing me for like a week and then a bunch of puss came out eventually. This sucks, and yeah, working at a busy bar there’s like nothing you can do about it!

  5. I personally wouldn’t use carmex, it has a crazy chemical in it that can kill you by itself if a quarter of an inch gets on you. I’ve heard white wine vinegar and other solutions work ie leaving a glove on your hand over night with lotion or a home made remedy works great

  6. I work at one of the busiest bars on the las vegas strip, and I like okeef’s working hands while im behind the bar. Makes it easier to count money, we do an insane amount of transactions, wehavealot of grab and go customers. I like carmax when im on lunch break or before and after work. Anyway ive been using these products for years they are the best ive found

  7. Bartend for 9 years now just developed paronychia on my 7th finger so I only have 3 healthy ones. Comforting knowing I’m not the only one, but noticed it has a lot to do with the sanitizer and glass cleaner packets I use in each sink. I’ve worked at country clubs where we had a dishwasher so the machine did the work, but at the job I’m at now in 7 months developed this disease on 2 more fingers! I’ve tried everything possible! It must be the chemical packets. It’s depressing, embarrassing , gross, painful mostly when the skins rips open. Idk what to do anymore! :( hate this

  8. One of the best tips I got to help heal already cracked and bar rotting fingertips is to use superglue to seal your fingertips. It will keep them dry and clean and it is safe and sanitary.

    • I was never a bartender but a meatcutter and I used to get paronchyia all the time. I found an effective simple preventative measure. After your shift or even frequently as you work, rinse your hands in a very mild bleach water solution! Bleach kills the bacteria causing this painful condition. hg

  9. I’ve had this issue 2wice with infection and puss under my it’s my cuticle is raised and red swollen..I’m a waitress on las vegas strip and work with alot of lemons..I feel it eats my cuticle..having a problem now with red and swollen and receding from my nail bed..but I’ve soaked with epsom salt and have been noticing a big difference..

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