Teat dips are all designed to protect the teat from the environment with various forms of germicide and an even greater variety of conditioning packages. The purpose of teat dipping is to provide a germicide that will kill mastitis-causing germs and apply skin conditioners that keep teat skin and ends healthy.
These are both essential to minimize mastitis risks. So most know and understand what the germicide is, but do you really know the conditioning (or emollient) package? At the dairy level, we all gauge the effectiveness of a conditioning package by the percentage of emollient included; however, there is much more to it than just the percent of conditioners.
So when we look at the conditioning package, what exactly does that consist of? There are a variety of products used as conditioners in teat dips. Glycerin, propylene glycol, lanolin, aloe, sorbitol, and more. So how do we know which one is best or what mix of them brings the most benefit? This is the reason we look to the total percentage of emollient in our dip. It’s easier to explain and allows us to categorize our dips despite the variety of conditioners or disinfecting properties. The details can be overwhelming, so we rely on the manufacturers/suppliers to give us the best product for our needs. But there are some basic ways to understand more about the conditioning, giving you good questions to ask of your teat dip providers.
A good way of understanding this is to look at the cosmetic industry. In 2019, the skincare industry totaled $532 billion dollars. I know we are not spending all that money just for vanity’s sake. There are actually a few basic needs met in most of these beauty products, and we can carry these over to the dairy cow’s needs as well. The need for softer skin, hydrating or moisturizing properties, soothing feeling, and/or healing of damaged tissue are a few common issues related to skin conditioning. We use our teat dips to offset the effects of humidity, harsh environmental conditions, damage from milking systems, and sometimes even genetics. Now we can work to better each of these areas individually, giving our cows a better experience, but we still need conditioners for the factors we cannot change.
So what is an emollient? It is defined as having the power of softening or relaxing. As a medicinal substance, it is soothing to the skin. We use this term almost exclusively in our industry; however, many of the products listed above are actually humectants. What is the difference? An emollient is a material that soothes and softens the skin ... humectants have an affinity for molecules of water; therefore, they are hydrating agents since they attract moisture to the skin. Moisturizers hydrate the skin.
Glycerin is the most-used humectant in teat dips. With the properties of being able to draw moisture from the air to the skin, it is a great benefit to the teat skin. Much of the time, a glycerin conditioner dip can do the job efficiently. But what about when the air is lacking moisture? You can actually in those instances draw the moisture away from the teat into the air. This is where an emollient like lanolin can save the day. Humectant ingredients actually pull moisture in. Lanolin itself is not a humectant. It can trap water once the teat skin is wet. Lanolin is classified as an emollient and an occlusive moisturizer, which means it has the ability to slow water loss from the skin, acting as a protectant.
Going back to the skincare world again, we can gain a better understanding of the differences by looking at human moisturizers. The ingredients in moisturizers are often divided into occlusive agents, humectants and emollients. Occlusive agents physically prevent or retard water loss. Emollients soften or soothe the skin by filling spaces between skin flakes and creating a smooth skin surface. A humectant attracts and retains the moisture in the air nearby via absorption, drawing the water vapor into or beneath the organism’s or object’s surface. Keep in mind, each of these in itself under average conditions can bring the control of the teat condition you desire. It’s when your conditions start to see stressors that it becomes important to understand your environment as well as the conditioners you want to use.
Having the right ingredients for the conditions you are battling is important. Is it humidity that has dropped, and you need to replace moisture in the skin tissue? Think about how dry and cracked your hands or feet can get in the winter, especially if they are exposed to wet conditions and then the dry winter air regularly. The same conditions affect cows’ teats. Dry, cracked teats can easily harbor more bacteria and keep the teat sphincter from closing as quickly and completely as healthy teats. In this case, having something that will aid in replacing lost oils and bring more moisture into the skin is key. Or do you have an extremely damp and wet environment? This is when the barrier protecting properties is important. Has there been irritation from milking equipment failure or an improper procedure? The soothing need is greatest now. Did the bedding conditions get out of hand and cause damage to the teat tissue? Healing properties need to be at the forefront of your solution for these conditions. So many factors go into affecting the teat condition that it cannot always be just “a good high-emollient dip” that will keep your teats looking great. Limiting the stress factors on the teat, combined with the right dip, will make teats healthier.
Never add extra conditioners to dip on your own. The saying “too much of a good thing” can hold true with some emollients. Formulation matters. The wrong combination could cause more harm than good by reducing the kill of your dip package or by actually pulling moisture from the teat rather than the air. Check with your manufacturing representative as to the proper formulations and quantities.
Having the right emollient package can sometimes be viewed as too expensive. Yes, there is a cost to more conditioning properties, but if you take the time to plan for what you need, most of it can be easily managed. When it comes to the overall cost of teat damage and the related costs in mastitis, lost milk and possibly losing additional lactations of a cow, the money adds up quickly. To keep your costs in check, do regular re-evaluations of your current top need for teat condition. If you are in a part of the country that sees strong seasonal changes, re-evaluate with every season. Fill the need before it becomes a problem. You and your cows will have a lot less stress in doing so.