This chronic skin condition can be tricky to deal with and comes with a ton of discomfort, but we’re here to help. This guide will cover everything you need to know about eczema, from what causes it to how you can manage flare-ups. So let’s get started!
Atopic vs. Contact Eczema
Eczema, or dermatitis, is a general term for a group of inflammatory skin conditions that result in dry, itchy, and scaly skin. There are two main types of eczema: atopic and contact.
Atopic eczema (also called atopic dermatitis) is the most common form of the condition and usually starts in childhood. It’s a chronic condition, which can last for many years, or even a lifetime. Atopic eczema can be caused by both genetic and environmental factors, such as early exposure to hard water, detergents, soaps, and shampoos. It’s also often associated with other atopic conditions such as asthma and hay fever.
Contact eczema, on the other hand, is caused by an allergic reaction to a particular substance, such as fragrance, dyes, nickel, or latex. It usually affects a small area of skin that has come into direct contact with the allergen and can occur at any point during life. However, once the skin becomes sensitive to a particular component, this can sometimes trigger a chain of events where the skin will continue to react even after the allergen has been removed. This is usually a sign of a weakened skin barrier that's less effective in protecting the inner layers of the skin from irritants and allergens.
The Most Common Causes of Eczema
Eczema can manifest itself on the skin due to all sorts of reasons. However, there are a few common eczema triggers that are worth noting.
Cosmetics such as skincare and makeup products that contain ingredients such as fragrance or other fragrant components like essential oils, preservatives, and dyes can irritate the skin and trigger eczema.
Steroids or corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory medicines used to treat a range of inflammatory conditions, including eczema. Although they may be helpful for short-term eczema flare-ups, long-term use of steroids can actually lead to a condition known as TSW or Topical Steroid Withdrawal. This is a relatively newly observed side effect that results from frequent and long-term use of potent steroids and develops within days to weeks after stopping the medication.
TSW manifests itself as a worsening rash that can spread well beyond the original affected area and can be extremely painful and uncomfortable, requiring stronger and more frequent application of topical steroids to control it. While dermatologists are starting to advise against excessive use of steroids for eczema, some people may find themselves in a difficult position if they've been using them for long enough and suddenly experience TSW.
Selenium is a crucial mineral for skin health, as its activity helps the antioxidant activities of glutathione peroxidase, which helps protect our tissues and skin from inflammation and free radical damage. A selenium deficiency can thus lead to increased inflammation and eczema flare-ups, as well as other inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and acne.
The liver is a serious workforce responsible for hundreds of undiscovered chemical functions that are critical for our health. One of its most important functions is to purify and filter out harmful substances, including toxins, pesticides, insecticides, etc. Yet, due to our overexposure to environmental toxins and substances loading our liver, such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol, etc., this elimination cannot happen as effectively as it should.
An overloaded liver can lead to a whole host of health and skin problems, including eczema.
Therefore, heavy metals and lingering bacteria in our bodies can then lead to sluggish liver, inflammation, and a whole host of health and skin problems, including eczema, acne, and rosacea. So, to reduce a toxic liver load that might even help clear up your skin conditions, try to stay away from inflammatory foods as much as possible, and eat plenty of liver-supporting foods such as leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, garlic, ginger, etc.
What To Avoid When Experiencing Eczema Flare-Ups
While different things may be triggers for different people when it comes to eczema flare-ups, there are some general things you should try to avoid if you want to keep your skin calm and comfortable.
Hot showers may be the most enjoyable thing to do in winter, but they’re definitely not helping your eczema flare-ups. And since eczema also tends to flare up during cold and dry months, it's best to keep your shower routine short if you can't shower with lukewarm water instead.
Detergents and harsh cleansing agents often found in store-bought soaps and shower gels can further dry out and irritate your skin, so it's best to avoid them during eczema flare-ups and opt for something gentler instead. Especially avoid excessive use of harsh soap on areas like the face, elbows, knees, and hands, as this is where eczema is most likely to flare up.
In fact, handwashing-induced eczema has been on a steady rise since 2020, as most people have been washing their hands more frequently due to the pandemic. And while washing your hands is essential to good hygiene, you can always make better choices when it comes to the products you're using.
Product To Try: Cetaphil – Gentle Skin Cleanser, $12
Fragranced Cosmetic Products
Fragrance or heavily fragrant cosmetic products are the world's most common cause of contact eczema. This is because what you see written as "fragrance" on a product's ingredient list may actually be over 50 different fragrant components that are placed together as one word and have been linked to various health problems such as asthma and allergies, besides eczema and skin irritations.
Many people who have never had eczema before have started developing it after years of using heavily fragranced cosmetic products. So, while we all want that experience of using a nice-smelling product, it's best to avoid anything that is heavily fragranced in general, but especially during eczema flare-ups.
Waxing can be quite painful and irritate the skin, which is why it's best to avoid it if you have eczema. If you absolutely must wax, make sure to gently exfoliate your skin before the waxing session to remove any dead skin cells that could further irritate your skin, and wax around the affected area. Here are some other options for hair removal besides waxing.
Eczema is an inflammatory condition that can be triggered by certain foods, especially if you have food allergies or intolerance, which is why following a low-reactivity diet can help you get this condition under control. While some of the most common offending foods are sugar, refined carbs, gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, seafood, and nuts, diet and nutrition are complex, and different things may trigger different people. This is why it might be best to work with a qualified nutritionist or dietitian to try and identify possible food triggers.
Eczema can be triggered by foods you’re allergic or sensitive to.
You can also try to keep track of how your body reacts to different foods and make adjustments as you go along. This might take a while, but it's important to dedicate the time and effort to find the right diet, as it can make all the difference when it comes to managing your eczema.
7 Ways To Manage Eczema Flare-Ups
Unfortunately, eczema is a type of condition that can never be fully treated because it can be triggered or worsened by many factors, so you can never know whether you've fully gotten rid of it. That said, there are certain things you can do to manage eczema flare-ups and help your skin heal faster when they do occur.
1. Keep Track of Triggers
The first and most important thing you need to do if you’re dealing with chronic eczema is to keep track of the triggers that make your condition flare up. Whether this is a single ingredient in your skincare or makeup products such as fragrance, or a food group like dairy, it’s important to be aware of what sets off your eczema, as this will help you avoid flare-ups in the future.
One way to keep track of your triggers is to keep a “trigger diary.” This is simply a notebook in which you record every time you have a flare-up, what you were doing or eating beforehand, and any other relevant information, such as the weather, stress levels, etc., that will help you discover patterns and identify your triggers.
Eczema triggers are difficult to pinpoint, and there's always more than one element involved; therefore, it might take a while until you find your specific triggers, but be patient, and in the meantime, try to stick to a low-reactivity diet, simple beauty routines, and a stress-less lifestyle.
2. Don't Scratch
Anyone who deals with eczema knows how big of a relief it is to scratch that itch. However, what feels good in the moment will only worsen your eczema in the long run by damaging the skin barrier and leading to more inflammation, redness, and itchiness.
Bleeding due to excessive scratching is an incredibly common occurrence for eczema sufferers, but you have to remember that this can potentially lead to infections that require hospitalization in some cases.
If you find it difficult to resist the urge to scratch, try to find other ways to soothe your itch, such as using a cooling gel or cream, placing a cold compress on the affected area, pressing hard with your fingers, or taking a short, cold shower.
3. Avoid Stress
As someone who's dealing with a common inflammatory condition that gets flared up during times of stress, I can tell you from experience that stress is one of the worst triggers for inflammation that manifests itself on the skin. Therefore, you have to find ways to manage your stress levels if you want to get your eczema under control. This might mean setting healthy boundaries at work, learning to meditate, or taking up a relaxing hobby that will help your general health and wellbeing. The important thing is to do whatever works for you and to make your mental health a priority.
4. Moisturize on Damp Skin
A great inflammation-relieving technique when dealing with eczema flare-ups is to use a heavy-duty moisturizer on damp skin. Don't immediately use a towel after having a shower or washing your face. Instead, give your skin a couple of minutes to become damp, and apply your fragrance-free moisturizer or body lotion to the inflamed area.
Product To Try: Grahams Natural C+ – Eczema and Dermatitis Cream, $20
5. Use Barrier-Repairing Skincare Products
Barrier-repairing skincare products can be incredibly helpful when dealing with eczema flare-ups as they help soothe the skin and restore its natural barrier. A strong skin barrier is able to better retain moisture instead of becoming dry and irritated, and it also has the "equipment," a.k.a lipids, to deal with inflammation better.
Use barrier-repairing skincare products that contain ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.
In fact, it's been observed that patients with eczema have a compromised skin barrier and altered lipids, meaning these components are less effective in protecting the skin from inflammation, so using barrier-repairing skincare products that contain ingredients such as ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids can be incredibly helpful.
Product To Try: La Roche-Posay – Cicaplast Baume B5, $16
6. Try Exfoliating Shampoos
If you’re dealing with scalp eczema, trying a gentle and soothing shampoo might help relieve some of that unbearable itchiness and flakiness. Exfoliating shampoos, in particular, can help remove the layers of dead skin on your scalp, which can help reduce flare-ups. Make sure to use a very gentle exfoliating shampoo as anything too fragranced or harsh might further irritate your skin.
Product To Try: Briogeo – Scalp Revival Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-exfoliating Scalp Scrub Shampoo, $42
7. Wear Mineral Sunscreen
Sunscreen is absolutely essential if you’re dealing with eczema flare-ups. While eczema isn't necessarily caused by excessive exposure to sunlight, there is something called "photosensitive eczema," which is a condition that affects a small percentage of people and causes the skin to react to sunlight in a negative way resulting in a flare-up. Therefore, make sure to choose a gentle, mineral sunscreen free of fragrance and other fragrant components such as essential oils that might further irritate the skin. Mineral sunscreens also contain zinc, which is an anti-inflammatory agent that can help soothe and repair the skin.
Product To Try: EltaMD UV Elements Tinted Broad-Spectrum SPF 44, $39
Eczema can be a tough challenge to live with, and this is only made worse by the fact that you can never know whether you've fully treated it because it can reappear at any time. Even though you can't truly cure eczema, you can manage it effectively and heal flare-ups quickly by following the tips and advice in this guide.
Do you have any other tips or advice that could help someone heal their eczema flare-ups? Share them with us in the comments section below!
Help make Evie even better! Take the official Evie reader survey.