What is eczema—and how can you treat it?
Keep this itchy, red rash at bay with a dermatologist's advice.
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Everyone can relate to experiencing skin irritation, however minor or major it may seem at the time. One of the most common skin conditions is eczema, which presents itself as a dry, red, and often itchy rash anywhere on the body. It’s not usually serious, but it can certainly cause discomfort and requires special treatment.
To better understand what causes eczema and how to treat it, we spoke with Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City.
What is eczema?
In the most basic terms, eczema is a form of sensitive skin. Also called atopic dermatitis, eczema appears as a red rash on the skin and it may feel itchy, dry, scaly or bumpy, depending on how irritated it is. Eczema is chronic for some, meaning it’s long lasting and recurring, but others only experience it sporadically. Eczema symptoms can begin as young as infancy and may fade throughout childhood or last through adulthood, according to the National Eczema Association.
What causes eczema?
For some people, eczema is a result of having an incurable deficiency in filaggrin, a protein in the skin, which is the result of a genetic mutation. The lack of filaggrin causes the skin to struggle to retain water, leading to dryness. For others, eczema results from irritants like allergens, some soaps, or even just cold, dry weather.
In either case, specific triggers may cause the symptoms to appear. “A lot of people flare up during the winter months because it’s cold outside, there’s a lot of dry heat, there’s less moisture and humidity in the air, [and] people tend to take long, hot showers because it’s cold outside,” says Friedler. On the other hand, heat can aggravate eczema, too, especially if you spend time in hot or sweaty spaces, like a gym.
While you may not be able to avoid hot or cold temperatures, there are avoidable triggers, like taking hot showers or using too much soap, as both of these things dry out the skin. Friedler explains: “The longer you spend in the water, the more your skin loses its natural oils and you can’t replace your skin’s natural oils with a regular moisturizer. [...] If you’re using a strong, harsh soap, that will also remove a lot of oil from the skin.”
To limit the amount of soap you use and your time in the shower, Friedler recommends only using soap on areas of the body that may be dirty or smelly, like the armpits or groin, and to rinse off everything else with lukewarm water. If you prefer a deeper clean, say, after a workout, try to keep your shower time under 10 minutes and look for a body wash labeled with “sensitive skin,” such as the Dove Sensitive Skin Nourishing Body Wash. This mild wash is hypoallergenic and claims to moisturize the skin while cleansing it.
How do you treat eczema in the winter?
The most important habit aside from perhaps modifying how you shower is to moisturize as soon as you’re out. Friedler recommends using a cream or an ointment, as both are thicker than lotions, while your skin is still damp. “You want to lock in some of that moisture so you can pat yourself dry and leave a little bit of water still on the skin and that's when you get on your moisturizers,” she says.
The Cerave Moisturizing Cream is a great post-shower option, with hyaluronic acid that hydrates the skin and ceramides that protect the skin barrier. If your skin is very dry, consider applying Aquaphor Healing Ointment all over or at least on the eczema-prone areas. The ointment moisturizes and creates a sealant over the skin with ingredients like petrolatum, mineral oil, lanolin alcohol, and panthenol.
In addition to adding one of these moisturizers into your routine, Friedler recommends using a humidifier to add moisture back into the dry air. Reviewed’s favorite is the Vicks V745A, which can run all night and produces as much steam as a hot shower, but with half as much water and energy.
How do you treat eczema in the summer?
While you should still avoid harsh soaps and moisturize regularly during warm months, the irritants that trigger eczema in the winter are different in the summer. If you know your eczema flares up in the heat, keep it at bay by wearing cotton fabrics that breathe or wicking fabrics that keep moisture away from your skin. It may seem counterintuitive to draw moisture away after moisturizing your skin, but overheating and staying in damp, sweaty clothing may only irritate your skin more.
When the weather is warmer, skin tends to be less dry, but you should still moisturize eczema-prone skin. Swap out a thick cream or ointment for a lotion, which has a lighter consistency. A great pick is the Eucerin Advanced Repair Lotion because it moisturizes with ingredients like glycerin and shea butter, protects the skin barrier with ceramides, and leaves a non-greasy finish.
When should you see a dermatologist?
It’s never a bad idea to consult your dermatologist about your skin, particularly if you have questions or concerns about a condition. If your eczema is painful or you’re having difficulty controlling the dryness or itchiness, that’s the time to lean on your doctor. For the itch, your dermatologist may suggest you try an over-the-counter antihistamine, like Allegra or Zyrtec, or they may prescribe you steroid or steroid-free topical products that can calm down the rash more effectively than a normal moisturizer.
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