The Beginner’s Guide To Eczema

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
For those of us living with eczema, dry, flaky, and scaly skin has become a part of life we dread just as much — if not more — than the cold, dry weather that can induce it. But, many of us are left wondering: What actually is eczema? Is it chronic? Did I bring it on myself? Could someone have given it to me? (Let’s just clear that last one up right now: No.) If I do have eczema, what exactly can I do about it?
With the driest and coldest portion of the winter season approaching, we decided to answer those questions and more. Sitting down with experts on the matter — that’s two dermatologists and one aesthetician, thank you very much — we found out the basics of the condition, plus a little info on how to effectively treat it so it goes away for good. Read on for our tips and tricks on living with the itch that never seems to go away. And, if you have any tips you’ve picked up yourself, feel free to drop us a line in the comments.
What is eczema?
According to David Colbert, MD, dermatologist, and founder of ColbertMD and the New York Dermatology Group, “[Eczema is] dry, flaky skin that’s lost the ability to maintain moisture.” Simple enough. To you, it might be just a lot of dry skin when the cold sets in, or a more serious case that causes you physical pain when a brisk wind whips by. Thankfully, you can manage all of it.
What causes it?
Think of it this way: Your body is a temple. “If you think of the body as a fortress, and you think of the wall of your fortress as the outermost moisture barrier, that wall needs to be properly pH-balanced and strong so our skin will be healthy,” says Jeannette Graf, MD, a dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. But, as life happens — and when we say "life," we mean hot showers, scraping our skin, scratching it, and slathering on harsh products — this barrier becomes weaker, which makes holding in moisture much more difficult. The inability to retain water leads to everything from dry skin to inflammation. The key to treating it is pretty simple: Strengthen your own barrier, or apply a new barrier to reduce flare-ups.
Photo: Via Dermstore.
So, what does the doctor prescribe?
Take a new approach to your showers. Dr. Graf says to put on a four-minute song while you’re standing under the lukewarm — never hot — water, and when it’s done, get out. Pat yourself dry, and immediately moisturise using a product with built-in lipids, so they can restore your skin's barrier, like Avène XeraCalm. Also, make sure to grab a barrier-protecting soap or body wash. (We love Dove DermaSeries.)
Also, it's wise to invest in a humidifier for your space (and even a mini one for your desk). Anything you can do to add humidity and moisture to the air — especially when the drying heat is cranked up in office spaces and apartments — will help. (Bonus: These Stadler models are chic enough to display.)
Finally, stop the scratching. It's only going to beget more itching. Not to mention, you’re going to open up your skin, making it more prone to infection. If you do scratch until an area is sore or bleeding, we love Medicine Mama's Sweet Bee Magic, which contains healing propolis extract to help reduce inflammation and quell itching.
What exactly should I avoid?
Though this will vary from person to person, dairy products, sugar, and excessive amounts of gluten and carbs can contribute to flare-ups. (We know.) If you’re going for milk, opt for coconut instead (more hydrating!). And, if it so moves you, the doctors recommend trying out some supplements. We’re talking vitamins A, C, and E, as well as omegas. Aesthetician Cecilia Wong suggests adding blueberries, strawberries, raspberries (yes, all the berries), and chlorophyll, to your diet.
As far as cleansers and toners, make sure they don't contain alcohol, says Wong. "That really just dries the skin out,” she says. “One of the most important things is your toner, because those have so much alcohol in them and so many other drying ingredients.” Fragranced products could also cause issues.
What at-home remedies can I use?
Sometimes, you find yourself in a pinch — scraping the bottom of your jar of body cream, and begging for sweet relief. Thankfully, there's a DIY for that! (In fact, we've got two.)
The first is an exfoliating mask from Wong, who has been making masks to quell her own skin-care problems since she was 14. Exfoliating once a week is important, since it sloughs away all the dead skin cells, she notes, but the key is utilising a mild enzyme. Mash two to three blueberries and/or raspberries in a bowl, and stir them in with organic Greek yogurt. Apply this to your face as a DIY exfoliant (it's also chock-full of probiotics), and after 10 minutes, rinse it off with water.
There's also a slightly more involved option. (There always is, isn't it?) The Saran-wrap skin treatment (hat tip to aesthetician Kerry Benjamin) calls for an occlusive and a humectant. I tested this using a moisturiser rich in hyaluronic acid as my humectant, putting petroleum jelly on top. Apply your elixir of choice, and then put some wrap on top of that (it should cling to the moisturised skin). When you pull it off (you can leave it in overnight), you'll be able to truly feel the hydration.

Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page!

More from Skin Care

R29 Original Series