How Fashion Helped Me Come To Terms With My Eczema

Before my recent move to New York City, I’d lived all my life in Puerto Rico where the seasons are summer, summer, summer, and summer. More like, I lived in a 365-day allergy season loop where my skin couldn’t catch a break from pollen or the humidity. For as long as I can remember, I've struggled with a combination of eczema and allergies, which means that throughout the years, I’ve tried every skin-care product, medication, and homeopathic remedy to make my skin smoother and less flaky. And through it all, I’ve tried to hide. Yep, this island gal wore jeans, long sleeves, maxi-everything, and lots of black. Basically, all the garments, and in a color palette, that most dermatologists — including all of mine — would specifically advise against. You might think of my home as a carefree vacation spot, but I spent every day there fighting against my wardrobe.

Growing up with eczema
in a society where perceived imperfections — especially visible ones, like flaky or red skin — are called out, often painfully so, messed with my self-confidence and personal style choices. I believed deep down that fashion is a great avenue for self-expression, but in practice, I struggled with self-doubt. How can I possibly express myself when my body feels so itchy and looks so raw? And with every visit to the dermatologist, it seemed like it would be my curse forever: “You’re in this for the long run,” the doc would say.

As much as I wanted to listen, cooperate, and heed my dermatologist's advice, I did the exact opposite: I covered it all up. When I really wanted to wear that short sundress that my mom got me, I opted for black jeans and a light, black sweater, and when I wore a spaghetti-strapped maxi-dress, I would top if off with a denim jacket. Showing skin was never an option. Yes, I had been told that sunlight can clear up eczema, but I didn’t want anyone to see my skin in the first place, so I didn't let it see the sun. But all this covering up made me sweaty, which made me itch, which made me scratch, which made it all worse. It was my catch-22: I wanted to hide the condition of my skin under clothing, but the clothing itself was preventing my skin from healing.

For a while, I couldn't even look at myself when trying on clothes in a fitting room. And even though I thought I was happy with my styling choices, my skin wasn’t. I wanted to let it breathe, I really did. But I didn't want be ogled at. I didn’t want to explain why my skin wasn’t soft and even. I didn’t want to face the truth: a little sun would help; looks from strangers don’t matter, and I should just really listen to my dermatologist.

Now that I've grown more comfortable in my skin, I can finally say that my dermatologist was my low-key style guru. I still love me a good black ensemble and denim is still an all-time go-to, but I learned to not hide behind fabric, and that fashion can really help you embrace your skin. Sporting summer dresses and showing my arms helped me see that this wasn’t something that I needed to be ashamed of. Along with finally allowing me to find my personal style, it has made me who I am. Now I wear that strappy dress with confidence; I tie the jean jacket around my waist instead of always having it on. (It's much cooler this way — literally.)

Also, it's always nice to know that you’re not alone — and the only way to find that out is by opening up and talking about something that you previously assumed everyone would just judge you for. I mean, even fashion guru Stacy London has psoriasis, and at least four members of the R29 fashion team have now told me they have eczema, too.

Even though I don't have a degree in dermatology, I do have 20-plus years of experience to back this up: Enjoying fashion and dealing with skin woes don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In the slideshow ahead, I spoke with New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, for some tips about how to best dress to manage your eczema, and applied his tips to a few of my favorite outfit combinations. Your summer fashion guide to calmer skin, ahead.
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Sun is your friend, not foe.
“UV light from the sun is actually anti-inflammatory, and can help people with eczema," Dr. Zeichner says. "Tanning and potential sunburns can be very damaging to the skin (leading to skin cancer and premature aging), but you can work with your dermatologist to come up with a plan for controlled exposure to sunlight to help your skin.”

Short rompers are the way to go when you want to let your legs get some sun. Simply pair one with your favorite mules and accessories to create a low-key but striking outfit.

Tie-waist Romper, $118 $89.99, available at J.Crew; Boohoo Ella Brow Cat Eye Sunglasses, $10, available at Boohoo; Latelee Studio Moon Clutch Stripe Denim, $128, available at WConcept; Everlane The Modern Babo, $145, available at Everlane; ASOS Semi Circle Hoop Earrings, $10, available at ASOS.
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Keep it simple and opt for neutrals.
Dr. Zeichner warned me about dyes: “Especially in people with extremely sensitive skin, dyes can cause skin reactions. Breathable athletic fabrics that wick sweat away from the skin are helpful if you are working out. However, dyes used to color synthetic fabrics may cause allergic reactions... [more so] than the dyes used to color natural fabrics, like cotton. If you’re wearing synthetic fabrics directly against the skin, stick to white.”

Avoid flare-ups with a loose and light outfit in natural tones. Plus, wearing a strappy dress in a neutral color means you can opt for bold colors and combinations when it comes to your accessories.

French Connection Imogen Strappy Dress, $71, available at John Lewis; &W Studio Bright Stripe Scarf, $68, available at W Concept; Nike Air Pegasus 92 Sneaker, $100, available at Urban Outfitters; Melissa Joy Manning Gold Drop Earrings, $330 $168, available at The Outnet; Clare V. Flat Clutch, $215, available at Revolve.
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The more cotton, the better.
“The softer the fabric, the better," says Dr. Zeichner. "Cotton or soft linen are great choices for people with eczema. Wool can [also] irritate because the coarse nature of the fibers. Synthetic fabrics like polyester contain tiny fibers that may in fact cause significant irritation to the skin, even though they feel smooth to the hand.”

Almost 100% of my closet staples are made of cotton. Some cute, cotton culottes are perfect for those days when you want to cover up a bit, but still want to let your skin breathe.

Topshop Krew Tee, $30, available at Topshop; Grey Jason Wu Striped Culottes, $495, available at Farfetch; ATP Atelier Rosa Cutout Leather Slides, $220, available Net-A-Porter; (Similar) Mango Front Lapel Backpack, $69.99, available at Mango.

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