The most frustrating thing about eczema isn’t that it appears in dry, flaky patches that make the skin itch like crazy. Or the fact that, after decades of study, researchers still haven't figured out what causes the condition, which is also known as atopic dermatitis. (They do think it’s likely due to a defect in the skin barrier that prevents it from retaining moisture.) No, eczema's real upper hand is that it can be exacerbated by cold weather, high temperatures, and dry climates — so, essentially, any weather at all. The icing on the bummer cake is that there's no known cure for the condition, but that's not to say there's no hope for relief.
“While we cannot cure eczema, we can often control the symptoms with the right skin-care and lifestyle changes,” says Jessica Wu, MD, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and lifelong eczema sufferer. Below, she and New York-based dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD, share their best tips for managing the flareups — no matter what the weather.
Making Good Lifestyle Choices
While there might not be one single thing we can do to make eczema go away forever, there are several things we can do to mitigate flareups. To start, Dr. Wu, who's behind the book Feed Your Face: Younger, Smoother Skin and a Beautiful Body in 28 Delicious Days, suggests keeping a food diary. “Many people with eczema have food allergies or sensitivities, so it helps to keep track of your [reaction to] food,” she says. “See if you can identify which foods make your skin flare up.” Dr. Wu cites dairy, nuts, eggs, and wheat as common triggers for the condition, and salmon and fish-oil supplements as foods that might ease it. She also says that lentils, kidney beans, and red meat rich in zinc act as natural anti-inflammatories.
Another tip from Dr. Wu: Avoid wearing wool. “Wool fibers are like little corkscrews that irritate the nerve endings in your skin,” she says. “If you must wear wool, layer a smooth silk or finely-woven cotton T-shirt underneath.”
Exercising climate control can also do a lot to help regulate reactive skin. “Try to keep a consistent temperature and avoid cold, dry weather as best as possible,” Shah says. That means using a humidifier when air is dry, wearing protective clothing in the cold, and avoiding situations that expose skin to excess moisture, such as taking hot showers, steam baths, saunas, soaks in hot tubs, or engaging in strenuous exercise that leaves you drenched in sweat. Of course, telling someone to avoid entire weather patterns can feel little defeatist, but that’s where strong skin-care habits come in.
Optimize Everyday Skin Care
Let’s get real: There’s no avoiding bathing, and for many, there's no avoiding exposure to cold temperatures — which is why our derms suggest everyday skin-care habits to help compensate for the inevitable. If exposed to hot or cold, both Dr. Shah and Dr. Wu suggest applying a gentle but rich moisturizer onto skin immediately after; Dr. Shah also recommends showering or bathing in lukewarm water for 10 minutes or less, and washing with gentle, non-soap cleansers. Once out of the shower, treat skin to a gentle moisturizer within three minutes after bathing.
“People with eczema have a weak skin barrier, so it helps to apply a rich body oil or body butter immediately after you get out of the shower to seal in moisture and replenish your skin’s natural oils,” Dr. Wu says. She suggests looking for products formulated specifically for eczema and sensitive skin. “One of my favorite brands is SkinFix, which makes products containing natural anti-inflammatory ingredients such as zinc and colloidal oatmeal, so you can feel safe about using them daily, even on your face," she says.
Treating Flareups Like A Pro
The fact is that flareups can strike even when being you're being diligent about regulating skin temperature and moisture. When that happens, “The most important thing is to treat it early, as soon as the itching or rash appears,” Dr. Wu says. “Otherwise, you get into a vicious itch-scratch-itch cycle, and the skin doesn’t have a chance to heal.” That means hitting the inflamed skin with occlusive balms and creams that contain hydrating ingredients like ceramides, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin.
For the treatment of her own eczema flareups, Dr. Wu has also found success with CBD (cannabinoid) products. “This winter, my eczema flared on my lips, so I’ve been using cocoa-scented Vertly lip balm, which contains CBD as well as coconut oil and shea butter,” she says. “CBD has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.”
Dr. Wu also notes that those suffering an flareup while treating blemishes may have to put the later on the back burner for a spell, as skin care formulated for acne can further inflame an eczema patch. “Many acne medications, including retinoids and salicylic acid, tend to exacerbate dryness and irritate eczema,” she says. “Treat them one at a time by clearing up the eczema first, then go back to your acne routine.”
If the above methods aren’t helping to quell flareups, you may need to call for reinforcements. “In that situation, you may need a stronger prescription-strength cream. In my office, I may give patients antihistamine pills, prescription-strength cortisone, and/or non-cortisone creams to put out the fire of an eczema flareup,” Dr. Wu says. "If your eczema weeps and oozes, see a dermatologist who can swab the area to make sure it’s not getting infected.” Sometimes, the pros really do know best, especially when it comes to a complicated, nuanced condition like this one.
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