Eczema is something we can all relate to; chances are you’ve suffered with it yourself, or know someone else who has. In aid of National Eczema Awareness Week (13-21 September), I’ve put together a handy guide to help you to understand and manage the effects of your eczema, or help someone else who is suffering.
The word eczema comes from the Greek word “ekzein”, which means “to boil”, a very apt definition of this irritating and painful skin condition which leaves skin dry, itchy and frequently sore-looking. Atopic eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is the most common form of eczema and the one I’ll be focusing on throughout this guide – although there are at least 7 other types.
Unfortunately, dermatologists are still unsure exactly why eczema occurs in some people and not others, but research has revealed that a combination of genetic and environmental factors does play a part.
What are the symptoms?
Atopic eczema usually begins in early childhood and often clears up as the child grows older (in around 53% of cases), but unfortunately it does follow an unlucky few into adulthood. It affects around 1 in 5 children in the UK, and 1 in 12 adults, and is characterised by itchy, red and dry skin that’s prone to cracking.
One of the most damaging symptoms of eczema is the urge to itch. This need to itch is often unbearable and can lead to sleep loss, frustration and irritability, especially amongst babies and children. Giving in to the itch is the worst thing to do though, as the skin break, leading to bleeding and increased risk of infection.
This often long-term condition usually occurs around joints and in areas with folds of skin (making it extra painful!), such as behind the knees, inside of elbows, around the mouth and under the arms. Those who suffer through this difficult skin condition often have periods of relief from symptoms, which are blighted by sudden and unexpected flare-ups that can leave sufferers living in fear of another attack.
Triggers vary from person to person, and identifying your trigger is often a process of elimination. Some of the most common triggers are:
- Diet – This plays a huge role in skin health, so small changes could have a significant impact. Try and eliminate processed foods and incorporate more fresh fruits, vegetables, pulses and seeds. Eat plenty of foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, fish and nuts. Cut out gluten temporality too as it may be another trigger.
- Dairy – Cow’s milk is undoubtedly the biggest trigger for eczema, so it’s worth cutting it out of your diet temporarily to see if you notice an improvement. Cow’s milk is often quite acidic and sometimes full of hormones which can negatively impact the immune system and aggravate eczema. Try swapping milk for soy, almond, hazelnut or at milk.
- Stress – Minimise stress (though it’s easier said than done!) as this is one of the main eczema triggers for adults. Take some time for yourself to do something relaxing as often as you can – perhaps try meditation – and try and get enough sleep.
- Cosmetics/detergents – Avoid perfumed, soap-based products as they can irritate skin that’s prone to sensitivity. Elininate products with sodium lauryl suflate, a foaming agent that can be drying and irritating on skin, leaving it vulnerable to external aggressions.
Those with mild symptoms can usually treat their eczema fairly easily with various creams and minimal lifestyle adjustments. Whilst that might be exasperating, it pales in comparison to those with severe eczema who find it can have a big impact on their daily life, from struggling to dress without disturbing painful lesions, to being unable to wear any makeup or cosmetics for fear of irritating skin further, or simply being unable to move freely without discomfort.
Skincare specialist Avene commissioned a survey of 1,441 eczema sufferers or parents of children with eczema* to discover the impact it has on their lives with really illuminating results. Amongst many other findings, they discovered that;
- 19% of children have missed school because of their eczema
- 42% of adults feel unattractive due to their eczema
- 81% of sufferers agreed that itching was the most difficult symptom to cope with
- 55% of the adults surveyed said that stress was their greatest trigger
- 40% of adults have woken themselves up in the night to scratch their eczema
- 23% of suffers feel depressed and 22% felt helpless
- 30% of children get upset by their skin
- 15% of parents have bandaged their children’s limbs at night to prevent itching
It’s clear that eczema has a devastating effect, not just physically but also mentally on sufferers lives, so what can be done to improve their symptoms?
How can I treat it?
Eczema can be managed in a number of different ways, but the first thing we recommend you do is visit your doctor for advice as eczema is very subjective and affects everyone differently. In terms of day-to-day management, symptoms can sometimes be eased, improved and prevented by making small lifestyle changes. For instance, it’s generally a good idea to wear cotton (which lets skin breathe, avoiding clamminess) or soft, natural fabrics. Avoid rough scratchy fibres (like wool or heavy denim) and tight clothing to avoid chaffing, rubbing and pulling on sore skin.
Keep your fingernails short to keep from breaking the skin whilst scratching, avoid rapid changes of temperature and activities that make you sweat when possible and try and use a humidifier in dry or cold weather to keep skin calm. Take frequent lukewarm baths and showers, using special soaps and cleansers and be careful to gently pat skin dry – don’t rub or tub. But most importantly learn what your triggers are (cosmetics/detergents/dust/temperature etc.) and ensure you avoid them.
The ultimate key to managing eczema though is to keep the skin moisturised using emollient moisturisers; special creams, ointments, lotions and gels which keep the skin moist and flexible, preventing cracks and dryness. The importance of moisturising should not be overlooked, as maintaining skin hydration and barrier function are vital for healthy skin. There are three main types of moisturisers including:
- Ointments – Semi-solid greases that deeply hydrate the skin by preventing water loss. They’re unbeatable at helping the skin retain moisture, but usually disliked as they are very greasy. Ideal for very dry and thickened skin and they do not contain preservatives
- Creams – Thick mixtures containing a blend of fats and water. They feel light and cool on the skin, and are non-greasy and easily absorbed. The formulas usually contain preservatives which can induce some sensitivity, although this is uncommon.
- Lotions – These contain more water and less fat than creams, but are not as effective as moisturising as the water in the lotion evaporates quickly. However, they are useful for hairy areas of the body, and those looking for a lighter, more comfortable texture.
For maximum results, emollients are best applied straight after bathing whilst water is still trapped in the skin for extra hydration. It doesn’t pay to use these nourishing balms sparingly, instead it’s best to slather them on as often as you can, but at least three times a day. Continue using your favourite emollient even when skin clears, as keeping the skin hydrated can help prevent future flare-ups.
Most dermatologists recommend that you get into a routine of moisturising in the morning before dressing, in the afternoon and especially at night, as you’re less likely to dry out or irritate your skin whilst sleeping, so the water content in the emollient moisturisers can be thoroughly absorbed into your skin. If you’re suffering with particularly dry hands, soak them in water before going to bed, gently pat dry and liberally coat your hands in emollient (preferably an ointment-based emollient as they are the most beneficial), pop on a pair of cotton gloves and head to bed.
If used every day, an emollient might be all you’ll need to keep mild to moderate eczema under control and they can reduce the need for medicinal topic corticosteroids, which can only be prescribed by a doctor.
Oils are your friend
Oils can be a great natural alternative to treating eczema. Coconut and sweet almond oil has traditionally been used to cool itching, soothe inflammation and bring some pain relief, applied as a thin layer over inflamed skin. Cleansing oil products are a wonderful alternative to traditional soap-based products as they won’t strip the skin of its oils, instead infusing skin with essential nutrients and reinforcing the epidermal barrier, helping skin to be more efficient in protecting itself.
Taking a cod liver oil supplement can help give skin a boost from the inside. Rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K and omega 3, 6 and 9 they support skin health, reducing inflammation and keeping skin supple and smooth. Other common supplements that might make a difference are vitamin E, D and E to retain hydration, improve tone and boost collage production and evening primrose, borage and blackcurrant oils, which help relive skin swelling and restore lipid balance.
What products could I try?
Finding the right products is often case of trial and error, unfortunately. However we’re here to help, offering a range of products from differing skincare specialists that have all been extensively tested, dermatologically approved and specially formulated for eczema-prone skin types.
First up we’ve got A-Derma, a line of products created especially for the needs of very dry, sensitive and atopic skin by French skincare laboratory experts. Their renowned emollient and oil formulations will pamper even the most irritable skin, restoring happiness and tolerance with perfect efficacy for all the family (even babies and children!)
Their extremely nourishing range contains products that will reduce inflammation, alleviate pain and irritation whilst hydrating, healing and protecting and are ideal for those suffering with mild to moderate symptoms. Try their gentle Oat Milk Cleansing Bar or the soothing, nutrient-rich Exomega Cleansing Oil if you’re looking for an alternative to soap. The Exomega Balm also deserves a shout-out as this intensive emollient balm will work to calm skin during bouts of aggression.
Avene is a French pharmacy favourite that really needs no introduction. Dedicated to dermatology, Avene products promote the therapeutic properties of the Avene Thermal Spring Water to soothe painful eczema and have been doing so since 1743! Avene is a brand that is often recommended by dermatologists; GP’s and skin experts thanks to their extraordinarily gentle formulations and predictable results.
In recent years, Avene has developed the XeraCalm A.D range after 12 long years of research, specifically for those with very dry, atopic eczema prone skin. This innovative new range is also suitable for the entire family and works with the minimum of ingredients to reduce the main symptoms of eczema including the itch and irritation, redness and inflammation.
This condensed collection of three, biotechnically advanced products includes the soap-free XeraCalm A.D Lipid Replenishing Cleansing Oil, lightweight, easily absorbed yet wonderfully nourishing oil that halts the itch-scratch cycle in its tracks and gently cleanses the skin of impurities, eradicating the dryness that’s often experienced with traditional cleansers. Also included are the XeraCalm A.D Lipid Replenishing Cream and Balm, two super rich emollients that rebuild the skin’s barrier, helping skin protect itself whilst soothing sore skin with a dose of the Avene’s infamous thermal spring water. What’s more, the XeraCalm products are all manufactured in a sterile environment to protect the formulas from contamination!
Eucerin is a revered German brand, built upon a foundation of clinical proof, honest skin science and high dermatological standards, crafting protective skincare products with exemplary efficacy for over 100 years. Their replenishing Urea range works to stop the itch-scratch cycle, whilst soothing, protecting and nourishing. The products in this Eucerin range area little bit different to other eczema ranges, as they contain a high concentration of the body’s natural moisturisers, urea and lacate to keep skin soft and supple and protected against moisture loss.
Their Eucerin Dry Skin 10% Urea Intensive Lotion is one of the stand-out additions to this range, formulated with a rich emollient base that forms a fine protective layer over the affected areas, preventing further irritation. Kind of like a helmet for skin and great for everyday use. Another thumbs up for Eucerin is that they contain special treatments for the face, hands and feet which many eczema ranges do not.
Do you have any tips for dealing with eczema, or need help choosing the right product? Let us know in the comments below!