WHAT IS ECZEMA?
Eczema, (EGG-zuh-muh), is derived from a Greek word meaning “to boil over,” which seems fitting considering how the skin becomes inflamed, raw, and red with irritation. The National Eczema Association states that 15 million Americans have some form of this non-contagious disease, ranging from mild to severe, with many cases occurring in infants and small children. Eczema affects up to 20% of children and 3% of adults, and is often linked to asthma, food allergies, and seasonal allergies. Eczema can cause significant emotional and physical distress, the strain of which can worsen symptoms, deprive patients of precious sleep, and create a highly vicious cycle.
There are several varieties of eczema: atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis. People can have one form of eczema or several forms at a time.
Atopic dermatitis is easily the most common type of eczema. It’s what most people think of when they picture eczema—rough, itchy patches on the face, and in the folds of the elbows and knees. Atopic dermatitis is often accompanied by asthma and seasonal allergies (referred to as the atopic triad).
Contact dermatitis is caused by chronic exposure to irritants or allergens, like a red, itchy area under a wedding ring. Usually, removal of the offending agent and use of gentle products for a few days will allow this condition to heal.
Dyshidrotic eczema is possibly the most miserable version of eczema, resulting in small, insanely itchy blisters on the hands, feet, fingers, and toes. I had this for a few months, and thought I might actually go nuts from the itching—I wanted to attack my hands and feet with sandpaper.
Nummular eczema occurs in circular shapes, and can begin with a bug bite or a local irritation. It usually starts as a dry and scaly circle of skin, and can become red and weepy if it gets irritated or infected.
Seborrheic dermatitis is most common on the scalp (where you have lots of sebaceous glands), and looks like dry, flaky patches of skin. It’s called cradle cap in babies, and can occur in people of all ages, often with immune disorders or other chronic illnesses.
- Stasis dermatitis occurs in conditions where the peripheral circulation is compromised, resulting in swelling of the lower extremities and chronic irritation of the skin.
WHAT IS ATOPIC DERMATITIS?
It’s just another word for a common form of eczema. Atopic dermatitis often occurs in people who struggle with allergies and asthma. “Atopic” means “without a place” and “dermatitis” means “inflammation of the skin,” so it’s a pretty vague medical term meaning “angry skin just about anywhere on the body.” Often, people with an unexplained rash get diagnosed with atopic dermatitis.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF ECZEMA?
The main symptom of eczema is patches of itchy, dry skin that become scaly and rough, leaving the skin around the rash inflamed and irritated. Infants often develop flaky patches on their faces and scalps, whereas young children typically show symptoms on areas that bend (i.e., backs of the knees, ankles, and elbows). Nearly half of the young people affected by eczema will outgrow it, while some adults may still have symptoms, mostly on their hands. Skin affected by eczema is prone to irritation and infection, which worsen the symptoms.
WHAT CAUSES ECZEMA?
Unfortunately, there is not always a clear and definite cause for eczema. The Cleveland Clinic acknowledges that “it appears to run in families and occurs more often in people who have a personal or family history of asthma, hay fever, and other allergies. This suggests that there is a genetic (hereditary) factor to atopic dermatitis. For every person, though, the symptoms of eczema are the result of a unique combination of genetic, environmental, and immunologic factors, making it very challenging to sort out the root cause in many cases.
Some researchers believe that there is a genetic defect in the skin cells themselves, causing reduced barrier functions and an increased tendency for microbes and allergens to penetrate the skin. Others believe that an abnormal immune response gives rise to the diminished barrier function of the skin. Whatever the cause, once the skin barrier function is disrupted, the skin is more susceptible to infection and inflammation, which both contribute to worsening symptoms like redness, dryness, irritation, and itchiness.
Of course, skin irritants in our environment can trigger symptoms as well. Harsh cleansers and detergents, pollen, food, dry air, and stress can all bring about the itchy condition.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ECZEMA AND PSORIASIS?
- Unlike eczema, psoriasis (see image below) does not have a link to allergies. Psoriasis is considered an autoimmune condition, meaning that your immune system is not functioning optimally, and is activating inappropriately to cause the symptoms.
- Eczema often starts in childhood, and affects children more than adults. Psoriasis affects adults more than children, and does not often affect babies.
- Eczema patches are irritated, red, flaky, and sometimes darker in color. Psoriasis patches are usually well-defined with clear borders, have a silvery tone to them, and sit on top of thickened skin.
- Eczema likes to show up on the soft skin behind the knees and elbows, whereas psoriasis turns up on the thick, tough skin of the knees and elbows.
WHAT IS THE BEST ECZEMA TREATMENT?
A dermatologist can prescribe a topical steroid or other immunosuppressant therapy, but the greatest success in treating eczema involves some deeper detective work. Trying to figure out the root cause(s) of your symptoms and changing any behaviors or habits that are contributing to the symptoms will pave the way for long-term relief. Here are some areas you can explore to help relieve your eczema.
As with any human health issue, diet must be carefully considered. If you are eating a diet high in refined sugar, caffeine, alcohol, saturated fat, or processed food, you are setting your body up for inflammation of any and every kind. So, the first step is to clean up your diet by eating a mostly plant-based menu, rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, wholesome fats, and proteins, with only moderate consumption of caffeine and alcohol.
Once you’ve done that, it’s worth experimenting with an elimination diet, eliminating whole food groups for 3-4 weeks at a time to see if you notice a reduction in symptoms. Wheat, corn, and dairy are three of the highest-yield categories to eliminate when it comes to eczema. A food journal can help keep track of what’s working, as well as a photo album on your phone to track the progress of your skin with pictures.
- Probiotics have been shown to have some preventative and/or palliative effect on atopic dermatitis, so it’s worth popping one of those daily.
- Evening primrose oil has anecdotal evidence behind it, but the medical evidence is lacking. Still, an oral supplement may be worth trying.
- Black cumin seed oil, also called nigella sativa, has been of interest to the medical community lately and may have a role in treating eczema. I take a teaspoon of it a day orally because I think it has an overall anti-inflammatory effect on the body. I do think my perioral dermatitis, a close cousin of eczema, has responded well to the addition of black seed oil.
Things That Irritate Eczema
- Repeat after me: “I MUST eliminate sodium lauryl and sodium laureth sulfate from my toothpaste, my shampoo, my hand soap, my body wash, my laundry detergent, and my dish soap.” SLS is in almost everything that foams, and is a very effective skin irritant. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen who were shocked to find out that their natural laundry detergent or toothpaste contained it. The good news? Eliminating SLS in your life can make a HUGE difference in your eczema.
- Synthetic fragrance is another offender when it comes to eczema—scan your labels for the words “fragrance” or “parfum”, and choose products with no scent or only small quantities of skin-friendly essential oils.
- Avoid sulfates, artificial colors, ethoxylated ingredients, parabens, phthalates, and silicones as well.
- Aim for loose, comfortable, cotton clothing whenever possible.
- Use a humidifier in your home if you live in a dry climate.
- Try to keep your house clean, with special attention to pet hair and dust.
- Take warm showers. Hot water will make eczema worse, even if it feels good in the moment!
- If your hands are suffering from eczema, wash them with cool water and a very mild, SLS free soap and try to avoid the alcohol-based hand sanitizers, as they will strip the skin of too much moisture.
One more note: it’s probably worth undergoing allergy testing with your physician to make sure you don’t have a clear allergy that’s triggering your eczema. (We sincerely hope it’s not your cat.) I recommend skin testing with an accredited healthcare provider for allergies. The increasingly popular mail-in allergy tests are prone to false positives, and you may end up never eating almonds again for no good reason.
HOW DOES STRESS AFFECT ECZEMA?
Yep, you knew it was coming. It’s involved in almost every disease process and needs to be managed and addressed just like all the other contributing factors. If you’re not actively managing stress (exercise, yoga, meditation, long walks in the woods, reading books, drinking herbal tea, or some other tactic), you need to start—now. Stress reduction is not just an Instagram trend. Managing your stress actually reduces stress-induced hormones in the body, leaving more resources available for your body to fight inflammation and achieve greater skin health.
WHAT PRODUCTS HELP ECZEMA?
Here’s a list of Osmia products we created with simple, pure ingredients and little or no essential oils that are safe for use with eczema-prone skin.
- Oh So Soap
- Naked Body Oil
Black Clay Facial Soap
Purely Gentle Mud Cleanser
- Purely Simple Face Cream
- Lip Doctor
With eczema, you want to make sure you’re providing enough moisture for your skin. Make sure you apply body oil while your skin is still sopping wet from the shower, and let it soak in with the water. You can combine a body oil and a body mousse in your hands before applying if you feel you need an extra layer of protection.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Safe & Chic, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.