The dreaded E word... Eczema.
Itchy. That’s how I am today. Very, very itchy.
Hi, my name is Alexis and I have eczema.
Somewhere around my freshman year of college, I started noticing that my hands were itchy as all hell. No clue why, I just kept going about my life. Then one day I realized that they weren’t just itchy, they were covered in dozens of little blisters that made my fingers look like tapioca pudding. (Sorry if you’re grossed out, but you knew what this article was about when you clicked on it.) The blisters would itch nonstop for about 2-3 weeks before drying out, making my skin crack and bleed. Cute.
So I made an appointment with my dermatologist. She took one look at my hands and said, “Oh, you have dyshidrotic eczema.” And that’s where my journey started.
Atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema) is a common skin condition that causes dry, itchy skin. It can develop at any age but is very common in children. In my case, it developed in late adolescence and has stuck with me since.
Symptoms of eczema
- Dry skin
- Severe itching
- Inflamed red patches of skin
- Small raised bumps that may be fluid-filled
- Cracked or scaly patches of skin
- Sensitive skin from scratching
While there are several different types of eczema, they pretty much all share the same itchy, red, dry skin features. It’s often a chronic condition that flares up throughout your lifetime. But you are not alone. According to the National Institute of Health, eczema affects an estimated 30% of the US population. Which is a lot of very itchy people.
So now I knew I had dyshidrotic eczema. My next question was, “How do I make it go away?” To which my dermatologist very nicely informed me that there is no cure, I’ll have flare-ups throughout my life, and I should figure out how to deal with it.
She wrote me a prescription for the only thing she could–topical corticosteroid cream. The prescription came with a strict warning that I was not to use it for more than 2 consecutive weeks (or I would eff up my organs) and should not get it anywhere except on my hands. Which is really hard to do because that stuff doesn’t sink in, it just sits on top of the skin like vaseline! And the real kicker was that once I got to the pharmacy to fulfill my saving grace prescription, the cream came with a hefty $160 price tag after insurance.
This is where I started to go ham on WebMD for home treatments that wouldn’t destroy my organs and drain my bank account. Here’s what I’ve found through hours (and hours and hours) of research and trial and error:
What are triggers of eczema?
Everyone’s eczema has its own special triggers. It could be stress, or temperature, or gluten, or detergents. I found I had a couple: SLS and stress.
SLS: Sodium laureth sulfate. SLS is a surfactant ingredient (cleansing and foaming) that is found in just about every personal and household product out there. It’s probably in your shampoo, toothpaste, dish soap, and laundry detergent. It has been in use since the 1930s and is totally safe for consumer use. But for some people with sensitivities, it can be irritating to the skin and is often linked to atopic dermatitis.
It was for me. I was working restaurant jobs when my eczema started, which meant I was washing my hands frequently with harsh hand soaps. I made the switch in my hand soaps, body washes, and hair products to sulfate-free and found a reduction in the severity of my eczema symptoms.
Here’s some of my favorite SLS-free personal care items:
- Redken Color Extend Magnetics Sulfate Free Shampoo actually foams up, unlike a lot of SLS-free shampoos, and makes you feel “squeaky clean.”
- K Hall Studio Milk Liquid Soap is my holy grail hand soap! All natural, made in the US, and smells sooooooo good. Worth every penny!
- Native Lavender & Rose Body Wash smells like a dream, is made with minimal ingredients, and is available at your local Target.
Stress is a main cause of eczema
When you are stressed, your body releases a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response. It’s designed to suppress all non-essential functions to improve your body’s ability to respond to the danger at hand. That’s great when you’re being chased by a bear, not so great when you’re panicking over a pileup of work.
Because cortisol suppresses the immune system, your body is more likely to experience an inflammatory response in the skin. According to the National Eczema Association, up to 30% of people diagnosed with atopic dermatitis are also diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety.
Here are some stress-reduction techniques that actually work:
- Deep breathing exercises force your body out of fight-or-flight mode, clear your head, and reduce your heart rate.
- Focus your attention on a singular task, like filling in the pages of this World of Flowers coloring book.
- Get some endorphins flowing by doing a quick dance workout, going for a bike ride, or taking a brisk walk.
Home treatments eczema
Oh the home treatments I’ve tried. So many milk soaks and so many bags of green tea. For each stage of your eczema flareup, you may want to try some different remedies:
Stage 1: Itching
The name of the game here is reduction of inflammation. You can use items you already have around the house to reduce your itchiness and prevent scratching.
- Green tea compress. Green tea is a natural anti-inflammatory that promotes blood flow and supports immune function. Brew a luke-warm cup of green tea, soak a compress in it, and place on affected areas for 15 minutes. Repeat as needed.
- Ice. The easiest anti-itch solution! Numb your skin by placing ice cubes wrapped in a towel over the affected area for no more than 10 minutes. Careful not to do it for too long or you could damage your skin cells.
- Over the counter topical corticosteroid cream. I know we’re trying to go for natural remedies here but sometimes a good old anti-itch cream can’t be beat. I like this one from Cortizone that has aloe!
Stage 2 Dryness
Once you’ve survived the itching, you’re left with some seriously dry, cracked skin. While there are plenty of great products available to help combat dryness (Eucerin, Gold Bond, etc), I personally like to use some more homeopathic remedies.
- Honey. Honey has antibacterial properties to help prevent bacterial infection in that newly cracked open skin. It is also deeply moisturizing. It’ll be weird but slather some honey on the affected skin, wrap, and wash off after 30 mins. Or try this Eczema Honey Skin Soothing Cream.
- Colloidal oatmeal. A soothing oatmeal bath is the best thing for angry skin. Colloidal oatmeal (oatmeal ground to a fine powder) adheres to the skin and creates a calming protective barrier.
- Shea butter. Thick, rich, and oh so moisturizing. Use a lotion with at least 5% shea butter for best results, but be sure to avoid heavy fragrances and additives.
Just remember that everyone’s eczema journey is different, but you are certainly not on your own. Your triggers may change over time, so listen carefully to your body’s signals.
Still have questions? Check out the resources provided by the National Eczema Association or talk to your dermatologist.
May your itchiness be temporary and your skin be nourished!