The first time my boyfriend and I went away for the weekend, I broke out in a bright red rash from head to toe. Forget any romance – thanks to a random allergic reaction, I spent the majority of my time overdosing on antihistamines and lying down with a cold flannel on my face. I wish it was a one-off incident but, for as long as I can remember, I have always had awkward, sensitive skin and, in particular, eczema.
As a child, I was told I would simply grow out of it and I did – until I hit my mid-twenties and the problem reared its ugly head once again, returning much worse than ever remembered. At the start of a particularly hot summer, I noticed patches on the creases of my arms and, by September, it had spread to my hands, neck and face. While aesthetically it was confidence-kicking, I struggled mostly with the practical side effects. Having continuously dry and tight skin is extremely uncomfortable and feeling like a shrivelled-up snake as you shed layers of dead skin is tiresome. Similarly, the need to itch is both infuriating and sleep-disrupting and, much like a maddening mosquito bite, resisting that urge to scratch is a daily mental challenge.
Caused by a mixture of genetics and environmental factors, there is no magic “cure” for eczema. This means you have to find your own way to manage it and, although it is overwhelming at first, especially as there are so many conflicting opinions, you quickly become an expert in your own skin and what does and doesn’t work for you.
For me, that has been avoiding the doctor’s prescriptions of heavy emollients and steroid creams (a temporary fix that I haven’t found particularly useful) and finding other ways of dealing with it. This is what I’ve found most helpful…
It’s worth speaking to a dermatologist
I would recommend visiting the GP and pushing your doctor to make you an appointment with an NHS dermatologist at your local hospital. You may have to wait a couple of months, but it is worth it for a chance to speak to an expert at length about your skin, current regime and the treatments available. A dermatologist can advise whether you might benefit from phytotherapy (a UV light treatment), non-steroid-based creams or oral medications, and they may also offer other useful tips. For example, when I visited a dermatologist last year, she recommended avoiding expensive allergy tests, which are often inaccurate for skin conditions, and reassured me that the contraceptive pill I was taking shouldn’t aggravate my skin.
You needn’t necessarily give up milk
There is nothing that makes you want to smack your head into the wall more than the smug person who tells you that your diet is giving you eczema. Like the majority of skin conditions, diet can inflame the skin, but it is rarely the sole cause. Dairy is often seen as the skin’s arch nemesis but, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it), giving up dairy didn’t work for me. If particular foods are triggers, it makes sense to avoid them when you can. If not, I go by the method of trying to add skin-nourishing foods into my diet, as opposed to restricting certain things. Avocados, nuts and salmon can all moisturise our skin from within, while blueberries, beetroot and leafy greens can help to reduce inflammation in the body.
Go and have a manicure
Wearing cotton and non-itchy fabrics can help with scratching, but it’s acrylic nails that have been a legitimate game-changer for me. They don’t stop the scratching per se, but the smoother nail means the damage caused is much less. At night, when scratching is often worse, it’s best to keep your bedroom cool or try sleep-inducing methods, such as a lavender-oil bath or a magnesium supplement.
Try vinegar in the bath
Hot showers and eczema are a match made in hell. Hot water dries out and irritates the skin, so, when possible, bathing in a warm bath is a much better option. Adding Epsom salt to your tub can soften the skin and remove dry flakes (I buy them by the kilo load from Amazon) or try pouring a cup of apple cider vinegar into the water before soaking, to help combat inflammation.
Sort out your skincare
Finding skincare that works can be a total minefield but, in general, it’s worth avoiding heavily perfumed or coloured products, as well as chemicals knowns to irritate, such as SLS (a foaming agent). Remember that, while chemical-free products can be great, just because a product is “natural” doesn’t mean it can’t irritate the skin. Pure essential oils, for instance, can trigger reactions. If in doubt, make sure you do a patch test on an unaffected area before going in all over.
These are the products I can’t live without…
I have had great success with Avène’s whole range, but the standout product for me is this rich face moisturiser, which feels both soothing and replenishing.
This thick treatment cream is great for areas that are particularly dry or flaky.
I stumbled on this by accident, but it’s by far the best moisturiser I have found for eczema on the body. Its packaging may not be exactly shelfie-worthy, but it does the job efficiently and, at such a bargain price, you can slap it on liberally.
All of Pai’s products are designed specifically for sensitive skin, but this cleanser is what I find myself buying again and again. Effective at both removing make-up and daily grime, without any irritation, it leaves the skin soft and hydrated.
Unfortunately, when you have eczema, heavily scented or chemical-laden foaming shower gels are out of the question. Instead, I rely on a more basic soap, such as Dr Bronner’s.
Many foundations proclaim hydrating benefits, but often they just exaggerate dry or flaky areas – instead, I tend to just use concealer here and there. I like the super-nourishing coconut-oil-based RMS concealer – it’s not cheap, but a little goes a long way.