The 14th of September was World Atopic Eczema Day. “Atopic eczema” as a phrase is usually simply referring to eczema, a term which may be more familiar to you.
In Ireland, approximately one in ten children and one in twenty adults suffer from eczema, according to the Irish Skin Foundation’s 2016 Annual Report. Think about that – there are countless people that you speak to everyday that are possibly suffering from inflamed, red patches, oozing and crusting of their skin as well as swelling and itching. You can imagine how this may affect their quality of life.
Eczema is a medical condition – your first port of call should be a GP or medical professional, as they may recommend pharmaceutical solutions depending on the severity of your eczema. However, after over a decade in the skindustry, I have gleaned a lot of knowledge about eczema, the physiology of the skin and how eczema affects it, and how to help manage it with skincare.
Causes of eczema
Eczema, like many long-term skin conditions, doesn’t have a clear origin. Research into eczema leads experts to believe that it has to do with a mixture of genetics and triggers. If you have eczema, you will probably agree with this. Many find that pollen, specific products or stress, to name only a few examples, greatly exacerbate their symptoms and can bring on flare-ups.
How eczema-prone skin is different
We all have an immune system. The purpose of our immune system is to scare off intruders of our body and protect it from being damaged or infiltrated. Eczema sufferers have drama queen immune systems that are triggered by intrinsic and external factors too easily, meaning that inflammation is produced throughout the body.
It is this systemic inflammation that creates the skin symptoms of eczema, the flaking, itching and pain associated with it.
Those with eczema have what may be called a defective skin barrier – I don’t love this phrasing but it does explain what is going on to a certain extent. The skin’s barrier is made up of dead skin cells and lipids that our skin creates itself. Those with eczema don’t make enough of these lipids so their skin is less protected from particles and irritants that you may come across in life (whilst being more prone to react to them too – life ain’t fair).
Recent research shows that those with eczema have less of something called fillagrin, a protein that helps to shape skin cells and is key for barrier function. This lack of fillagrin is believed to be genetic and so explains why eczema is such a tricky thing to get a handle on at times.
Bearing this in mind, there are a number of things you are looking at when you’re looking at alleviating the symptoms of eczema…
- Strengthening the barrier
- Protecting the barrier
- Ditching the itch
- Helping the skin to heal
- Avoiding triggers
Strengthening the barrier
As you may know, The Skin Nerd and Nerd Network online consultations are all about the 360˚ approach to the skin. The skin is an organ and as you can tell from the explanation of why people have eczema, it is greatly associated with the inside, not just the outside.
The first thing I recommend to people with eczema is to get more omegas into them. There is no one miracle cream that will solve skin concerns, especially when it comes to medical skin conditions. Are omega supplements a glamorous solution?! No. Do they help greatly when it comes to eczema? Yes.
Essential fatty acids (omegas) introduce additional linoleic acid to the skin’s lipids, which helps them to function better at being impermeable and protecting the skin. As you know, these are things that skin with eczema struggles to do!
Probiotics, both internally and topically in skincare products, also help to strengthen the skin’s barrier and reduce inflammation.
Protecting the barrier
A stronger barrier is indeed better protected but the more traditional, tried-and-tested route of thicker creams that are emollient in nature is important for preventing flare-ups due to cold weather, chafing, friction and extrinsic factors in that vein.
If you’re prone to eczema on your face and aren’t fond of the idea of a very thick, luscious, heavy cream under your makeup, Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair (€47.00) is very well-known for its shield-like qualities and creates a smooth, slightly matte finish on top of the skin. It is incredibly gentle so should not irritate skin prone to reacting and helps to lock in moisture. It’s also worthwhile to think of making the switch from cosmetic makeup, which can dry out the skin, to anti-inflammatory, antioxidant fully mineral makeup.
In protecting the barrier, we have to be careful not to strip the barrier either. Products that contain sulphates, high amounts of exfoliating acids like glycolic acid, harsh fragrances and drying alcohols can make a barrier that is already susceptible to damage even worse. Opt for shower gels, washes and body products that are geared towards those with inflammatory conditions and sensitive or reactive skin. MooGoo Milk Wash (€14.95) contains no SLS (drying sulphates), essential oils nor other irritants – it very gently cleanses the skin without removing too many of its oils.
Sometimes eczema feels like you’re walking on eggshells when it comes to your skin. There are perhaps some things that you want to partake in but you know that your skin doesn’t always take well to it. Case in point: fake tan. Many fake tans contain harsh, drying ingredients that can trigger flare-ups in some sufferers. I have heard from person after person that TanOrganic suits their highly reactive skin – this is no surprise to me as their products are gentle, hydrating and contain plenty of nourishing ingredients. Their Self-Tan Oil (€24.99) is ideal for those lacking in oils but note that it’s advised that you give flare-ups two weeks to heal before popping on fake tan!
Ditching the itch
The itching from eczema sometimes feels unbearable but (and it’s a big but) scratching will increase healing time and could cause infection. I came across Avéne in the last year and they are truly pharmacy-brand experts in everything inflammatory when it comes to the skin. Their XeraCalm range is developed for those who have skin that itches, whether it be sensitivity/reactivity or eczema.
XeraCalm A.D Cream (€19.99, and the XeraCalm A.D Balm, €22.99) helps to give lipids back to the skin and contains a little something called I-Modulia®. I-Modulia® is an extract found in Avéne Thermal Spring Water that reduces the feeling of itchiness so you won’t even be tempted to scratch!
Helping the skin to heal
After a flare-up, the skin needs to heal. Improving the healing process requires a multi-pronged approach as such a large variety of things affects how our skin heals. Getting enough sleep is much more important than you think – getting 8 hours of rested sleep allows our skin the time to heal itself properly.
Smoking, as you may know, slows down the healing process too so stub out that cigarette if you want your eczema to heal quicker… Smoking additionally causes premature ageing and zaps you of your vitamin C, which is integral for the skin’s own production of collagen.
As mentioned above, Do. Not. Scratch. Let your skin do its thing.
Introducing growth factors when you’re in the healing period can help the skin to heal itself. A fabulous product for this is Environ Vita-Enriched Colostrum Gel (€46.00) – tonnes of our clients have seen incredible results using this on their eczema.
I’m a huge advocate for keeping a skin diary. In fact, Team Nerd encourage our Nerd Network (our consultation clients) to fill in their nerdie skin diary on the daily. Why is this beneficial to those with eczema? It allows them to track what may be influencing flare-ups, whether it is stress, lack of sleep or something else entirely.
Common triggers of eczema include…
- Harsh skincare ingredients like drying alcohols, harsh sulphates and sensitising fragrances
- Excessive sweating
- Pollen, dust & animals
- Hormones/hormonal fluctuations
Keep an eye on the correlations between these factors and flare-ups and try to reduce them as much as possible. If it’s stress, ditch your partner and chuck your kids in the bin… I jest! However, you could introduce mindfulness, meditation or some exercise into your life to counteract it.
The nerdie recap on atopic eczema
- GP first – speak to your GP about your symptoms
- Omegas – up your omega intake to strengthen your skin’s barrier and hydrate from within
- Emollient creams
- Bin irritating ingredients wherever possible, grab a Cleanse Off Mitt instead of micellar water and wipes
- Don’t scratch – grab an anti-itch cream instead
- Help it to heal
- Track your triggers
At the Nerd Network, we are more than happy to advise on products to help your eczema in conjunction with the advice from your medical practitioner. Book in for your first consultation now – after you’ve had your consultation, you will receive access to your recommended cosmeceutical products on our store, The Skin Nerd podcast, webinars, discounts, deals, the Nerd Network Newsletter and a whole host of other phenomenal things!