Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Living With Eczema- Part 1- Avoiding Irritants

A couple of months ago I ran a contest in which readers submitted their daily beauty routines- every product they used in the course of a day- along with a description of their skin/hair type and how well their products of choice worked for them. It was really interesting reading about readers' experiences with products (particularly how passionately people felt about certain products) and the stories behind them. One of my favorite entries came from Sara, a 22 year old with highly reactive, eczema-prone skin, who talked about her struggle to manage her eczema and come to terms with her troublesome skin.

I've also spent many years dealing with eczema (if you're unsure what eczema is, read this) though mine is fairly mild (it's more like extreme dryness, no rashes) and only on my legs. My earliest experiences with beauty products came when my mom would give me oatmeal baths every night and slathering various creams and ointments over my scrawny, itchy legs. Sara and I have been e-mailing back and forth for the last couple of weeks, giving each other tips and product rec's and I thought it would be useful to share some of our suggestions, which can be applied to anyone with extremely dry, sensitive or allergy-prone skin.

For anyone with eczema or similar skin conditions, it's important to be conscious of what triggers outbreaks. Having an allergy test done by a doctor can be extremely helpful to realizing what triggers skin reactions. For a while, Sara kept a food diary to record which foods led to outbreaks and modified her diet to avoid those foods.

But food isn't the only culprit. The chemicals in many laundry detergents and fabric softeners are common irritants, and people with allergy-prone skin can greatly benefit from using unscented detergents and avoiding fabric softener altogether. Sara's dermatologist recommended Dreft, while I haven't had any reactions from Tide Free. Cleaning products can also be problematic, so if you notice that your skin is irritated after cleaning with specific products, switching to a more gentle brand like Seventh Generation can really help.

Fragrances (in all forms) can be killer for those with skin conditions. I have yet to find a perfume that doesn't make my skin dry and itchy and I can't be in close contact with others wearing perfume or cologne. I used to only use unscented beauty products, but in the last couple of years I've found that I'm able to handle products with light scents, usually from the addition of essential oils like lemon or lavender. It's always smart to do a patch test with any scented product if you know that you're sensitive. Try a bit of lotion or perfume on your arm and see if your skin reacts within 24 hours. You don't want to wait until you've slathered it all over your body to realize that you're allergic.

Keeping your house/apartment very clean and using an air purifier or humidifier can also really help dry, irritated skin. If I don't vacuum and wipe down just about all the surfaces in my dorm room (it's hard to do for a whole house, but at least try to get the bedroom) every week or so, my skin starts freaking out. Dry air, especially during the winter months, is also an irritant, so a humidifier is essential.

Finally, be conscious of how your emotional state affects you skin. Everyone knows that stress can lead to breakouts, but emotional upheaval of any sort can really negatively affect your skin. There are plenty of far more important reasons to seek help if you're going through a tough time, but if you think that your skin condition is becoming unmanageable because of something else going on in your life, it's a good idea to seek help for your emotional issues.

One of the most annoying parts of having "difficult" skin is having to be conscious of everything you put in, on and near your body, and how it may affect your skin. But once you are able to identify what irritates you, you'll be able to avoid outbreaks far more effectively. And of course, working with a doctor who you know and trust is especially important to managing your skin condition, so don't try and do it by yourself.

If you've got other tips for avoiding skin irritants, leave them in the comments. And be sure to check back tomorrow when I discuss how to respond to outbreaks once they occur.