Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis (AP), affects 10% to 20% (up from 2% in 1960) of the population and is the most common skin disorder in the world. Canada’s rate is higher than the worldwide average. It is skin inflammation caused by a breakdown in the protective barrier, which allows allergens and pathogens to create havoc. This results in dry, flakey, red, itchy and sometimes oozing skin. People are often prescribed topical steroids, which will clear it up momentarily and then stop working. There seems to be a lack of answers for something that is often irritating, painful and unsightly.
There are several ways that your skin barrier can breakdown.
Detergents: From day one, babies are exposed to anionic detergents, which are known to disrupt barrier function. Hospitals typically use Johnson & Johnson baby wash on newborns, which contain several harsh ingredients and can create a problem that can last for years. We are a detergent-obsessed society, using it within our hand soaps, shampoos and body washes. I suspect our growing demand for these types of products are the cause for the dramatic increase in eczema from 1960.
Stress: A study published in the Archives of Dermatology (2001) concluded that there is a link between physiological stress and weakened barrier function. This was the case with my sister who didn’t change a thing in her diet or beauty routine but suddenly had a severe case of red, leathery skin all over her face and eyes that looked like she had been punched. She finally figured out that it was being caused by the recent stress in her life and went away as soon as she was able to relax again.
Winter: Cold temperatures, dry indoor environments and lack of vitamin D can exasperate a skin barrier dysfunction.
Environmental pollutants: Harsh chemicals in the environment and in contact with your skin can lead to barrier dysfunction. Think household products, pesticides, and some personal care products. I have a friend who only gets eczema if she is around lawns that have been sprayed. Now that bylaws against pesticides in effect, she doesn’t have this problem.
The best way to treat eczema is to prevent further damage to the skin’s barrier and stay away from things that may inflame it. Avoid all anionic detergents, which are in most commercial cleansers, body washes, shampoos and hand soaps. Look for more gentle versions such as natural soap, liquid castile or even gentle detergents like glucosides. If it is stress-related, look for ways to manage this more effectively. This is your body’s way of communicating that enough is enough. You can strengthen the skin’s barrier by applying protective moisturizer to the area. Your best bets are thick balms and ointments because they will sit on the skin and not allow allergens and pathogens to penetrate. Things that can further inflame the condition include food allergens (such as wheat, dairy, soy, and nuts), pet dander, dust mites, and synthetic household and body care products so be mindful of this when a reaction occurs and take the necessary precautions. Maintaining healthy doses of vitamin D and essential fatty acids (omega 3, 6 and 9) can help as well.