Eczema is incredibly common, and about 30 million people in the United States are affected by some form this frustrating skin condition. But it’s not always so easy to understand how to care for your eczema. When so many substances may trigger an eczema flare (the long list includes certain fibers, scented detergents, pollen, pet dander, and much more) how do you deal?
There are multiple types of eczema, but the condition is generally characterized by a red, itchy, inflammatory skin reaction, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist and Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Department of Dermatology. “Eczema is a condition in which the skin cannot protect itself from the environment and, as a result, becomes inflamed,” he says. “The outer skin layer develops microscopic cracks in it and loses hydration, leading to disruption of the skin barrier.”
While your doctor may have more tailored advice based on the type of eczema you have and your specific symptoms, Dr. Zeichner says one of the best ways to ease symptoms of eczema is to improve hydration and reduce inflammation—both of which start with great self-care. Here, dermatologists explain exactly how to care for your sensitive eczema skin at home.
A person with normal skin might get by moisturizing their skin every so often, but people with eczema likely need to slather on lotion a lot more often, perhaps as much as multiple times a day. “While some areas of the body may develop rashes, all of the skin may be dry and weak because of genetics if you have eczema,” Dr. Zeichner explains. “While we cannot change your genes, we can compensate for them.” He suggests looking for a body moisturizer that contains ingredients like petrolatum, such as Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Unscented Lotion, which will form a protective seal over the outer skin layer to prevent water loss and help the damaged skin barrier repair itself.
You might enjoy extremely hot showers, but your eczema skin does not. “Hot water can strip the skin of essential oils, and the longer the exposure, the worse off we are,” Dr. Zeichner says. “Stick to short showers of less than 10 minutes, with lukewarm water.” He adds that “lukewarm” means that water should be around the temperature you might expect from a heated pool. Test it before you step in; if the water feels hot immediately as it touches your skin, lower the temperature.
Opt for oil
“Oil-based products are the best way to add moisture back into the skin and create a barrier to retain it,” says Dendy Engelman, MD, a dermatologic surgeon at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery Centers in New York City. She’s an advocate for the “soak and grease” method: “I use a two-step process, an in-shower oil and lotion, followed by lotion to trap moisture in.” Apply your out-of-shower lotion or oil immediately after stepping out.
Try baby sunscreen
Your skin needs extra TLC, so Dr. Zeichner recommends the most sensitive sunscreens to protect yourself from harmful (and drying) rays. “Especially if you have sensitive skin or eczema, your skin may be more at risk from allergies or irritation from the sunscreen ingredients,” he explains. “While baby sunscreens are designed with kids in mind, they are effective in adults, as well, and may be appropriate for people with dry, irritated skin.” Dr.Zeichner says baby sunscreens typically only contain mineral-based ingredients, which are less likely to aggravate your skin.
Choose a cleanser wisely
Many soaps and body washes have harsh ingredients that can disrupt the skin’s barrier, or scents that may aggravate eczema symptoms. Instead, Dr. Zeichner recommends choosing cleansers that contain gentle ingredients, such as colloidal oatmeal.
And as a general rule, “[a]void harsh soaps with fragrances, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and retinols that can further irritate the skin by drying them out,” she says.
Keep air humid
People with eczema may want to invest in a good humidifier, especially during the drier winter months. “Arid environments can put stress on already dry skin,” Dr. Zeichner says. “A cool-mist humidifier in your bedroom will add moisture to the air, so your skin does not have to work as hard to maintain hydration.” Why cool mist? Dr. Zeichner says this type of humidifier is safer than a hot-steam model, which can burn your skin if you get too close to it.
Meet with a dermatologist
If you’re taking ultra-gentle care of your skin and your eczema symptoms are still impacting your daily life, see a dermatologist. A dermatologist can help you pinpoint the exact cause of your eczema, as well as suggest stronger treatment options that may help ease symptoms. “There are a variety of prescription barrier-repair creams and new medications, both topically and systemically, that can treat this condition,” says Dr. Zeichner.