Dry, itchy, and flaky skin is practically inevitable this time of year (these winter skin fixes can help). But if you’re one of the 31 million Americans with eczema, even the most diligent moisturizing routine will fall flat. I am one of those Americans. And trust me, it’s brutal.
Most people who suffer from eczema get it before their fifth birthday (90 percent, to be exact). I was 23 when eczema first appeared on my body. It wasn’t just regular ol’ dry skin. I would scratch to the point of bleeding. I was super embarrassed by the dark red patches around my eyes, on my neck, arms, and legs-pretty much everywhere. Sweat and heat only made things worse. Forget about how it looked. I was in too much pain to go to the gym, and I stopped wearing makeup because the patches of red skin around my eyes and eyelids were so bad.
The most frustrating part? (Other than having to sneak away from my desk to scratch my armpits secretly in the bathroom, that is.) I couldn’t figure out what was causing these red and scaly patches, and why they wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t even find temporary relief. I saw several dermatologists. I was tested for allergies. Still no solution.
“Until recently, eczema was thought to be the result of an immune system issue,” says Bobby Buka, M.D., a dermatologist practicing in New York. “Studies now blame a deficient protein, filaggrin, which ties skin cells together like the mortar between a brickwork lattice system.” Meaning, if this protein is deficient, the “spaces” between the bricks is larger, and your skin is more susceptible to getting stuff between cells that isn’t supposed to be there. That’s when you get redness, scaling, and inflammation.
Interesting, sure. The solution to my problems, not so much. At first, my derm prescribed two topical treatments that immediately worked wonders. But the relief was temporary. That’s when I turned to natural eczema remedies. Here’s what I tried, and learned:
Why I tried it: Elimination diets are often used when trying to identify the root cause of a health issue. The idea is that the inflammation in your gut, even if you’re not allergic to dairy, can cause inflammation.
The verdict: This was a big challenge for me. I love cheese. Dairy-free-me lasted only couple weeks and without much change to my skin. I continued eating brie and looking for new treatments. “I’ve seen patients have success with giving up dairy,” says Buka. “But it’s not a recommendation I give to patients on a larger scale.”
Use a Vitamin C Showerhead and Filter
Why I tried it: The idea is that the showerhead and attached filter deploy powdered vitamin C into the shower stream to neutralize chlorine in the water and promote healthy hair and skin. The MGM Grand even has them in their Stay Well Suites.
The verdict: “I’d put that one in the gimmicky category,” says Buka. I ordered a filter, but could not for the life of me attach it to the shower in my apartment. This was a bust.
Take a Bleach Bath
Why I tried it: This was by far the best home remedy when it came to soothing itchiness. Although it sounds intense, a bleach bath is only 1/2 cup of bleach in a full bathtub. This was both relaxing and effective.
The verdict: “There’s a potpourri of stuff that gets in skin cells,” says Buka. “Bacteria is one of those things, and bleach baths do a great job of knocking down bacterial counts on the surface of the skin, usually in areas where staph colonize.” If you’re going to try bleach baths, Buka suggests taking them twice a month since chlorine can be drying if you overdo it.
Why I tried it: Well, I guess I tried this one by accident. I joked that I must have been allergic to New York City because since I moved from the city to Michigan, my eczema has all but disappeared.
The verdict: “I know you’re joking, but it really could be true,” says Buka. “It fits with the theory that toxins can cause eczema because they can sneak into those open areas between ‘bricks’ in the skin.” Buka has also seen patients develop eczema after moving to urban areas from cleaner air places, like Colorado.
Eventually, my eczema completely subsided. (Um, thanks Michigan!) Five years after the first appearance of dermatitis, I still get some itchy patches from time to time, but nowhere near as bad as I previously did. Of course, picking up and moving your entire life is a gamble you probably don’t want to take. The reality is that there’s still a lot researchers have to learn about this skin condition, and it’s all about finding the right combo of therapies for you. “I’m totally for holistic therapies when they work,” said Buka. Still, 90 percent of his patients respond well to traditional, non-invasive topical treatments and continue to maintain their skin with moisturizer (make the most of your moisturizer with these tips). Take a bleach bath, see your dermatologist, and when in doubt, try a little change of scenery.