For as long as I or my parents can remember, my skin has caused me great discomfort, pain, and maybe surprisingly, embarrassment. Living with eczema is, quite frankly, a daily annoyance, and the slightest change in environment can cause huge flare-ups of angry red sores. This has been my daily life for 25 years, and since I did not grow out of it in my teens like many people do, this will be my reality for the rest of my life.
Eczema to most people conjures images of red blotchy skin and dry patches. While that is pretty much true of its basic symptoms, it has much wider ranging effects than that. Every eczema sufferer is different, I’m sure, but we all are at the mercy of the key factors—both avoidable and not—that cause flare-ups to happen: diet (avoidable—I know yeast is a trigger for me); stress (sadly unavoidable and by far my biggest trigger); changes in temperature, and certain fabrics, such as wool. Try navigating winter dressing without being able to wear wool (it irritates eczema beyond belief), or party dressing when just looking at unnatural fibres such as Lurex summons the pain they will inflict. Cotton for a Christmas party just doesn’t have a chic ring to it, does it?
There are worse things to live with than eczema, there is no denying that, but people don’t talk about how much effort it can actually be to cope with. I don’t let eczema dictate what I do, but I do have to consider things that other people don’t. Take a night out. Alcohol robs your skin of moisture, so one drink too many can mean itchy, dry skin for a few days after. This, I can handle. Couple the alcohol with a hot nightclub dance-floor, however, and you have a situation that causes massive and instant discomfort. One night out with friends can mean a week of open sores on my neck, arms and legs, not to mention my back and face.
When I was a child, eczema would only affect the creases of my arms, the backs of my knees and my neck. Now, though, I think the only place on my body that doesn’t fall prey to the sores is my feet. Mostly, I can hide the embarrassing, angry red rashes (as I see them – the reality is no one else cares), from prying eyes with soft cotton long sleeved-tops and trousers all year round, but when it spread to my face a few years ago, that was a new low.
As soon as the temperature drops in October, a big red blotch appears on my right cheek and over my eyelids. Facial eczema is definitely the hardest to combat, and the edit of products below has really helped me to keep my eczema down. I still have a red mark on my cheek, but it isn’t sore or itchy, and does not look nearly as angry as it might do if left it alone. This year, it’s simply a rougher patch of manageable skin. (Not like last year, when I had to sit in the open-plan office with a make-up free, blotchy face slathered in Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream to try and ease the pain.)
When it comes to dealing with eczema, I have tried everything. I’ve thrown money at the problem, tried dead sea salt baths, slathered myself in horrible greasy emollients (which leave me feeling like a chicken prepped to be roasted, not nice). You name it, I’ve probably done it. And over the course of 25 years, I have picked up some valuable learnings – however obvious they may seem. Baths are to be avoided, or kept short and lukewarm. Ditto showers, which should be lukewarm, never hot, and kept to one a day (and even skipped some days). Non-bio washing powder is the only way. I have learned to avoid wool and unnatural fibres, and always carry a nourishing balm for flare-ups (Bobbi Brown’s is highly recommended). On top of that I now know not to wear make-up over eczema on my face, and avoid wearing any when possible, and – finally – there is no such thing as too much moisturiser.
Recently, I’ve started taking a probiotic called Symprove to see if I can heal from within, and Curapel just announced a supplement called Pellamex to help boost fillaggrin production (fillaggrin is a protein that strengthens the skin barrier and it is found to be lacking in most eczema sufferers), so maybe that’s worth a spin too. For now though, I stand by a rigorously tested edit of skincare products that keep me moisturised, boost my skin’s hydration and soothe irritations to help keep sores at bay.
What actually is eczema?
Defined by distinct patches of rough, dry skin that is often red and scaly, eczema is a non-contagious skin condition that is sometimes referred to as atopic dermatitis. Often its most distressing symptom is a gnawing itch that accompanies these patches, which can appear all over the body. “When eczema is very active, it may also become moist, crusted or weepy,” says dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk. “The skin can also eventually become thicker and darker in areas that are repeatedly scratched.” Atopic eczema is the most common form of the skin condition, though others include contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis.
What causes eczema?
There is no official “cause” of eczema, but scientists suspect that it is a byproduct of the immune system’s reaction to external aggressors. Genetics has its role too. “Eczema tends to run in families, so if one or both parents are sufferers, it’s more likely that their children will develop it too,” says Kluk. While one in five children suffer with the condition, stats show that by their teenage years, 60 per cent of early sufferers become clear-skinned. “Exposure to allergens and infection with certain bacteria can lead to flare-ups, and there is some evidence to suggest that stress can lower the threshold for a flare-up too,” says Kluk. Extremely hot or cold weather, illness, dust and pets can also trigger a resurgence.
What ingredients can irritate eczema?
Bad eczema episodes can be triggered by anything too aggressive or full of chemicals; soaps, detergents, foaming agents and fragrances can all exacerbate it. “It’s also best to avoid any active skincare ingredients on areas affected by eczema,” says Kluk. “That includes retinol and alpha hydroxy acids.”
Does the heat and humidity impact eczema?
Suu Balm co-founder, Dr John O’Shea tells Vogue Singapore, “Living in a hot and humid climate with eczema is hard; sweat aggravates the condition, bringing on rash and itch, yet it is almost impossible not to sweat. So this makes a light, easy to apply moisturiser that relieves itch fast all the more essential.”
“In hot, humid weather we need to shower more often; but with sensitive or eczema-prone skin, you risk damaging the skin’s barrier with every shower if you are using regular washes with harsh ingredients, such as SLS. Suu Balm was formulated to be super gentle and to protect your skin during showering and cleansing,” says Dr O’Shea, of his range of skincare and body products formulated for dry and eczema-prone skin here in Asia.
What does a good skincare routine look like for eczema-prone skin?
“Eczema is characterised by skin barrier dysfunction,” says Kluk, highlighting the crux of what a clever eczema skincare routine should set out to do: reinforce and take care of that skin barrier.
First thing’s first: emollient therapy. “This means cleansing twice daily with a soap substitute and frequently—and liberally—applying moisturiser,” says Kluk, who suggests applying an emollient up to three times each day. In general, the dryer skin is, the greasier your emollient should be. “Moisturising helps restore the integrity of the skin barrier, so it should be a fundamental part of an eczema sufferer’s skincare routine, even when flare-ups have been put to rest.”
Kluk’s top tip is to monitor the general quality of skin. If it is dry in some places and oily in others, look to using a lighter moisturiser gel or fluid cream on the areas where skin is oilier, and a richer cream or ointment on areas where skin is drier. As for SPF—you can’t get away that easily—it’s still important to use where possible, but as most eczema sufferers will know, it can be difficult to tolerate. Kluk recommends testing a few different formulas on a small area first to ensure they don’t sting or further irritate skin. “Look for mineral or physical sunscreens, and those labelled suitable for sensitive skin.”
Below, some of the best skincare products for eczema-prone skin.
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Suu Balm Dual Rapid Itch Relieving and Restoring Body Moisturiser
If you experience dry, itchy skin, and other effects of eczema, you’re going to need this jumbo sized body moisturiser formulated by Singapore’s National Skin Centre. Not only does it hydrate and soothe scaly skin with ceramides, it offers rapid itch relief with menthol. The addition of menthol serves two functions: to cool the skin, and to trigger receptors in the nerves in the skin, blocking the transmission of itch signals to the brain. With this fast-acting moisturiser, your skin gets a little respite from all that aggressive scratching, breaking the itch-scratch cycle to hopefully give time for your body to heal. A great, steroid- and paraben-free lotion for all skin types.
Suu Balm Dual Rapid Itch Relieving and Restoring Body Moisturiser, $49.90 for 350ml; available at Suu Balm
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Bobbi Brown Extra Repair Nourishing Milk
This Repair Nourishing Milk is a fantastic soothing serum for irritated skin, and especially good for sunburn. It calms and cools flare-ups.
Bobbi Brown Extra Repair Nourishing Milk, $155 for 30ml; available at Sephora
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Bioderma Hydrabio H2O Micellar Water
A stalwart in many beauty cabinets, Bioderma’s Hydrabio works best on dehydrated, sensitive skin. It gently wipes away make-up without stripping skin of essential hydration and oils.
Bioderma Hydrabio H2O Micellar Water, $41.90 for 500ml; available at Guardian
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La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Comfort Cream SPF50
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Avène XeraCalm Cream
Helps to alleviate the hellish itch that accompanies eczema while improving the skin barrier.
Avène XeraCalm Cream, $49.90 for 200ml; available at Guardian
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Aveeno Daily Moisturising Body Wash
A great brand to try for dry skin, Aveeno’s Body Wash is an excellent substitute for soap and contains colloidal oatmeal to soothe skin.
Aveeno Daily Moisturising Body Wash, $18.90 for 354ml; available at Guardian
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Pai Chamomile & Rosehip Calming Day Cream
Packed with super soothing ingredients like matricin and azulene and omegas 3, 6, 7 and 9 to hydrate, this face cream will help restore irritated skin.
Pai Chamomile & Rosehip Calming Day Cream, $76 for 50ml; available at Sephora
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Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Strength
A stand-out moisturiser, this is fast-absorbing and non-greasy yet keeps skin from feeling dry and tight for a full 24 hours. Game changer.
Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Strength, $8.95 for 400ml; available at Guardian