Think of your skin as a permanent ensemble -- it has the ability to protect the body, regulate internal temperature and pretty much go with anything. But sometimes an outfit simply doesn't end up looking the way you want it to, and such is the case with certain dermatological conditions such as eczema.
There's no cure for eczema, a recurring condition that causes itchy, dry skin and leads to redness, scaling and sometimes oozing. The really frustrating part about eczema is that the more you scratch, the more irritated your skin becomes.
Think about a childhood bout of the itchy hell that is chicken pox, or even a case of poison ivy. Parents use MacGyver-like solutions when thinking of innovative ways to prevent children from scratching. They smother their offspring in oatmeal, tape oven mitts around their hands, and drench them in ice baths. Unlike chicken pox, which eventually runs its course, itchy eczema flare-ups will always lie dormant for children and adults affected with the condition. Since most people don't want to go to work or school covered in chalk-pink calamine lotion, one of the best ways to avoid sudden eczema outbreaks is to keep skin moist and clean.
Moisturizing eczema is key to keeping your "outerwear" looking (and feeling) its best. Scratching only worsens and intensifies the disorder, so making sure skin stays soft and supple helps manage eczema flare-ups.
You only get one set of skin in this life, regardless of its condition, so it's up to you to make it work. Learn about the ins and outs of moisturizing eczema on the next page.
Hit the Showers (or Baths)
It only makes sense that a top 10 list about moisturizing eczema would somehow involve water. When skin is itchy, dry and cracking, jumping into the shower or bathtub offers much-needed relief. Besides the fact that water adds moisture to skin, it can also remove debris and irritants that may contribute to eczema flare-ups [source: National Eczema Association]. Stress is another factor that may aggravate eczema for some people -- all the more reason to take a relaxing soak.
But beware: You can have too much of a good thing when it comes to water. After about 10 minutes spent in the tub or shower, water no longer moisturizes skin. In fact, the opposite happens -- skin can't retain the moisture and will dry out with excessive bathing. If you have eczema and can't get all of your bathing business completed in a five- to 10-minute washing window, you might want to re-evaluate your cleaning routine and streamline the process.
For those who prefer creating a makeshift bathroom inferno in order to unwind in a steaming bath and shower, think again. Boiling water is another no-no in the fight against dry skin -- use lukewarm water because hot water withdraws natural oils from skin [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. Nothing should cause your skin to redden in the shower.
Now that we know proper bathing techniques when it comes to moisturizing eczema, we must learn what to do after we grab our towels and dry off. On the next page, learn why it's a race against time the second your feet touch the bathmat.
Getting Amped for Damp
It's just you versus the elements when it comes to moisturizing eczema. After taking a lukewarm, seven-minute shower, there's still more work to be done in the fight to lock in every drop of moisture.
When it comes to eczema, time is your biggest enemy after turning off the faucet and stepping out of the shower. Moisturizing within three minutes after bathing helps your skin retain moisture and avoid cracking [source: EczemaNet]. When your skin is damp, it's the perfect time to apply moisturizing ointments and creams (discussed on the next page).
Though retaining water is crucial when moisturizing eczema, that doesn't mean you have to drip-dry after every bath or shower. Gently blot the skin with a towel and then apply moisturizing agents so you don't remove natural oils.
There's no point in following proper eczema-prevention procedures if you're not using the right moisturizers. Learn how ointments, creams and lotions aren't all created equal.
Lotions, Creams and Ointments
Visit any drug store or beauty supply shop and you'll notice the aisles bursting with lotions, creams and ointments. Though it may seem that they all do the same thing, there are important differences when it comes to moisturizing eczema. The key is to find a product with enough oil to retain moisture and prevent excessive dryness.
- Lotions are the mildest of the bunch when it comes to moisturizing eczema. Lotion contains oil but its main ingredient is water -- since water eventually evaporates, this won't do much for extremely dry, itchy skin. Lotion is a good option for people with mild cases of eczema or for those who live in humid climates [source: National Eczema Association, EczemaNet].
- Cream is the next step up from lotion as it contains equal parts water and oil. Because the goal is to create a layer between moistened skin and the environment, a thick barrier like cream can help do the job. However, people with dry skin should note that some creams have additives and preservatives that can cause irritation [source: National Eczema Association, EczemaNet].
- The best way to moisturize eczema is to use ointment since the product contains 80 percent oil and 20 percent water. Viscous ointments create a visible layer atop skin to trap in moisture, though they can feel a bit greasy. If you decide to go the ointment route, make sure not to use these products on areas of the body that get excessively sweaty [source: EczemaNet].
On the next page, learn why people with eczema should pretend the words "handle with care" are stamped across their skin.
Be Gentle When Moisturizing
Eczema is a highly reactive condition -- vehemently scratching a patch of cracked, itchy skin will worsen symptoms and can cause a rash for some patients. Gently moisturizing eczema is an extremely important part of managing the condition. Think of it this way: Treating skin with a soft touch should eventually lead to skin that's soft to the touch.
Dyes, perfumes, detergents, alcohol and other chemicals can irritate skin and trigger eczema flare-ups. Besides checking creams and ointments for these ingredients, it's important to note these additives in soaps and cleansers. Look for moisturizing elements like glycerin, mineral oil, linoleic acid and petrolatum when selecting soaps and creams [source: EczemaNet].
Select mild products geared toward dry skin -- Dove, Vaseline, Eucerin and Cetaphil are good examples of brands focused on gentle solutions to dry skin. Vaseline petroleum jelly and Aquaphor are simple, gelatinous products that go on thick and help protect skin.
As mentioned earlier, don't use too much friction when toweling off after a shower; gently pat dry so skin retains its natural oils. Avoid harsh materials that can scratch skin and set off eczema -- that means skipping loofah sponges and scrubbing puffs in the shower, as well as staying away from tight, itchy fabrics like wool and polyester [source: National Eczema Association, EczemaNet].
So you need an easy touch while you're moisturizing, but there's more to it than that -- find out on the next page.
Without the proper application methods, moisturizing eczema would be a useless task -- just squirting a few drops of lotion on your legs or smothering your hands in 10 layers of salve probably won't keep eczema at bay.
As we mentioned earlier, the key is locking in moisture after bathing. Gently apply the product by stroking it downward on the skin. Take your time smearing on the cream or ointment -- it may take a few minutes for it to absorb completely. If necessary, roll the product between your hands before application to increase its malleability and temperature. Always apply topical medications before moisturizers [source: National Eczema Association].
Depending on the product you use, it's usually a good idea to reapply moisturizer throughout the day. Rub cream into your skin right after bathing and anytime you use soap and water. Even if you don't come into contact with water but you feel a bit itchy and dry, massage a few globs of moisturizer into your skin.
The less humidity in the air, the more protection your skin may need. That's why people who live in very dry climates, like the Southwest, may require heavier, less watery moisturizers than those who live in wetter regions. People who deal with harsh winters may need to load up on thicker moisturizing agents as well.
If the urge to scratch dry, itchy skin has overtaken every other thought in your mind, you may need to try a wet dressing.
Moisturizer with Extra Dressing
Wet dressing may sound like a slimy salad, but this is no drippy condiment. When it comes to eczema, wet dressings can moisturize stubborn areas that refuse to soften.
Wet dressings, also known as wet wrapping or wet bandages, are especially therapeutic for young children who may have a hard time controlling the urge to scratch. Besides preventing your child from physically making contact with dry patches, wet dressings offer relief from hot, itchy skin.
After bathing, apply any topical medications and follow with moisturizers as per usual. Sop bandages, gauze or paper towels in lukewarm water and start wrapping the affected areas. Top the wet paper towels with a layer of dry bandages and let skin absorb the moisture. Once the bottom, wet layer dries, it's time to remove the wet dressing -- leaving on dry bandages may lead to skin irritation [source: The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne, National Eczema Association].
If you don't have access to bandages or gauze, wet clothing can also work. Follow the same steps above but, depending on the area of the body, top wet clothing, like pajamas, with a dry layer or wear a pair of wet socks under a pair of dry socks.
There's another way to moisturize eczema beyond creamy lotions and wet paper towels -- learn more on the next page.
When tenderly caring for parched skin, there needs to be something more than just love in the air. As we learned earlier about climate and season, moist air helps keep skin smooth. That's when a humidifier can come in handy.
Humidifiers disperse water into the air, which can help moisten dry, chapped skin. These appliances use different types of technology to add water droplets throughout your home -- the simplest humidifiers release steam, while others release fog and evaporative air. Because they are portable, humidifiers make a great moisturizing solution for active eczematous children.
It's important to note that humidifiers can cause more harm than good if not properly cleaned. Because it's all about the moisture when it comes to humidifiers, mold and bacteria can't help but mooch off these water-loving appliances. No homeowner wants to spray fungi throughout his or her house, so make sure to follow the user's manual and regularly clean the unit. Also, steam humidifiers (also called vaporizers) can potentially cause burns, so double-check this option if you have children [source: Brain and Nice].
Slathering on goopy ointments as part of your morning routine can literally become a sticky situation as you try to hold your toothbrush, get dressed and even grab the doorknob. In fact, if you're not paying attention, all of that carefully applied moisturizer may rub off on your clothes, couch and refrigerator door handle before you jump in the car.
For this reason, some doctors recommend night as the perfect time to practice moisturizing rituals. By bathing and moisturizing before bedtime, there's less chance that you'll continue to dry out skin. The body will have a better opportunity to absorb creams thoroughly and create a barrier between skin and the elements. If there are certain parts of your body that are more irritated and dry, like hands or feet, you can bathe, apply any prescription treatments, add a moisturizing agent, wrap your hands or feet in cotton gloves or socks accordingly and then doze off without the embarrassment or self-consciousness of wearing these accessories to work or school.
Wet dressings at bedtime are especially helpful because itchy skin makes for trouble sleeping. Not only will wet dressings, when applied correctly, help reduce the itch, these treatments should soften skin and moisturize eczema.
Blankets and pajamas made from natural, breathable fabrics, like cotton, should also allow eczematous children and adults to get a better night's sleep.
Nonsteroidal Prescription Treatments
Some eczema flare-ups require prescription strength, especially if the urge to scratch becomes unbearable. Nonsteroidal prescription creams and lotions can be paired with over-the-counter moisturizers in order to seal in necessary wetness. After bathing but before moisturizing, these nonsteroidal topical treatments can be applied on the affected areas (and also used as part of a wet dressing regimen).
Many of these prescription creams help control the itchy side of eczema, a crucial part of treatment since scratching can exacerbate the condition. Many brands don't have age restrictions, but you should always double-check with your doctor, especially when dealing with young patients. Atopiclair and Mimyx are nonsteroidal prescription creams aimed at treating and moisturizing eczema [source: U.S. News and World Report]. Topical clacineurin inhibitors, like Elidel and Protopic, are a new class of prescription drugs that treat inflammation without steroids [source: Discovery Home and Health].
For those eczema patients, or parents of patients, who prefer to stay away from steroid ointments, a common prescribed route, these creams and lotions can be more appealing options. Your doctor will decipher which treatment makes the most sense based on the patient's needs and symptoms.
If you've followed these tips, like moisturizing at night and taking short baths, and you still have a severe case of this skin disorder, it may be time to revisit your dermatologist.
Dermatologists and health care professionals will prescribe eczema treatments on a case-by-case basis, usually starting with mild therapies, like OTC moisturizers, and eventually selecting more intense treatments if the condition worsens. Remember that eczema can only be managed, not cured.
As mentioned earlier, doctors may recommend nonsteroidal topical treatments like Elidel or Atopiclair as an added measure to a standard moisturizing regimen. They may prescribe strong topical corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and control itching. These steroidal treatments are available in oral form for severe cases.
If eczema looks very red, swollen, abnormal or covered in pus or a thick crust, skin may be infected. Infections aren't uncommon when it comes to this skin disorder, and it's important to check with your dermatologist before moisturizing eczema as per usual. Mild infections may require combination creams that have antibiotics as well as moisturizing agents; severe cases may involve oral antibiotics as well as topical treatments. It's important to note that if you suspect infection, discontinue the wet dressing method as this may worsen the problem [source: Infection and Eczema].
Learning more about eczema and how your body responds to different moisturizers will help you better manage itchy, dry skin.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Bathing and Moisturizing, National Eczema Association (Aug. 28, 2009). http://www.nationaleczema.org/living/bathing_and_moisturizing.htm
- What is Eczema?, EczemaNet (Aug. 28, 2009). http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/whatis.html
- Types of Eczema, EczemaNet (Aug. 29, 2009). http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/types.html
- Dry Skin and Keratosis Pilaris, American Academy of Dermatology (Aug. 28, 2009). http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/skin_dry.html
- Knowing Your Child's Eczema, The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne (Aug. 29, 2009). http://www.rch.org.au/derm/eczema.cfm?doc_id=4596
- Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema), Allergy, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (Aug. 29, 2009). http://www.chop.edu/consumer/jsp/division/generic.jsp?id=76998
- Lifestyle and Home Remedies, Mayo Clinic (Aug. 29, 2009). http://mayoclinic.com/health/dry-skin/DS00560/DSECTION=lifestyle-and-home-remedies
- Brain, Marshall and Karim Nice, "How Humidifiers Work," HowStuffWorks.com, Nov. 13, 2009 (Aug. 29, 2009). https://home.howstuffworks.com/humidifier.htm
- Treating Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis), U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 12, 2008 (Aug. 30, 2009). http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/allergy-and-asthma/2008/08/12/treating-eczema-atopic-dermatitis.html
- Skin Disorders, Discovery Home and Health (Aug. 30, 2009). http://www.discoverychannel.co.uk/homeandhealth/article.jsp?section_id=5&theme_id=10&subtheme_id=91&article_id=410&site=uk
- Infection and Eczema, National Eczema Society (Aug. 30, 2009). http://www.eczema.org/Eczema-Infection.pdf