We’ve all dealt with the drying side effects of too-cold winters and desert-parched summers. But for people with eczema, dry skin isn’t just an occasional annoyance solved with a swipe of lotion: eczema, or scaly, itchy patches, are a chronic concern. Dr. Shari Lipner, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical in New York, helps explain why eczema isn’t just a case of extra dry skin, and shares her advice for diagnosing and treating it.
What Is Eczema, Anyway?
Eczema generally refers to atopic dermatitis—a chronic condition marked by dry, scaly, itchy patches on the skin. Contact dermatitis, another type of eczema, is a sudden rash brought on by an allergy or irritation—like poison ivy. But as it’s most often used, “eczema” refers to the chronic condition.
Essentially, those dry, itchy patches are signs of a not-quite-sealed skin barrier. “If you think of the outer layer of the skin as bricks, there are more gaps in the bricks” of eczema-affected skin, Dr. Lipner says. The result: Skin loses more water, and infections have an easier time penetrating
Who Gets It?
Eczema almost always begins in childhood: 90 percent of people who get eczema develop it before they turn 5. Overall, about 3 percent of American adults have eczema (and 10 to 20 percent of babies). Although its exact causes are still a mystery, both genetics and environmental factors seem to play a role.
What Does It Look Like?
Eczema usually appears as scaly, reddish patches. Particularly severe cases can get infected, which could lead to leaking pus or a bubbled look on the skin. The patches can pop up anywhere, though they’re most common on the hands, arms, feet, face, and back of the knees.
How Do You Know If You Have It?
Since eczema tends to develop so early in life, most adults who have it got diagnosed as kids. If you do come down with an eczema-type rash—and if it doesn’t go away with generous, regular application of thick moisturizers—it’s best to see a dermatologist, Dr. Lipner says.
How Do You Treat It?
First, revamp your shower routine. To keep from drying out skin, take short showers—5 minutes or less—with tepid water. Dr. Lipner also recommends using soap-free cleanser. We’re fans of Acure Organics Unscented CoQ10 Argan Body Wash for body and Avène Cleansing Foam for face.
After, gently pat skin mostly—but not completely—dry. This leaves some moisture on your skin, which you should immediately lock in by slathering on a generous coat of moisturizer. “Generally, the thicker the moisturizer, the better it is,” Dr. Lipner says. Go for a heavy-duty cream moisturizer, like the rich formulas of Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream for face, and Sienna Naturals Baobab Oil Moisturizing Body Cream, Caudalie Vine Body Butter and Shea Terra Organics Shea Nilotica East African Shea Butter for body. With dryness this extreme, regular lotions are too weak and watery to do the trick.
Good skincare is the best thing you can do, Dr. Lipner says. “That will limit the amount of medication you need.” If you still need help even after shorter showers and heavy-duty moisturizers, a dermatologist can prescribe a variety of treatments—such as steroid creams, oral steroids, or phototherapy. Staying away from skin irritants—whether it’s harsh chemicals in products or itchy fabrics like wool—can also help prevent or soothe flare-ups, as can running a humidifier while you sleep.
Another thing that often helps is the simple passage of time. There’s a reason the disease is so much more common in children than in adults, Dr. Lipner says: “Most people tend to outgrow it.”