Eczema 101: What is Eczema and How Do I Treat It?

woman applying lotion

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Suffering from dry, itchy skin? While many experience these symptoms from a reaction to cold, dry weather, there are others who suffer from parched irritated skin year round because of a medical condition called eczema. Think you might have it? Here’s everything you need to know about the condition, as well as dermatologist-approved product recommendations to help treat it.

What is eczema?  
“Eczema is caused by the interaction of allergens, genetics and the health of your skin,” says Dr. Kenneth R. Beer, MD. “This seems like a complicated answer because it is. If your whole family has eczema and asthma, it is very probable that you will as well. If you are predisposed to get eczema, but you are not in contact with wool, dyes or fragrances you may be able to keep your skin from developing eczema. If you are predisposed and have some contact with fragrances, but use a great barrier cream and mild cleansers, you may be able to protect your skin barrier enough to keep your skin in great shape. There are a lot of factors to eczema and you can control some of them.”

How do you treat its many symptoms?
Eczema results in itchiness, redness, and excessively dry skin, and because the skin is so sensitive, doctors actually recommend using as few products as possible to not further irritate it. The best way to avoid further irritation is through the use of hypoallergenic products — formulas that have been patch tested on people to make sure that they don’t cause allergic reactions. “Allergic and irritant reactions break down the skin’s natural barrier,” Dr. Vermén Verallo-Rowell. “It’s imperative to keep the barrier as intact as possible since barrier dysfunction initiates atopic reactions and bacteria to cross damage the skin barrier.” He recommends using petroleum jelly and mineral oil to protect the skin and act as a barrier.

Verallo-Rowell also recommends Virgin Coconut Oil as a go-to. “It is soothing, moisturizing — a gentle, yet, potent antiseptic of most secondary bacterial, fungal and viral invaders which often worsen eczema.” The oil also reduces inflammation by replacing the fatty acids that have been destroyed in the cell walls. Try VMV Hypoallergenics Know It Oil Virgin Coconut Oil ($40 for 8.5 Fl Oz, vmvhypoallergenics.com) on the face and body for a non-greasy finish. For best results, store it in the refrigerator and apply as a cold compress.

When bathing, Dr. Beer suggests oatmeal based products. Containing anti-inflammatory compounds called avenanthramides, the oat soothes irritated, itchy skin. Aveeno Eczema Therapy Bath Treatment ($3.99 for a pack of three, www.aveeno.com) is a powder that creates a milky bath. No additional soap is needed as the formula cleanses as well as smoothes.

Those who suffer from eczema can experience skin so dry that it actually forms a hard crust. Verallo-Rowell recommends applying oil to soften the crust right when it forms. “Later, keep applying the oil because it helps occlude the skin, giving it a secondary barrier against water loss which is important in keeping the skin moisturized.” Dr. Beer advises his patients to apply moisturizer before bed and use a humidifier to help skin retain its moisture.

A scientific breakthrough: spring water that treats eczema
Avéne’s patented Thermal Spring Water from France was recently found to contain dolomiae, a microorganism that generates biologically active substances that relieve itching, inflammation and acts as a barrier to protect skin. This breakthrough technology is available in all of their new products included in the Avéne XeraCalm line that launches in January 2014.

Read more: Lasers 101: How to Zap Your Way to Perfect Skin

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