“An older lady once told me in a harsh tone to apply a higher SPF sun cream as my daughter looked sunburnt. It was when she was about 9-10 months old, having a bad eczema episode and we were out for a walk with the buggy covered under an umbrella. I was mortified and tried to explain she had eczema. Then she told me how to “fix” it. Like I hadn’t already been trying everything. I just went home and cried.”
One of the worst things about having eczema is how obvious it can be. Raw, inflamed, severely dry or bleeding skin is very hard to hide, and that means people, whether friends, family or complete strangers, notice and comment on it.
Nine times out of ten, those comments are not just unhelpful but actually hurtful; a well-meaning but upsetting comment can ruin someone’s day, knocking self-confidence and ramping up the daily stress that can aggravate flare-ups.
We asked a panel of people who live with eczema what really isn’t OK to say to them about their troubled skin. Here’s what they told us.
1. Stop Scratching!
Everyone with eczema already knows not to scratch! The importance of resisting the maddening urge to itch is drummed into eczema sufferers from childhood, because scratching damages the skin, which in turn increases the risk of infection, allows more irritants under the epidermis and leads to yet more itchiness. It doesn’t help to be told not to do it.
Panel member Maria Marzaioli says that being told to stop scratching is “literally the most infuriating thing ever! Also way to make me feel guilty and ashamed, like it's all my fault and I'm just weak willed.”
2. You Should Moisturise!
Eczema sufferers know perfectly well that their sore, dry skin needs moisture. The assumption behind this kind of really basic advice is that people are stupid or not helping themselves, neither of which is likely to be true. It’s generally best to assume that people with eczema are already doing the best they can to keep their skin hydrated and their condition under control.
3. Are You Sunburnt?
Many of our panel said that being asked if they were sunburnt happened all the time, because the inflammation of eczema can look as angry and red as sun damage. And, unfortunately, the comments were likely to come with judgement rather than sympathy.
Suzanne Meere told us how upsetting it was to be told she wasn’t looking after her daughter well enough: “An older lady once told me in a harsh tone to apply a higher SPF sun cream as my daughter looked sunburnt. It was when she was about 9-10 months old, having a bad eczema episode and we were out for a walk with the buggy covered under an umbrella. I was mortified and tried to explain she had eczema. Then she told me how to “fix” it. Like I hadn’t already been trying everything. I just went home and cried.”
4. Have You Tried… ?
The unasked-for advice is endless, says Hannah Usher: “Have you tried... *something you've tried a thousand times*?”
It’s disrespectful to assume that people who are expert in their own condition haven’t tried or haven’t already heard about whatever diet or treatment is being recommended, whether it’s to drink more water, have acupuncture, eliminate dairy or consume bucketloads of aloe vera.
As Natalia Hurst jokes, the advice can be downright ridiculous as well as insulting: “Nah mate... just a bit of colouring and mindfulness will cure you… all your negative energies are oozing through your skin: BE MORE POSITIVE!” Maria adds: “Unsolicited advice from well-meaning people always makes me feel super uncomfortable - it assumes that I'm inexperienced when I'm mostly just exhausted from trying all the things my whole frigging life! So I end up patiently listening to how brilliant E45 etc is while seething inside...”
5. Ooh, That Looks Sore!
Comments about how their eczema looks are likely to make people feel really uncomfortable at best, and totally devastated at worst. It can knock someone’s confidence badly to be told that their eczema is very visible or looks awful. A good rule of thumb is not to comment on anyone’s appearance unless you’ve been invited to!
What Can You Do Instead?
Well, try listening first. Offer a sympathetic ear and be there to hear the frustrations and challenges of living with eczema before you make any judgements or suggestions. People with eczema know their own particular condition better than anyone else, and what worked for Auntie Janice may well not work for your friend. It’s more helpful to say “I know everyone’s different, but if you’d like to hear what helped my aunt, let me know” or “I’m here to listen if you want to go over any ideas or if you just want to vent!”
Let’s hope that we can raise awareness of how eczema can affect lives, and work together towards creating a more compassionate society for those who struggle to manage a chronic skin condition.
Thanks to our panel members for their input: Maria Marziaoli, Ruth Holroyd, Hannah Charlotte Usher, Natalia Hurst, Louise Croome, Simone Ivatts and Suzanne Meere.