The teenage years can be hard enough without eczema; add a chronic skin condition that leaves your face red, itchy and inflamed, and everything gets harder still. Here we welcome guest blogger Elly J Morris to share their experience of living through the teenage years with chronic eczema.
I was allergic to my first boyfriend. Not the kind of problem teenagers usually deal with, but I was, and it was awful. Every time I saw him, hugged him, or kissed him, I came away with a swollen, itchy face that no amount of lotions and potions would fix. At 17, I was advised by doctors to stop wearing makeup and use only sensitive skin moisturisers until I could have a patch test for allergies in eight months’ time.
The relationship didn’t last the eight months, but the eczema did. I had dishydrotic eczema all over my face, which meant I would get yellow blisters everywhere that would pop and peel away. It left me with so little skin on my face that you could see all the veins under my eyes, and when I opened my mouth my cheeks would pull downwards. Needless to say, this was my worst teenage nightmare come to life.
At the time, I was a burgeoning emo kid who spent every spare minute on MySpace, the precursor to Facebook. We uploaded selfies all the time and giggled over people we fancied, and there was a lot of emphasis on wearing makeup. I complied with the ‘no makeup’ rule as best I could but felt naked without thick black eyeliner around my eyes, so the eczema just kept getting worse.
Meanwhile, my parents and I went through product after product, trying to find something that would calm it down. I spent evenings with honey or yoghurt slathered on my face in case those were the magical cure, and survived a two-week trip to Poland with not much skin to protect me from the biting cold. I had to have days off sick from college when my lips swelled so much in drama rehearsal that it was painful to speak my lines, or when I just couldn’t cope with another disgusted glance at my face from people in my classes.
At the time, I was also struggling with intense anxiety and panic attacks, which only got worse when all my socialising involved people seeing my red, scabby face. I mostly stayed at home and sat on my computer, which although probably preferable to my parents when the other option was hanging out on the beach with a bottle of Lambrini, didn’t help my mental health at all.
Eventually, I had the allergy test and found the culprit: parabens. They are a preservative that is synthetically produced as a cheap option to keep lots of products preserved for longer. At the time, they were in all makeup, shampoo, shower gel, washing liquid, the list goes on. We went hunting for paraben-free alternatives that I could use. Back in 2006, there was only one brand that was completely paraben free available on our local high street, and they were incredibly expensive. I bought a black eyeliner and mascara and gave away my large collection of makeup to friends, as I couldn’t be sure which were safe to use and which weren’t.
I discovered that all the sensitive skin moisturisers I had been using had parabens in, which is why the eczema was just getting worse. My now-ex boyfriend had long hair, so it’s likely that I was allergic to the shampoo he was using. I had to take my own pillowcase and sleeping bag to stay over at friend’s houses and couldn’t use soap in public bathrooms any more, instead carrying some hand gel anywhere I went.
It was a massive adjustment and meant that I had to think about a lot of things that none of my friends had to think about. But as soon as we identified the culprit causing my eczema and started treating it with products I wasn’t allergic to, it cleared up and my face went back to normal.
It never came back on my face with the severity it had previously, but when I started playing roller derby I soon found that sweat was a huge trigger for it to come back in other places – my wrists and elbows. I had finally found a sport I liked playing and this was a massive barrier to my enjoyment, until I figured out that wearing cut-up socks under my pads soaked up a lot of the sweat and minimised the eczema.
It still flares up every now and then – on my wrists, elbows, and face, but mostly intensive moisturisers (and a little help from some steroid cream when it gets really bad) help to sort it out. If I had been diagnosed today, it would be a lot easier to find products I could use, but the only thing that has consistently worked for me is to avoid triggers, and keep my dry skin as hydrated as possible, both by drinking lots of water and using skin products especially for dry skin.
Elly J Morris is a writer and librarian. They were the Writer in Residence at Trans Pride Brighton 2018, and you might catch them performing some poetry at open mic nights around Bristol.