For National Eczema Awareness Week we're taking a deep dive into what can trigger an eczema flare with a special guest post by award-winning blogger, Ruth Holroyd of WhatAllergy. Here she gives some expert insight into how to go about identifying what might be making your skin itchy and irritated.
This almost deserves a trigger warning, but if you’ve ever been asked, “Oh, what caused your eczema flare up?” you’ll know how very frustrating that question is! Often we don’t really know, or we end up suspecting everything; it can seem totally random and frustrating.
When you write down all the things you did each day from lifestyle choices, activities, work, things you ate, people you saw, products you put on your skin… it begins to become overwhelming, and people can feel helpless.
"This doesn’t apply to me – I don’t have any skin triggers!"
If this is you, but you still have eczema, we’d challenge you to think about whether this is the case. We all want to live without a skin condition, or to at least learn to control it and not let it rule our lives. If your skin condition is bothering you, then you kind of owe it to yourself to explore every avenue. We know it’s a huge task and seems impossible, but if you approach it bit by bit and tackle one thing at a time, you can start to make a real difference.
Triggers won’t cause an instant reaction, things can build up over time and inflammation can be caused by combinations of stress, the wrong food and poor sleep hygiene to name just a few. It’s not like an alarm going off to alert you, it’s stealthy and sneaky and can take a lifetime to pinpoint. If you ask most people with eczema, they’ll tell you that they never stop learning about what their skin needs to be healthy. You might not like this job but it’s yours none the less. Take the challenge! Find your triggers!
We don’t believe that people ‘just have eczema’. There are ALWAYS one or more root causes…
Why it’s so hard working out your skin triggers
It’s a triggering question to ask anyone with eczema, psoriasis or sensitive dry skin because most of the time we don’t really know. Sometimes we ‘think’ we know but then there’s times when our skin seems to behave and react to nothing – and other times when everything seems to be a potential hazard.
Add to this the complication that no two people have exactly the same skin triggers and you can see why it can take most people years to figure stuff out. Things can also change over time, just to make things even more confusing.
It’s kind of like a detective job that anyone with eczema will be familiar with. We become forensic about what we put on our skin, what we eat and what we use in our homes. And we go through phases of trying everything people suggest, before we finally realise that sometimes there just might be no real reason.
Consider that it might just be ebbing and flowing eczema
Before we unpick the many potential triggers for eczema, it is worth considering that there actually might not be one. Sometimes it just flares up, for no apparent reason. Sometimes you’ll have a flare up when you’re super stressed, busy, excited, hot etc. but you don’t want to stop living your life if these are your triggers.
With this in mind, it can be easier to live with your skin and love your skin if you accept a level or unpredictability. Try to let go of trying to fix it make it always perfect. But instead go about your life with your safety measures in place to help you catch or ride out a flare-up without doing too much damage.
Don’t over stress any skin flares, instead practise kindness, self-care and look after your skin when it needs a little extra TLC. Maybe we’ll never be free of eczema; buy maybe we can we live a positive and fulfilled life despite this skin condition? It can be very hard, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have ‘like’ it, but if it is your life you only get one chance.
Those pesky triggers – what are they and how do you understand them?
There can be hundreds, thousands of tiny little triggers and irritants, so working on simplifying your skin care regime, cleaning products and the food you eat the lifestyle you live can really begin to help.
Skincare – Throwing loads of different products at your skin can be too much for it, you don’t really need ten different products on your skin each day. We recommend you choose a cleanser and moisturiser that are natural and healing for your skin and maybe incorporate a good quality natural serum and collagen. Anything more can be overkill, not only for the fragile microbiome living on your skin, but it can clog pores and do more harm than good.
Finding natural products that also have healing properties and ditching the high street products made from lists of chemicals and artificial fragrances will mean less stress for your body to process; a proportion of everything we put in our skin can be absorbed so get clinical about what you put on your own skin!
Diet – Certain foods can most definitely cause skin irritation and allergies can also cause eczema symptoms, but diagnosis is difficult. Finding out what these are can be hard; you should ask for ‘patch testing for contact allergens’ and ‘food allergy testing’ if you suspect food triggers.
However, if it’s a food intolerance allergy testing doesn’t work. Keeping a food, mood and symptoms diary can help you work this out. Over time you’ll begin to find you can tune in and know what is good and bad for your skin. But instead of becoming hyper-focused on this, look at bringing in diversity, choose different coloured fruits and vegetables and introduce probiotics and prebiotics such as fermented foods live kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha. There is a direct link between gut health and skin health so eating a varied diet can pay dividends. There could be many food-related triggers from nickel in food, high salicylate foods, histamine, FODMAPS etc. to name just a few known culprits.
It’s confusing to work out what’s going on, so seek help from a professional nutritionist if you feel your gut may not be working as efficiently as it could be. If you are eating foods that irritate your gut, it could be playing out on your skin.
Lifestyle – You’ll know that stress can affect skin flare ups but what can you do about that? Anxiety can be so triggering so start to notice if you are more itchy when you’re under stress and anxious. It’s not always easy to just ‘stop being stressed out’, but look for small ways that you can make a difference. Whether it’s trying out restorative yoga, finding a walking buddy to get you out regularly in nature, reading, finding an inspiring new podcast or a new hobby.
Small changes can all add up, helping you feel more gratitude, reduce that heart rate and give your body more relaxation. Just a 30 second meditation can be powerful. It’s not about being positive all the time and clearing the mind of thoughts – that’s impossible. But being able to be still even for very short periods of time can be really beneficial. Over time it will become easier too, give it a go!
Cleaning – You might not even think this could be a problem for your skin if you wear gloves anyway, but everything in your home environment could be affecting your body, skin and concentration. There can be a whole collection of different cleaning products in our homes, from bleach to glass cleaner, to surface sprays and bathroom and limescale removers. These can often be quite toxic so it could be worth looking at more eco-friendly and natural cleaning products.
You don’t have to do this all at once, use up the products you have, but consider looking at alternatives. Everything in your living space is important. Just tackle one thing at a time. We’ve found things like white vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice can tackle a multitude of stains and dirt quite effectively and it can also feel empowering doing something to reduce plastic waste and help by being kinder to the planet.
Your home – Mould, allergens, those plug-in fragrance things, dust and lack of ventilation can all add to the indoor air quality of your home. If it can affect your breathing it could also be having a negative impact on your skin. There are lots of things you can do that don’t cost loads of money, and again, you can approach things bit by bit. It can seem overwhelming to think about how to make everything Scandi chic and perfect, so choose one room and try to declutter in your own time.
Ensure it’s not damp and create a healthier home environment. You may already have wooden blinds, solid flooring and clear surfaces but most of us live with a lot of clutter and end up not making changes because we’re just too busy. We suggest starting with your bedroom as that’s where you spend most of your time, sleeping.
- Indoor air quality – We touched on this above, but one thing many people don’t realise is that candles, joss-sticks and burners can contain toxic chemicals. Look at the label on a candle if you don’t believe us! Consider switching to soya melts and beeswax candles, and look into using only pure essential oils in an air diffuser instead. They are just as luxurious and certainly won’t mean you miss out on the ambience and glow you got from your favourite candle.
Sleep – Our skin and in fact all our body organs heal and recharge when we sleep, but not all of us find sleeping easy. Why is it so hard to maintain healthy sleep hygiene? We’re busy, we are attached to our devices, and we have so much to do and so little time. If you’re obsessing over your lack of sleep this could be an area to focus on.
We don’t have any magic answers for you but it’s a whole science – and you may not need 8 hours a night if you can work on getting good quality deep sleep for six hours a night. Knowing what’s healthy for you is what’s important. There is a lot of research out there now that you can investigate but for starters, leave the mobile phone in another room at night and set bedtime lockdowns to encourage you to put the phone down at least an hour before bed. Look at your bedding, having a cool room temperature and sleep in comfy cooling nightwear. Sleep is the best thing you can give your skin!
- Clothing – Even our clothes can irritate our skin! Look at your wardrobe and really consider which items feel great on your skin and whether others are too tight, too hot, too itchy etc. Materials such as Tencel, cotton, silk and bamboo can be really cooling and softer on sensitive skin. And you don’t need to change your whole wardrobe, just start to become aware of whether those nylon tights cause an itching fit every time you whip them off at the end of the day!
This is just the tip of the lifestyle iceberg… Looking at all the above it’s not surprising most of us often think, nah, it’s too hard to work any of this out!
This isn’t a quick fix, it’s a long-term journey, a lifestyle switch, towards doing the best you can for yourself and your skin. You don’t have to give up those special choc pots you love as a treat or give up alcohol forever… it’s about making healthy switches when you can and enjoying those indulgent treats in moderation.
And rest assure, you are not alone!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ruth Holroyd is an author, blogger and patient advocate. She writes about allergies, anaphylaxis, asthma, eczema and topical steroid withdrawal on her award-winning blog www.whatallergy.com. She won the Free From Food Awards Hero Award 2021 and has written two books. ‘Anaphylaxis: The Essential Guide: An Action Plan For Living With Life-Threatening Allergies’ which focuses on anxiety and fear and how to live with the daily challenge of living with a life limiting condition. Her second book, The Shape of Skin, is a poetry book for people with eczema, psoriasis and sensitive skin.