7 things you need to know about eczema

This September marks the 40th anniversary since the foundation of the National Eczema Society (NES) – a charity dedicated to providing information, advice and support for people with eczema and their families.

The work done by the NES is particularly important as atopic eczema – a skin condition caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors – affects 1 out of 5 children and 1 out of 12 adults in the UK. It is estimated that 5 million children and adults in the UK are affected by eczema every year. 

Now the good news is that research shows that 65% of children will grow out of the condition by the age of 7 and that 74% will grow out of it by the age of 16, but of course this also means that not everyone does. The not-so-great-news is that there is currently no known cure to eczema, but what we do know is that it can be managed.

Here at The Natal Family, we understand that no two people (and therefore families) with eczema will ever be the same, but as well as having a number of teachers suffering from the conditions, many of us are also parents to little ones who experience some of the symptoms, so in celebration of National Eczema Week this September, we have teamed up to give you our top 7 tips on atopic eczema.

1. Know the triggers = know how to manage it

Atopic eczema manifests itself with dry, red and itchy skin on more or less extensive areas of the body. Because of a ‘defective’ skin barrier, the skin doesn’t produce as much fats and oils as it should; the skin struggles to retain water and becomes dry and appears ‘cracked’. This allows for bacteria and irritants to pass through the skin layers more easily.

Triggers vary from person to person, but among the most common offenders are soaps and other cosmetic products, tree and grass pollens, changes in temperature, humidity and sweating, teething for babies, wool and synthetic clothing, animal fur and hair, and house-dust mites and their droppings. When something acts as an irritant, the skin can break up, become irritated and inflamed, or in other words ‘flare up’.

Understanding what products or factors act as irritants and avoiding exposure to them goes a long way towards successfully managing the condition and keeping the skin moisturised and ‘comfortable’.

2. Remember that it’s a family affair

Atopic eczema can affect the whole family, not just the person who suffers from it, especially if a child or more children in the family have it – managing eczema on a daily basis is likely to impact activities, routines, and, more generally family life, and it is not uncommon for parents to worry about how eczema impacts their children’s lives.

Natal teacher and mum of two Laura tells us how her daughter’s eczema has, at times, caused her little one to become self-conscious and ask questions about it. The frequent trips to the GP and all the ‘soul searching’ that her and her husband did when deciding whether to continue with their young daughter’s swimming lessons (which seem to cause her eczema to flare up) show how each family needs to find their own unique ways to successfully manage the condition, ease its symptoms and the impact they can have on family life.

Sometimes, the itchiness caused by the dry skin also means scratching well into the night, which can wake you, your child or other members of the family up. All the scratching can also cause the skin to break up, which in turn can cause infections – that’s when a trip to the GP may be required, so that the skin may be treated with antibiotics if necessary.

3. Remember that soaps and perfumes dry the skin up

Expectant Natal teacher and mother of two Suzy tells us how she prefers giving her children showers instead of hot baths, as she finds that their skin becomes a lot less irritated. She also makes sure that they use no (or very little) soap, as, like many others, she finds that soap and other cosmetic products act as irritants and can dry their skin up even more, causing it to become itchy and crack, if not moisturised quickly enough. Emollient soap substitutes can be used instead – they don’t foam, but they are just as effective at cleaning the skin as soap.

4. Let that skin breathe

For some people wool and synthetic clothing (like nylon and polyester) act as irritants by making the skin too hot and sweaty. Cotton is always preferable as it allows the skin to ‘breathe’ – it absorbs sweat and is cool on the skin. Silk and bamboo cotton (which also helps to balance the body temperature) are other available options that are a lot ‘gentler’ on the skin.

There are now many clothing and bedding brands on the market which are made of organic cotton, have no added chemicals and use poppers that are nickel free, which makes them ideal for using directly on baby’s sensitive skin and minimise irritation. The Natal Family stock several ranges of organic clothing in our shop.

Expectant Natal teacher and mum of one Zoe also tells us how what worked really well for her in managing her son’s eczema was to use white or cream-coloured cotton vests and bedding. White clothes can be washed at higher temperatures (higher than 60 degrees), which helps to kill dust mites – another potential trigger for people with atopic eczema.

5. Moisturise before and after a swim

Natal teacher and mother of two Laura tells us how eczema has affected her oldest daughter since an early age, and one of the things that she finds most challenging about the condition is the fact that her daughter’s skin seems to ‘flare up’ a lot after her swimming lessons. So if you or your child are getting ready for a swim remember that:

  • Trying different swimming pools might help – different pools use different chemicals or different amounts of chlorine to disinfect the water, and sometimes the skin can react badly to certain products and not to others. The Natal Family’s co-founder Steph also reminds us that chemical-free pools, which use ultraviolet lights to keep the water clean, are on the rise, so it may be worth checking if a fairly local one is available and see what effect that has on the skin.
  • If a chemical-free pool isn’t an option, it might be useful to find out when the chemicals are added (what day, how frequently etc.), and it may be worth avoiding going swimming soon after the chemicals have been added to the water.
  • If the skin is flaring up already, it may be handy to post-pone the swimming session, if at all possible, until the skin is looking a bit less red and dry.
  • Using emollient ointment before entering the pool might help to create a barrier to the skin which protects it from drying up whilst in the water. Emollients should be applied again as soon as coming out from the pool.

6. Be prepared to try a few products before finding out what’s right for you

There are plenty of products being marketed as being good for eczema – many parents will be able to recommend to others what to use (or not) if it worked for them, but ultimately, what works for some may not work for others, so unfortunately a little trial and error is required to understand what’s best for someone’s skin.

As a rule of thumb, most of the products that are recommended or prescribed for eczema will be emollients, or in other words, non-cosmetic moisturisers, which are unperfumed and work by helping the skin feel less itchy, more moist and flexible and therefore more comfortable. Using emollients generously and often (the National Eczema Society recommend at least 3 times a day) is, for some people, one of the keys to successfully managing the condition. Moisturising the skin after a shower or a bath when the skin is still damp is one of the best ways to trap that wetness in the skin.

Emollients can come as creams, ointments and lotions. Products may differ with regards to containing more or less (or different types of) preservatives and in the water and fat content. Because of that, some products will be more effective for certain people and not for others.

7. Be safe in the sun

People with sensitive skin and atopic eczema find that sunscreens which contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide work better, as they allow the sunscreen to sit on the skin, rather than being absorbed by it. Children who are particularly self-conscious about their eczema may feel slightly exposed, so in order to keep them safe from the sun UV-protection swim suits might also be an option.

Another tip for when out and about in the sun (which dries the skin up) is to try and apply emollient about half an hour before the sunscreen – this is to avoid for the sunscreen to become diluted by the emollient and therefore ineffective. Where possible, sun products should be non-fragranced.

This is it from The Natal Family, but if you have any tips that you would like to share, don’t forget to get in touch!

Thank you to Suzy, Laura, Zoe and Steph for their kind contribution to this post!

Please note that the information contained in this article is not meant to be taken as medical advice and should never replace the advice given by a professional. If you think that you or your child may suffer from eczema, please consult your GP.