Derived from the Greek language, the word “eczema” translates to something like “to boil.” And anyone who has atopic dermatitis—the most common form of eczema—can probably see why. The symptoms often shows up as red, itchy rashes on your arms and legs, and can sometimes cause open sores or resemble scaly skin.
Although it’s possible to develop atopic dermatitis for the first time as an adult, the majority of people experience it shortly after they were born, perhaps as young as two months old. “Most people outgrow it in their early teens, but it can come back later in life,” says Whitney High, MD, an associate professor of dermatology and pathology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Denver. “For some people, atopic dermatitis continues through into adulthood and never lets up.”
The condition itself is likely hereditary, and usually runs in the same circles as allergic rhinitis and asthma. “Families that have one child with eczema often have another child with asthma or even a third child with seasonal rhinitis or hay fever,” he says.
To limit your odds of experiencing a flare up, here are nine things to avoid.
Take a luxurious bath
A long soak in the tub might sound fantastic—but if you have atopic dermatitis, spending too long in the bathtub can leave your skin feeling itchy and red. The next time you turn on the tap, remember the Goldilocks rule: the water should be not too hot, not too cold, but a lukewarm medium. Ideally, you’ll also limit your soak to no longer than 15 minutes a day, says Dr. High. “We tell people to take good care of their skin by doing gentle bathing and not over-drying the skin,” he says.
Wear a wool sweater
Any kind of abrasive texture, like wool or certain synthetic fibers, might irritate your skin, says Dr. High. A better wardrobe choice: soft, cotton clothing in a looser cut, which won’t rub against your skin. You should also wash any new clothing you buy before wearing them—some contain dyes that make the fabric appear nicer in the store, but may trigger a flare-up on your skin.
Use scented laundry detergents
Scented laundry detergents and some dryer sheets can also bother your skin. Choose products that are free of fragrances and dyes; liquid ones tend to leave less irritating residues behind compared to powder versions. We like the all-FREE CLEAR laundry detergent that’s specifically designed for people with sensitive skin; the product received a seal of acceptance from the National Eczema Association (NEA), which keeps a list of other helpful products on their website.
Wash with anything besides fragrance-free soaps
Similar to scented laundry detergents, scented hand soaps, bubble baths, body washes, and lotions can all cause your skin to feel dry and itchy. “Use bland soaps, not highly perfumed or scented soaps,” says Dr. High.
Scratch your skin
Atopic dermatitis is sometimes called “the itch that rashes.” In other words, says Dr. High, “some people think you have the itching sensation first, then do all the damage to the skin with the scratching and picking, which leads to the rash.” And while it’s a good idea to reach for a moisturizer at the first sign of a tingle, you should also keep your fingernails trimmed and smooth—that way, you’ll be less likely to puncture the skin if you do end up scratching at it.
Get too hot—or cold
During the warmer months, the high temperatures (or, the sensation of heat, says Dr. High) can sometimes bother people’s skin. Not only that, but sweating can cause irritation, too. Likewise, the cold, dry weather in winter can also trigger itchiness.
To avoid a flare-up, you’ll have to do more than just avoid certain products. You should also moisturize your skin at least twice a day to prevent it from becoming too dry or cracked, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Look for mild, fragrance-free lotions—Aveeno Eczema Therapy Moisturizing Cream and Cetaphil’s RestoraDerm Eczema Calming Body Moisturizer are two options—or opt for petroleum jelly. It’s also smart to try out a new product on a small area of your skin first, on the off chance that it causes your skin to feel itchy and irritated later on.
Eat trigger foods
Although the majority of eczema flare-ups aren’t caused by a person’s diet, “there may be occasional cases where atopic dermatitis is exacerbated by food or drinks,” says Dr. High. To pinpoint what might be triggering your flare, try keeping track of your daily routine (including meals) in a journal. By looking back at your past entries, you might be able to identify the culprits. For example, if you and your doctor think that milk is causing a flare, you might want to eliminate it from your diet while working with a nutritionist to help shore up your intake with other calcium-rich foods.
Let stress take over
Although stress can certainly trigger a flare, Dr. High says that it’s usually the last factor that doctors consider. But he also notes that all of his patients feel itchier at night, whether they have atopic dermatitis or any other itching skin condition. “It’s the time of the day when it’s quiet,” says Dr. High. “You’re not going to feel itchy when you’re going a million miles an hour at your job. You don’t have time to plug into all those body sensations.”