5 Eczema Triggers + How to Best Beat Them

A person with Eczema arm A person with Eczema arm

Controlling unpredictable skin can make a strategic game of chess seem downright rudimentary. It’s said that golf requires mental toughness; ha, it’s a simple walk in the park compared to outsmarting eczema. However, it is possible to learn eczema’s rules of engagement in order to best battle it out and deal with the symptoms of eczema.

Eczema: Um, who can I thank for this?

It might be easy to single out Grandpa Harry for passing along that fabulous male-pattern-baldness gene or Aunt Sue for the battle of the bulge, but did you know that eczema (aka “atopic dermatitis”) is also a genetic condition? Unfortunately, we don’t always know what relatives have up their sleeves, including this propensity for red, irritated and inflamed skin. And, while you likely don’t need to send off a saliva sample to know that you’ve been blessed with the family “curse,” knowing how to help prevent flare-ups may still be tripping you up. While the triggers seem to be anything and everywhere, we can help you try to pinpoint what starts your round of dermatitis dominos. (You can decide who to blame in the family later.)

Every little thing set your skin off?

No matter where it originates, eczema flare-ups are truly personal, reacting to a very specific set of external and internal factors. If you’re living with eczema, it can feel like everything is a potential instigator: sunny days, ice cream, jewelry, new clothes; the list of “maybes” is a mile long and murky. Sure, it probably starts out the same, an absent-minded scratch, followed by a prickle of pain and the inevitable sigh signaling the realization, “yep, here we go again, it’s eczema.” It’s important to keep in mind that beneath every seemingly disconnected trigger there is a cause-and-effect relationship between immune response and skincare.

5 biggest triggers for moody skin

It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to narrowing down the key players in triggering your skin’s personal relationship with eczema. That said, there are quite a few notorious triggers to first consider:

  1. Stress + Anxiety No matter how minor, stress and anxiety activate the body’s fight-or-flight response. As far as your nervous system is concerned, the daily toll Bob-in-accounting’s toxic attitude takes on you is no different than the neighbor’s cat that catches you by surprise in your front bushes. Cortisol production is a major component of the fight-or-flight stress response and overproduction of cortisol can suppress the immune system and trigger a bout of eczema. Unfortunately none of us are immune to stress (or annoying co-workers) so your best course of action is to maintain a daily skincare regimen and incorporate a few simple stress and anxiety reduction techniques when life starts to get under your skin.
  2. Skin Irritants Speaking of irritating, the office (and/or Bob) isn’t the only thing to blame. The kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom are potential minefields if you’re living with eczema. Here are just some of the usual suspects lurking about the house:
    • Soaps and Household Cleaners
    • Fragrances
    • Fabrics (Particularly Wool and Polyester)
    • Nickel and other Metals
    • Antibacterial Ointments
    • Cigarette Smoke
    Maybe you’re comfy in wool socks and can fully douse yourself in eau de toilette; external irritants differ from person to person. The throughline connecting them is distress. When faced with even the tiniest of perceived “intruders,” your body goes on the defense, big time, kicking the immune system into high gear (uh, thanks?). An army of antibodies is sent to fight off these (often benign) foreign bodies, prompting inflammation and subsequent breakouts. A preventative skincare regimen will help you develop a “thicker skin,” so to speak, to ward off being overly sensitive and vulnerable while a little detective work will help identify the irritants that serve as key catalysts. Often, a process of elimination serves as the best way to sort out which outsiders are welcome in your home.
  3. The Weather Eczema is the ultimate fair-weather friend. It seems to come around just when the weather is looking up. A beautiful, warm and sunny summer day? “Oh, hi eczema, thanks for dropping by. #notinvited.” Warm weather increases sweating, which leads to a loss of fluids and increase of sodium on the skin’s surface, both of which serve as irritants and the proverbial welcome mat for eczema. After a swim in the ocean, perhaps you run back to your beach towel, salt on your skin, bathing suit rubbing — irritant. On the flip side, cold weather can dry out the air too much, leading to dry skin — a playground setting for eczema flare-ups. Or, throwing on that cozy wool sweater and socks can leave you sweating out the cold under the surface, creating ideal conditions for sweat-induced flare ups that mimic the summer scenario. The actions are innocent and the irritants obvious, but the solution needn’t be to give up swimming or sport short-sleeves in sub-zero conditions. Simply be cognizant and think ahead; drink lots of liquids, rinse salt off your skin and invest in skincare products specifically designed to help prevent eczema reactions.
  4. Difficult-to-Digest Foods Much like skin irritants, food sensitivity varies widely from person to person and elicits the same immune response. So while the overly generalized medical advice to “eat it and see what happens,” can be hard to swallow — especially when it results in a flare-up — it’s the most telltale course of action for getting to the bottom of your food foes. There is, however, a popular menu of foods commonly linked to eczema reactions including:
    • Citrus Fruits
    • Dairy
    • Chocolate
    • Black Tea
    • Eggs
    • Gluten
    • Soy
    Your doctor may suggest allergy testing, which could expose an innate sensitivity to certain foods, but in the long run the “Guess and Check” method will become a staple part of your dietary-dermatitis research. Eczema reactions to certain foods typically appear within 6 to 24 hours, but in order to confidently eliminate specific aspects of your diet you may need to monitor your eczema for 4 to 6 weeks.
  5. Allergens + Allergies Pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mold, dandruff; allergens are an irritant to everyone not just those with pre-existing allergies. But like with anything in life, it’s all in how you sweat the small stuff. If your immune system is a bit of a drama queen, with the tendency to overreact, you end up suffering from allergies and adverse reactions such as a stuffy nose, hives and other dermatological reactions. But why are those living with eczema so uniquely susceptible? Research has shown that we under produce a protein known as filaggrin that helps promote a strong, healthy epidermal layer. Allergens are supposed to bounce off the skin’s surface, but without enough filagarrin to repel them, menacing marauders can settle down into your pores and prompt a flare up. You can’t completely avoid all the invisible things floating by, however, with cleanliness and caution you can divert a lot of this unwanted attention.

How to Outsmart Eczema

This handful of common offenders may or may not come as a surprise. Whether it’s a reaction caused by household items, your mid-morning snack, or hair of the dog, eczema can leave you feeling so defeated that you simply want to throw in the towel — along with all of the harsh products, potions and pills that go along with it. While there’s no cure for this frustrating condition, there are underlying strategies that, when fully implemented, can help keep you back in control of unpredictable skin.

  1. Play Keep Away. Any tiny disturbance to your body's sense of well being serves as a direct hit on the immune system. If you’ve got eczema, you’re dealing with a highly reactive immune response to begin with, so these disturbances can be even more detrimental, resulting in an unwanted flare-up. An awareness of common irritants is important, but even more imperative is a keen sense of specific irritants that send your skin spiraling.
  2. Practice Regular Strength Training. Keeping your skin healthy and strong is the best preventative measure you can take. Establish an everyday routine and recognize that skin prone to eczema has a very unique set of needs.
  3. School Yourself in Moody Skin. Of course it’s always important to consult your doctor before making adjustments your health plan. But it’s equally important to advocate for your own health, too. Become your own eczema expert, tapped into the role your diet, surrounding environment and sensitivities play in maintaining flare-up free skin. This holistic approach starts with one hard and fast rule: know yourself.
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