An itch you can't scratch: The lowdown on eczema

By: Sarah Feldman

Author: Canadian Living


An itch you can't scratch: The lowdown on eczema

By: Sarah Feldman
What is eczema?

Eczema. Ek-suh-muh. Ig-zee-muh. As the thermostat dips, the skin condition no one knows how to pronounce (let alone spell) starts to rear its ugly head on elbows, foreheads and backs of knees across the country.

Eczema’s definition is an expansive one. Unlike hives or a simple rash, which can flare up and dissipate within hours, eczema is a chronic inflammatory skin condition triggered by genetic, behavioural and allergenic factors. According to Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, Dermatologist and Medical Director at Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto, “Eczema literally means ‘to boil out, to get blisters.’”

“In an active form,” Dr. Skotnicki continues, “eczema is itchy, blistery skin, but most patients who have mild cases of eczema experience dry, itchy skin on a day-to-day basis.”

What causes eczema?

Most dermatologists agree that there are three reasons why a person would develop eczema. The first and most common form is genetic. “There are patients who are born with a genetic tendency to get eczema,” says Dr. Skotnicki, ”so babies and children can develop dry, itchy skin on their arms, legs, scalps and backs of knees,” seemingly out of nowhere.

For others, eczema flares up because of irritation. When it comes to irritants, Dr. Skotnicki isn’t afraid to name names: “Cleansers, too much soap and all the stuff we put on our skin,” often formulated with fragrance, can result in angry, reactive and sensitized skin.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of eczema and you’ve ruled out genetics and skin irritation, perhaps you should make an appointment with an allergist, “the third reason being that you became allergic to something that touched your skin,” Dr. Skotnicki explains. Allergens like poison ivy, for example, often result in blisters and boils on site of contact.

Eczema is the bread and butter of a dermatologist’s business. “We see it on a daily basis in our office and it affects millions of patients across Canada,” says Dr. Skotnicki. The chronic skin condition affects approximately one in five Canadians—no surprise considering our frigid, six-month-long winters. Fortunately, numerous avenues of treatment exist.

How can you treat eczema?

The first course of care? “Don’t overdo it” when it comes to personal hygiene. “We are too clean in North America,” Dr. Skotnicki says. “We’re washing all of our good barriers away, so people who complain about dry, itchy skin are often the ones who work out and shower twice a day and soap up with the smelly, foamy stuff you find at the gym.” Showering or bathing once a day is perfectly fine, as long as you spend no more than 10 to 15 minutes in hot water and use fragrance-free, non-foaming soap, Dr. Skotnicki says. While skin is still damp, infuse the skin with a lipid-rich lotion, which helps repair the skin barrier that has broken down and caused a flare-up.

From a Western medical perspective, the only kind of hydration that effectively mitigates the symptoms of eczema is topical, meaning it takes place on the skin’s surface. Drinking water to soothe dry skin, for example, is a long-standing “urban myth,” Dr. Skotnicki says.

The same goes for an anti-inflammatory diet; while frequently prescribed by naturopaths and traditional Chinese physicians, Dr. Skotnicki claims that superfoods may boost your overall health, but can’t do much to help your skin once they’ve entered your digestive tract. “I think integrative health is a great thing,” says Dr. Skotnicki, “but if you’re using the wrong soap or moisturizer or lotion, the skin will remain inflamed.”

Six skin-saving eczema care products

To ward off eczema, opt for products that are hypoallergenic, fragrance-free and formulated without harsh foaming agents like sodium laureth sulfate or other skin-stripping surfactants. You might not smell like a bouquet of red roses—but, hey, at least you won’t look like one!

These dermatologist-tested and approved products get our nod for leaving skin soft, nourished and protected against irritants, flare-ups and environmental aggressors.

Body wash

Proper eczema care begins in the shower. This October, Polysporin launched its Eczema Essentials line, a three-product wellness system designed to relieve the itch and irritation associated with chronic dryness. The soap and frangrance-free Polysporin Eczema Essentials Daily Wash ($16.50, hydrates skin while it cleans and is gentle enough to be used on babies.

Facial care

Facial skincare demands an entirely different line of defence, especially if you have skin that is dehydrated but oily and acne-prone. We recommend Bioderma’s Atoderm PP Gel ($17,, an ultra-rich soap-free cleanser for face and body that actually foams while restoring skin’s lipids—a rarity in the world of eczema-safe skincare.

To hydrate, pat a few pumps of the Laboratoire Dr Renaud Omega-3 Oleo-Serum ($56.50, onto the face and neck. Serums penetrate the deepest layers of the skin, and hydrate most effectively when applied before moisturizer. According to Isabelle Villeneuve, Director of Research and Development at Laboratoire Dr. Renaud, the soothing and anti-aging Oleo-Serum contains high concentrations of omega-3, “also called essential lipids or essential fatty acids, which helps reconstruct the skin barrier.”

Body lotion

It’s not enough to use a moisturizer that simply sits on top of the skin. The best creams, Dr. Skotnicki explains, have a “lipid component” to repair the outermost layer of the epidermis and help hold moisture in. The Polysporin Eczema Essentials Daily Moisturizing Cream ($20, works to reduce dryness and irritation within three days to visibly improve the look and feel of undernourished skin. But, if you’re in the midst of a flare-up, reach for a hydrocortisone-rich product like the Polysporin Eczema Essentials Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Cream ($12,—it provides immediate relief, but should be used only sparingly.

For another medication option, turn to La Roche-Posay’s Lipikar Baume AP ($25/200 ml, A two-decades-old hero product, this non-greasy lotion breaks the vicious cycle of itch and irritation with Shea butter, omega-3 and 6 and Niacinamide (4%), an anti-inflammatory ingredient with skin turnover properties. Its lengthy ingredient list translates to softer, more resilient skin.

Interested in more insider beauty tips? Check out our Fashion and Beauty blog.
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An itch you can't scratch: The lowdown on eczema