Bacteria, particularly Staphylococcus aureus, are one of the most important triggers of eczema (they are found on over 90% of eczematous skin and 5% of normal skin). Staphylococcus aureus can activate the immune system around them, which manifests as an irritation on the skin. The skin’s lipids (fatty substances) that hold skin cells together, tend to be less abundant with eczema and dermatitis. This can be due to unusually low production by the skin cells, but may also be due to excess removal of lipids through repeated use of harsh soap and detergents. It is therefore very important to avoid cleansing products that might further dry and irritate the skin.
Emollients or moisturisers are so important to rehydrate dry, allergy prone skin because it penetrates between the skin cells. A good emollient helps to substitute for the lack of the skin’s own lipids, reducing dryness, moisture loss, and access by infection-causing organisms.
Commonly prescribed emollients, including aqueous cream, are based on petroleum derivatives like paraffin wax, mineral oil and petroleum jelly which tend to clog the skin pores because the molecules are too large to be absorbed into the skin.
Whilst this petroleum barrier reduces moisture loss, it also prevents the skin from breathing and releasing the heat generated by inflammation. Generally described as ‘inert’ with no active skin benefits, petroleum oils tend to absorb the vitamins A and E from the skin and these are such vital vitamins skins’ maintenance and repair.
Remember to wash hands frequently and keep fingernails short (or well kept and dirt-free!). Keep the skin clean using cool or warm (not hot) water and use mild, non-irritating cleansers as necessary. Dry your skin gently - pat dry, don't rub.
Scratching itchy skin activates the immune system in the affected area as it causes the release of chemical trigger substances which initiate other immune reactions. Hence the ‘itch-scratch cycle’. The conventional answer to this problem is steroid creams which suppress the immune system.
But stopping itching and inflammation with herbs such as chickweed and chamomile is kinder to the body and may offer a more long term solution. In fact, depending on the purity and the level of concentration of particular chamomile varieties has been known to be as effective at reducing inflammation as a mild hydrocortisone (steroid), but without the negative side effects.
Other herbs such as calendula and aloe vera have proven powerful skin-healing capabilities. A damaged aloe vera leaf seals over quickly with a film and a rubber-like protective coating to prevent the loss of water. In a short time, the wound heals completely. Aloe is so soothing, cooling and gentle. In fact I keep a bottle of in the cupboard next to my cooker for immediate first aid for when I end up with a cooker burn taking meals in and out of the oven.
Aloe vera helps foster the growth or healthy new tissue and has been shown to penetrate to the water-retaining second layer of skin, helping to eradicate dead cells which not only rejuvenates the skin but also fights infection.
Virgin cold-pressed plant oils, with all their health- promoting vitamins and minerals intact, are readily absorbed by the skin, provide excellent moisturisation and actively encourage the natural healing process.
As an added bonus, these oil-soluble vitamins protect the skin from premature ageing by combating ‘free radical’ damage caused by exposure to the elements and pollution. Shea butter, olive and coconut oils are particularly effective. Little and often is the key, keeping the skin moisturised at all times.
Searching for products which contain natural ingredients is a good start, but finding products without synthetic fragrances, irritant preservatives and detergents is much more difficult! Seeking out products free from synthetic chemicals is highly desirable for us all, as the long-term cumulative effect of putting them on the skin is believed to be a trigger for skin-sensitivity in the first place, but for those with eczema and allergy-prone skin it is absolutely crucial.
Whilst topical (skin) applications can alleviate eczema a great deal, it is worth looking out for possible allergy triggers in the diet too. Cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, gluten and food additives (like flavourings, colours and sweeteners) are common culprits, particularly in children.
Keeping a food diary may also identify the cause of sudden ‘flare-ups’. Trial and error and lots of patience is the key here. Studies show that a common factor among atopic (hereditary) eczema is a lack of fatty acids and in particular gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is mainly found in seeds and certain plant oils like Evening Primrose and Blackcurrant Seed oil but consuming foods high in linoleic acid is also of benefit. Soy Beans and Soy based foods along with Mackerel, Salmon and Tuna.
Body Pure Body Butter is especially good for eczema prone skin.