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Why we need to talk about eczema

The skin condition affects about 15 million people in the UK alone

Following recent public comments from Kendall Jenner about her acne, and Justin Bieber’s playful “pimples are in” story on Instagram, the doors to conversations about acne have been wedged open in the media. But what about those less talked about skin concerns?

Eczema or Atopic Dermatitis (AD) is a gene variation that prevents the skin’s natural ability to provide protection against environmental factors, bacteria, irritants, and allergens. It is chronic, genetic and incurable - a hypersensitivity reaction that can occur at any age. Although it’s more common for children to have eczema, many carry the burden into adulthood. Besides the visual oozing, blistery erosions and flaky look, the condition, most commonly found on the neck, inside of the elbows and knees, can also lead to asthma, hay fever, secondary infections, and sleep deprivation.

Beyond the physical discomfort, AD can have huge impacts on one’s social life, psychological health and general wellbeing. Despite existing charities and helplines such as the National Eczema Society,  a 2018 study found that people with eczema are 36% more likely to attempt suicide. There are of course things that you can treat it with, from soaking yourself in oatmeal or medicinal formula for hours to applying layers of creams. However, these are all incredibly laborious and sometimes really quite expensive. Prescribed topical steroid creams can range from £20-£200 and can often make your skin worse.

There are preventative methods too, which basically means monitoring everything you do in your daily life: making sure your laundry detergent is 100 per cent natural, containing no fragrance or dyes; ensuring the food you eat contains no dairy, gluten, citrus fruits or nuts; banning all wool and polyester from your wardrobe, and nickel from your jewellery. You should also avoid certain weather conditions, cold, dry, and damp environments, dust, pet fur, pollen and moulds, all of which can be potential triggers for eczema sufferers. Basically, almost anything can cause a flare up anytime and anywhere. And when it does all you want to do is scratch it. But you mustn’t, it will make it worse and might result in scarring. Don’t scratch it, don’t touch it, don’t even look at it.

I’ve had eczema since I was a baby. I’ve come to accept that I will always have it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still struggle with it. Over the years I’ve had difficulty with my skincare routine, I’ve had to watch my diet and I have to use creams religiously. The worst was at university, where I couldn’t have my milky baths and it was hard to find time to thoroughly cream my skin. People would ask me why I wasn’t drinking alcohol on nights out, as alcohol triggered the swelling. I made excuses. I felt ugly, itchy and ashamed of my condition. One time, I had to leave university early before Christmas as my eczema became so inflamed that it spread all over my neck and face. It was horrible. I stopped socialising and just told friends I was “busy”.  

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the stigma attached to having it in the first place which Dermatologist Dr Nilesh Morar believes stems from the “appearance” of eczema. People have stared at me, assumed I’m dirty, that I don’t wash. They have even asked me if I was contagious. Then there’s a general perception that you can never be beautiful if you have these patches of dry, crumbling skin all over your face and body. All this needs to change. How? Through education, awareness, people speaking out about it and visibility given to people who have it so as to normalise eczema within mainstream culture. We need to challenge the perception that those who have less than perfect skin can never equate to what society deems as “beautiful”. After all, it is estimated that up 15 million people in the UK and 35 million in America are living with Atopic Dermatitis. Dr Morar estimates that in his case, eczema patients total about “20-30% of the practice per year.”

We need to be doing what’s currently happening online and IRL for people with acne and those with plus size bodies. We need the body positivity movement to shine its light on people with eczema. We need to continue the work of people like beauty blogger and self-styled “eczema warrior” Joanne RH who uses her IG and her blog to share her story with others. As well as showcasing her eczema in pictures, Joanne exposes the misconceptions about the condition. “It’s hard to do basic things people take for granted like sleep, wear clothes or even shower,” she says. “People would be afraid to touch or come too close to me.” Joanne’s follicular eczema became so severe that she began to lose her hair and ended up shaving it off to help heal her scalp. She believes, “being as open about eczema as possible and bringing as much awareness about the condition has helped me cope in so many ways."