Eczema: Problem Skin

Eczema: Problem Skin

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of

“Can you tell me what to do for ‘winter skin’?” asked the boy in my office. “Every winter my skin gets red and scaly. It itches almost all the time and sometimes it hurts. It can even crack and bleed.”

The young man was describing a condition called eczema, which is extremely common. I had not heard it referred to as ‘winter skin’ before, but that is not a bad description. Eczema develops much more frequently during the winter months and is usually more severe in winter than at other times of the year.

The skin is the largest organ of the body and it performs many important functions. It is a primary line of defense, protecting us from harmful organisms, ultraviolet radiation, and toxic substances. It plays a major role in regulating body temperature and is extremely active in ridding the body of toxic substances. The skin forms a protective barrier against the loss of precious body fluids. We could not survive without it.

Standing as it does between the finely balanced internal environment of the body and the chaotic external environment the skin is under constant attack. General health is dependent largely upon how well the skin is able to withstand the assaults leveled against it.

Eczema is an indication that the skin is losing the battle being waged against it. Challenges to the skin’s integrity may come from the external environment, the internal environment, or from a combination of both. While eczema has many causes, the characteristic dryness, itching, and scaling are signs that the skin has lost its natural oils and is unable to retain adequate moisture.

Topical agents come in three basic forms: lotions, creams, and ointments. These can be helpful in decreasing the symptoms of eczema, but they do little to address the causes of the problem. When choosing a preparation to apply to irritated areas of skin it is important to understand that by definition ointments are moisturizing, creams are slightly drying, and lotions are very drying. It is best to apply an ointment to dry skin, because a cream or lotion, while less greasy, will actually cause the skin to become drier as the water in the preparation evaporates. This can create a vicious cycle in which the product that is applied to relieve dryness and itching actually creates more dryness and itching and perpetuates the problem.

External challenges to the skin’s integrity are the easiest to recognize and address. Applying a moisturizing sunscreen can do much to protect the skin from the effects of sun and wind. This should be done when engaging in outdoor activities, especially on dry or windy days.

Chemical exposure should be limited. Wearing gloves when working with cleaners or solvents helps to keep the hands from becoming dry, rough, and inflamed.. Installing and using a shower filter will go a long way toward protecting the entire body. If bathing, the tub should be filled through the filter.

The importance of using a shower filter cannot be understated. Virtually all tap water contains chemical contaminants. This is especially true of water from municipal sources, which is typically chlorinated. Chlorine is especially drying and irritating. Containers of chlorine bleach carry this warning: Danger: Corrosive. Harmful if swallowed. May cause severe irritation or damage to eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. Avoid contact with eyes, skin, and clothing. Do not ingest. For prolonged use, wear gloves.

While all are affected to a degree, some people are more sensitive to chemical effects than others. Rosalie endured dry, red, itchy and sometimes painful patches of eczema for many years. The condition cleared within a matter of days when she began showering only in filtered water.

Eczema is more common during the winter months because the air is much drier than in other seasons. Cold air is not able to hold as much moisture as warm air. Much of the limited moisture in the cold air is lost when the air is heated. The relative humidity of indoor air in many North American homes during the winter months is lower than that in Death Valley.

The use of a humidifier will dramatically decrease the likelihood of developing eczema during the winter months. Placing a teapot or pan of water on a stove is insufficient, as gallons of water must be added to the air to bring the relative humidity up to a comfortable range. Automatic humidifiers may be incorporated into the central heating system or freestanding console units may be purchased. It is often better to place two or three small units in strategic locations than to rely upon a single large unit to adequately humidify air throughout the home.

It is also helpful to bathe less frequently during the winter. Supplementing a full shower or bath every other day or every third day with daily spot bathing will maintain good hygiene while preventing eczematous changes in most instances. When a full bath or shower is taken the water should be lukewarm rather than hot. Some water should be left on the skin and sealed in by applying oil. Deodorant soaps, which contain chemicals that dry and damage the skin, should be avoided.

Challenges from the internal environment arise from nutritional deficiencies, food and chemical sensitivities, and toxic conditions. Essential fatty acid deficiencies prevent the skin from producing optimum quantities of oil. Essential fatty acid deficiencies may be addressed by supplementing flax oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil, or omega-3 fish oils. Incorporating a high quality flax oil such as Barlean’s into the daily diet is ideal. The optimum amount is 1 tablespoon per 100 pounds of body weight. Taking 2 to 3 fish oil capsules, sometimes referred to as Marine Lipids, is also effective.

Food allergies or sensitivities can trigger attacks of eczema. Food dyes and preservatives can also be responsible. Avoiding the offending foods can bring substantial relief from eczema symptoms. The most common problem foods are milk, eggs, wheat and corn, including fructose, which is corn syrup. Unfortunately, the reaction is often delayed making it difficult to determine which foods are responsible. Obtaining a food allergy test that measures both IgE and IgG antibodies is very helpful in identifying the culprits.

Over the years I have found that a significant number of individuals with eczema respond to regimens that detoxify the body or correct imbalances in the body’s flora, the microorganisms found throughout the body. When eczema persists despite the elimination of external environmental challenges and the correction of nutritional or dietary factors, toxicity or a disruption of the body’s normal flora should be considered. The management of toxicity was addressed August 2003 issues of this newsletter.

The presence of seborrhea, a condition characterized by flaking of the scalp and redness and scaling along the hairline, eyebrows, and behind the ears, is a strong clue that an imbalance in the body’s flora exists. Steps that can be taken to correct this were presented in the November 2002 newsletter.

You need not live with “winter skin.” The health of your skin can be restored by limiting external environmental challenges, correcting nutritional deficiencies, and addressing toxicity and disruptions of the body’s normal flora.

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