Eczema And The Environment: How To Minimize Your Exposure And Reduce Your Risk

in Understanding Eczema

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In many developed countries the rate of eczema has now reached a staggering rate of 20% or 1 in 5 people. This is more than triple the incidence in less developed nations.

Such a gap in the numbers of individuals afflicted with eczema begs the question; what is causing an increasing number of people to develop eczema and why only in certain regions?

This article will help you identify triggers in your environment that could be contributing to your eczema and give simple ways to modify your exposure and your body’s reaction to that exposure.

It is written from the perspective of a doctor who spends much of her time educating patients about the role their surroundings can play in their health. This relationship is particularly strong for skin conditions, including eczema.

What Is Eczema And How Can My Environment Cause This Skin Condition?

QuestionEczema, medically referred to as atopic dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition characterized by itchy, inflamed skin.

The skin is usually reddened and dry with weeping of fluid and raised vesicles (fluid-filled bumps) during the acute stage.

If it is chronic it can develop into lichen eczema, which is a thickening of the skin that can occur from habitual scratching and rubbing.

Your genes play some role in the risk for developing this condition but so does the air you breathe, the food and beverages you consume and the objects you come in contact with.

An eczema patient once said to me, after a discussion of describing the inner workings of eczema physiology, “so basically you’re telling me I have a freaked out immune system and it’s getting angry, swollen and irritated.

This was actually a pretty good and simple description because eczema is the result of a “freaked out” immune system and an effective treatment strategy is to stop bombarding it with “freaky” substances.

First we need to understand the different types of eczema, then identify its triggers and finally take steps to reduce exposure.

Contact Eczema: Don’t Reach For The Hand Sanitizer Just Yet

Contact eczema happens when a person touches a chemical or substance that stimulates an immune reaction resulting in the reddening, scaling and swelling common to all types of eczema.

However, contact eczema is unique in that it only affects the skin that was touched, whereas other forms of eczema can appear anywhere, but mostly do so on the face, hands, fronts of elbows and backs of knees.

Contact eczema is broken down into two types: irritant and allergic.

Irritant Contact Eczema occurs when it is the offending substance that directly caused the skin inflammation such as when someone uses caustic cleaning solution without gloves.

Allergic Contact Eczema is the result of your immune system overreacting to a signal from coming in contact with the substance. Latex, poison ivy and metal allergies are the most common suspects when looking for an allergic cause of contact dermatitis.

As much as possible, I recommend patients use naturally derived products in their home and at work.

The chemicals found in laundry soap, copy machine toner and air fresheners can launch an assault on your immune system and contribute to eczema or an aggravation of existing skin lesions.

Physicians saw a spike in office visits of patient with hand eczema with the popularization of hand sanitizer.

Not only do most hand sanitizers contain alcohol, which is extremely drying and increases susceptibility to eczema, they also frequently utilize benzalkonium chloride, a chemical that has shown to be an allergen, carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in animal studies and a known immune system disruptor.

Not exactly the ingredient people are looking for when they are trying to stay healthy by avoiding germ exposure. Instead, I have patients wash their hands the old fashioned way with natural, non-drying soap and water.

If they don’t have access to a sink I recommend a hand sanitizer based on herbal preparations such as those made by EO. They include ingredients to moisturize as well as anti-microbial essential oils to kill viruses and bacteria.

Chronic Eczema: What Or Who Is Assaulting My Immune System?

With chronic eczema it’s essential for people to examine the air they are breathing, the water they use for drinking and bathing as well as the products they use for personal hygiene, cleaning and even decorating.

Read on to discover how purchasing a shower curtain could potentially exacerbate your eczema.

Air Quality And Eczema: How To Breathe Easier If You’re Suffering From Eczema

pollutionSeveral large studies have shown increased rates of eczema as well as asthma in urban areas where air quality is worse.

Researchers in Lima, Peru measured the levels of particulate matter (pollution indicator) in both urban and rural households.

There was a greater amount of pollution in the city dwellers’ homes with a corresponding increase of eczema in the people living in those poorer air quality regions.

Cigarette smoke also played a role in the worse air quality but it did not account for the entire difference.

In addition to environmental pollution, airborne allergens can exacerbate eczema. These substances trigger the release of immune cells and lead to a hyper reactivity in the body.

Besides eczema, they have also been linked with increased rates of asthma and hayfever (allergic rhinitis).

The most common ones include:

  • dust mites
  • pollens
  • animal dander
  • tobacco smoke

It is often difficult for most people to move to an area of better air quality. What can they do if they live next door to a coal-fired energy plant?

Here is a list of ways to breathe easier without consulting the real estate section of the classifieds or sending Fido off to the pound.

1. Install an air filtration system in your home. These filtration systems are designed to reduce the amount of particulates (tiny pieces of outdoor pollution), dust and mold spores.

Many modern homes already do have such systems but older homes may not. Consult an HVAC professional to see if your air filtering system is adequate for the size of the home and health needs of the occupants.

Also, remember to frequently replace the filters that are busy collecting the dust and dander. For most systems this is every 1-2 months.

2. If you don’t own the home you are living in or you want a more inexpensive way to clean up your home’s air then invest in a stand alone air filter that is portable so that you can place the unit in the room where you sleep or spend most of your time.

When purchasing an air-filtering machine, make sure that it has both a HEPA filter for larger particles (dust, danger, pollen and mold) and also a carbon filter (odors and chemicals).

I’ve recommended the Austin air purifier brand to patients with good reviews, but they can be pricey. So if someone is on a tight budget I recommend the Honeywell machines, which are also a good buy.

3. Buy houseplants to help clean up the air quality in your home. Not only can a potted plant increase the oxygen in your living space, it can absorb formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene as well.

Research has shown that plants from tropical regions are better able to process these chemicals, but even everyday houseplants will offer some benefit.

I suggest patients place 1-2 plants per room but I do not recommend having plants inside the house if an eczema patient is allergic to molds. Fungus can grow in overwatered plants.

Read on to the story below to hear how mold can trigger eczema eruptions.

Humidity, Mold & Eczema: Playing Detective Yields A Valuable Lesson

As most eczema suffers can attest, dry winters and arid climates can often aggravate the scaling, itchy patches of eczema.

Physicians, including myself, often recommend patients in temperate climates utilize a humidifier in the bedroom to reduce eczema aggravations.

While this tip is helpful to many people, I want share a story of a young eczema patient where a discussion of her humidifier revealed the underlying cause of her eczema.

Emily was a beautiful and bright 7-year-old girl brought in by her mother because she was suffering from debilitating eczema since the age of 2. The girl would scratch continuously on her arms, knees, neck and cheeks until her skin would bleed. At times a quarter of her body was covered in lesions.

Emily had been treated with all of the conventional therapies but the eczema always returned when her steroids were tapered off. This patient, like many others, had significant side effects from high dose steroids including thin skinning, mood changes and poor immune function.

We made dietary changes, gave nutrient support including essential fatty acids, and utilized homeopathy. The patient had some marginal improvement but then she, her mother and myself were left feeling disappointed and frustrated– the things that worked for all of my other patients were falling short with Emily.

During one follow up visit I inquired about Emily’s humidifier use as the patient lives in Phoenix, Arizona. The arid weather in the desert can intensify eczematous rashes.

Her mother said they had recently stopped using the humidifier because some mold had grown in the storage canister and the mother noticed that Emily’s skin was better the day after the humidifier was removed from her bedroom. I asked if there was any other mold in the home. Emily’s mother said, “just in the garage, there’s a big patch on the ceiling that’s been there since we moved in. But nothing inside the home.”

Then I asked, out of curiosity, but also because I had a hunch, “who’s bedroom is above the garage?” The answer, of course, was Emily’s bedroom.

The family had the mold remediated and found that not only was the sheetrock saturated but so too were the floorboards and subfloor of Emily’s room. In the following weeks and months Emily’s eczema continued to improve and she also continued eating her healthy diet and taking her supplements. Today she has a rare patch of eczema if she eats excessive amount of dairy, but overall she is feeling great and is no longer self-conscious about her skin.

Treating Emily was a great lesson that sometimes it’s not what is given to patients but what is taken away that leads to cure.

Emily certainly had a pre-disposition to eczema with a strong family history and a brother with hayfever, a condition often related to eczema.

The severity and unresponsiveness to her therapies suggested something more was going on with Emily.

Now I have all of my patients on their initial visit detail a history of when their eczema started and any changes in living, school or working environment that may have occurred at that time.

All humidifiers need to be maintained to inhibit growth of mold in the water reservoir. This can be done by dropping a filter into the water. Most filters contain a silver component to prevent microbial growth.

If you don’t have a filter, then it is recommended to rinse out the water daily and to clean out the tank weekly with either soapy water or a 50:50 white vinegar and water solution.

Pthalates And Eczema: Plastic Goods May Offer Inexpensive, Convenient Options But It Can Come As A Cost, Especially To Eczema Sufferers.

plastic bottlesPhthalates are compounds found in soft plastics that have been implicated in causing changes in the human body’s reproductive and hormone systems.

Additionally, elevated blood levels of phthalates have been found in people with eczema. Other research has shown an aggravation of eczema with use of hygiene and beauty products containing phthalates.

Experts have speculated that the phthalates either directly stimulate the immune system, which creates inflammation in the skin or that they indirectly affect hormone signaling, involved in swelling, reddening and itching.

I often advise pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers to be especially careful about their exposure to phthalates as they can be passed on to infants in the womb or through breast milk.

Infancy is a crucial time when eczema can develop and it’s important for a baby to be protected from chemical compounds that could trigger skin reaction as well as asthma and hayfever.

Products often containing phthalates:

  • Soft plastic toys
  • Cosmetics
  • Shampoos, lotions and powders
  • Shower curtains
  • Teething rings, pacifiers and baby bottle inserts

Many manufacturers have already begun removing phthalates from their products and will often advertise on the packaging “phthalate free.”

Several websites have good information and databases to help consumers seek out phthalate free products.

The non-profit Environmental Working Group has a site called Skin Deep that lets users search for a product to see if it contains any potential harmful chemicals.

Consumer Reports raised some concerns about the safety of phthalate use in medication capsules.

Health food stores are a good resource for finding brands that are committed to not using phthalates in their products.

Look for the Natural Products Association seal, as members of that organization pledge not to use phthalates in their products.

Body product and cosmetic brands that are committed to being phthalate free:

  • Aubrey Organics
  • Burts Bees
  • Dr. Hauschka
  • Jason Natural Organics
  • Juice Organics
  • Origins Organics
  • Pangea Organics
  • Weleda

Additional Recommendations And Resources

I encourage patients to minimized their exposure to plastics overall and use glass food storage containers, stainless steel water bottles and cookware that is either ceramic, stainless, iron or glass.

Reducing exposure to immune system disrupting chemicals and antigens can greatly help patients with eczema but it is not always the entire answer.

Eczema ebookI also recommend eczema sufferers read the book Eczema Free and follow the natural strategies to eradicate eczema.

It’s an easy read that seeks to address the underlying cause of eczema, rather than suppress the symptoms.

You may also like to read:

Vanish Eczema

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jackie October 14, 2011 at 7:58 pm

I have suffered with eczema what seems like my entire life. I first started noticing it as an adolescent around my neck and hands when I would exercise. It would come and go but worse in the winter. The small area between the bridge of my nose and eyelids was also very dry but did not appear to have the eczema-like texture and itchiness as it did on my hands and neck. As I progressed out of adolescence, it seemed to subside. In recent years, particularly the past two years, it started to become a problem on my hands and arms. It no longer affected my neck but slowly started to move more to the eye area of my face. At this time, I was about 24 and in addition to a very small section of facial eczema, I started experiencing acne. This did not help. It seemed to have subsided in the past few years, both the acne and facial eczema but the facial eczema has returned. Now it has pretty much taken over my face…my eyelids and under eye area are extremely red, puffy and tender. Nothing seems to help. I’ve tried cortisone creams, Vaseline, aquaphor, cetaphil lotion and the list continues. I switched to a mineral-based makeup. I’ve tried not wearing makeup (scary!) and cetaphil sensitive skin face wash. I’ve attempted to use a very small amount of polysporin. And now, in recent weeks, my forehead is itchy and red. I try not to scratch and successful but 99% of the day I would like to tear my face off. I’ve always had hay fever, allergies, etc. I drink plenty of water, exercise regularly, eat well and avoid coming in contact with ANYTHING that resembles an allergen. I recently started taking Allegra (OTC) but this also seems to be a waste. I’ve gone to dermatologists but fed up with the lack of results and feeling as if I’m being pushed off. Not only is it taking over my face and hands; now it’s traveled back to my neck and even the back of my neck, pretty much my hairline. My arms are discolored and I also have noticed small nickel-sized discolored patches developing randomly all over–one near my armpit, a few on my back, arms and neck. I’m 27 and feel like my skin is a 72 years-old. I’ve always assumed it’s eczema b/c that’s what dermatologists have diagnosed. The stress from not being able to resolve the problem is enough to drive me crazy. I would do anything to restore my skin. Vitamins, food/diets, drugs, anything!

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