Summertime holds a special place in our hearts. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare famously asked his lover. Singers from unnamed Medieval bards to the Beach Boys, to Lana Del Rey have sung of the season’s allure. Sadly, worsening eczema symptoms give a lot of us the summertime blues.
Old Man Winter really picks on eczema sufferers, and he attacks on several different fronts. Cold air is dry air, and for people with thirsty skin–like eczema sufferers–this is especially bad news. Dust mites, which are one of the most prevalent eczema triggers, proliferate in homes where indoor heating provides a comfy environment for the critters. Not only that, the genes that regulate the innate immune system are expressed more robustly in winter, enhancing the inflammatory response that causes the redness, itching, and swelling that eczema is famous for.
The air is more humid in the summer, and we spend less time indoors with dust mite populations. So why is summer so much worse for some eczema sufferers? There are a few different reasons.
How Summer Affects Eczema: Seasonal Triggers
Spending time outside brings people into contact with some common summer-specific triggers.
Pollen is one of those triggers. When you say “pollen allergy,” most people immediately think of spring and fall. Grass pollens, though, are at their peak from early May to late June in most parts of the United States. And just like the spring and fall pollens, grass pollens can trigger eczema flares in those who are sensitive to them. These folks are less likely to get that summer reprieve that eczema sufferers long for in the winter.
Depending on a person’s sensitivities, flares can be triggered by some of the chemicals commonly found in sunscreens. Most sunscreens on the market are chemical sunscreens; they use chemicals to absorb UV rays and scatter them so that they cannot damage the skin. Benzophenone-3, avobenzone, and octocrylene are a few of the absorption chemicals that can irritate sensitive skin.
While absorption chemicals can certainly aggravate sensitive skin, it’s actually the inactive ingredients–chemicals such as preservatives, fragrances, carrier oils, and humectants–that are most likely to cause problems for eczema sufferers. Parabens are chemicals used to prevent the growth of mold in cosmetics; methylisothiazolinone prevents the growth of yeasts and bacteria. These chemicals are some of the most frequent offenders when sunscreen sensitivity occurs (methylisothiazolinone is such a common culprit in skin sensitivity tests that the American Contact Dermatitis Society named it “contact allergen of the year” in 2013).
Lanolin is a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-producing animals. It’s a common ingredient in sunscreens (and lots of other skincare products). It is highly occlusive, preventing the evaporation of water from the skin. Lanolin is completely harmless for most people–in fact, it’s an excellent moisturizer. For those of us with over-eager immune responses, though, lanolin can trigger contact dermatitis and eczema flares.
Fragrances make cosmetic products smell agreeable. A number of different ingredients are used in fragrance formulas. Some, such as Balsam of Peru or essential oils, are naturally occurring chemicals. Others are synthetic. Natural or synthetic, fragrance is a bugbear for a lot of people with eczema.
Discontinue sunscreens that cause reactions of any sort–but don’t skip the sunscreen. There are different formulations, and protecting your skin from UV damage is worth the effort it takes to find the one that works for you. If you have eczema, it might be helpful to test new sunscreens on a small, less-sensitive area of skin before applying it to your entire body. Monitor the area for the next 48 hours. Any reaction warrants a talk with your doctor; patch testing could narrow down which chemicals are making you react.
You might also consider using a physical sunscreen (also called mineral sunscreen). These products don’t absorb UV rays; they block and deflect them. Only zinc oxide and titanium oxide have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as physical sunscreens. These products are far less likely to cause adverse reactions than chemical sunscreens. Even with these products, you should read the ingredients carefully; they can still contain fragrances or oils you are sensitive to.
Sun and Eczema: Good And Bad
The abundant sunshine of summer is an irresistible treat after the long, dark winter months. If you have eczema, though, excessive sun exposure can trigger a flare. Sunburns, even mild ones, can also trigger eczema flares–and nobody needs that combo.
Not to worry. You can still enjoy the sun with some precautions. First of all, cover as much of your skin as you can. Wear loose clothing made of breathable fabrics such as cotton or linen–or you can opt for one of the many moisture-wicking synthetic options on the market today. Wear a hat with a brim to protect your face, ears, and back of your neck. Limit your time outdoors; if you have a beach day or a hike planned, take breaks every now and then to refresh your sunscreen and check for sunburns. Most people don’t notice the beginnings of a sunburn, so these frequent breaks are important to assess how your skin is doing.
The sun’s rays are strongest between the hours of 10 AM and 4 PM; some people schedule their outdoor time on either side of that block. You should still wear sunscreen, however, outside of that time period–and don’t forget that the sun is shining even on overcast days,
If you have eczema and an autoimmune disorder such as lupus, you should be very careful about sun exposure. Photosensitivity is associated with several different autoimmune disorders, including lupus, and some studies suggest that sun-induced eczema flares can trigger flares of these disorders.
Sweat and Eczema
Sweat is the expected result of spending time outdoors on a hot day. It’s one of the ways our bodies regulate temperature. Our skin cools as sweat evaporates; unfortunately, it carries the moisture from our skin cells as it does. People with eczema are already at a loss when it comes to hydration–sweating does us no favors in that department. What’s more, the salts left behind when sweat evaporates can further dry the skin and irritate it.
These effects can be minimized by wearing loose, moisture-wicking clothing. Cotton and linen are excellent options; they naturally carry the perspiration away from your skin and allow it to evaporate. Some clothes are manufactured using synthetics designed to conduct moisture away from the body during exercise. They're often sold with athletic wear and are sometimes referred to as “performance wear.” Avoid tight clothing or clothing that doesn’t “breathe” well; silk is a natural fiber, but it holds perspiration close to the skin. Polyester and nylon are even worse.
A cooling towel (Frogg Togg’s Chilly PadⓇ is a popular one) is another good item to keep on hand. These towels are made from synthetic fibers that are designed to cool the skin. They wick perspiration away from the skin and dry quickly, so the towel will be cool and comfy as long as you need it.
It’s important to shower after working up a sweat; this will remove the irritating salts sweat leaves behind on your skin. If you have eczema, keep your showers brief and lukewarm. Spend no more than 20 minutes in the shower and resist the temptation to dial up the temperature. Once you're out, don't forget to apply eczema cream.
Exploring the Impact of Swimming Pools on Eczema: A Double-Edged Sword
Nothing says summer quite like the blue, rippling water of a swimming pool. Swimming is a great way to relax, and it’s a gentle form of exercise. If you have eczema, though, spending a lot of time in the water can dehydrate your skin (ironically). A prolonged swim isn’t helpful to skin that is already suffering from poor barrier function. ,
Chlorine and salt water both have the potential to aggravate sensitive skin, especially if a flare has already begun. Some people find that chlorinated pools triggers their eczema (others find the chlorinated water soothing–this, like all things related to eczema, is highly individual).
Regardless of where you swim, a few precautions are in order: first of all, moisturize. Moisturize before you get in the water, and moisturize your entire body. If you are experiencing a flare, consider using a good occlusive ointment on the affected skin. When you finish swimming, don’t allow the water to evaporate; take a cool or lukewarm shower to rinse your skin. Pat dry and apply more moisturizer when you’re finished with your shower.
The immune system responds more robustly during winter, as I said earlier, due to some genes finding heightened expression during the season. People with over-reactive immune systems find that inflammatory disorders like eczema are more easily triggered in that time.
In the summer, these genes are suppressed somewhat. Our immune system response is less robust. While that can mean that we experience less inflammation, it can also make us more susceptible to an overgrowth of bacteria (such as staph or strep) on the skin. When this happens, guess what? The immune system deploys its defenses, and inflammation occurs.
Enjoy the Sun Mindfully!
If you suffer from eczema flares in the summer, take heart. You might have to choose your products and activities more carefully than most, but you deserve to enjoy the season, too. A few considerations will allow you to make the most of sunny days:
- Speak to your doctor about medications to keep pollen allergies and other seasonal allergies in check.
- Maintain your skincare regimen, being sure to moisturize frequently (at least twice a day). Moisturize your entire body!
- Limit your sun exposure, and when you are in the sun. give yourself frequent breaks in the shade.
- Always wear sunscreen; consider physical sunscreens if you’ve had sensitivities to chemical sunscreens. Be wary of fragrances and other ingredients that can aggravate sensitive skin or trigger a flare.
- Wear loose, moisture-wicking clothing, and shower off after sweating.
- Keep SmartLotionⓇ on hand to address flares: it reduces redness and itching effectively, but it doesn’t cause topical steroid withdrawal. Even better? SmartLotionⓇ addresses the root causes of eczema; it’s prebiotic formula, repairs the skin barrier and balances the skin’s microbiome. Most people can use it along with their prescription treatments; talk to your doctor about adding SmartLotionⓇ to your treatment plan!
Don’t let eczema ruin your good vibrations! Summer is meant to be enjoyed; with some good skincare and proactive planning, you can beat the summertime blues.