Dry, flaky, and itchy skin are well-known red-flag signs of eczema, but did you know that skin dryness is actually a trigger—not a symptom—of eczema? That’s why keeping skin moist is the key to treating your eczema at home.
For starters, take your shower at night, then moisturize your skin ASAP afterward. This gives your body all night to soak in moisturizers undisturbed. When you first step out of the bath or shower, just pat your skin lightly, advises dermatologist Suzanne Friedler, MD, of the Mount Sinai Hospital and St. John’s Episcopal Hospital. The key is to leave the skin with a little bit of moisture.
Next, apply a moisturizing ointment or cream while your skin is still damp from the shower. This helps further lock in the moisture, says Dr. Friedler. And don’t fuss over excess moisturizer on your body; your skin should absorb it within a few minutes.
If you have hand eczema, your routine goes beyond your evening shower: Apply a hand cream after every hand wash. Washing the hands (or worse, doing the dishes) dries out the skin, so keeping your hands moisturized throughout the day will prevent eczema symptoms from flaring up. For convenience, keep a small, portable tube of hand cream with you so you’re always prepared.
Trying to decide between creams or ointments? Ointments have the highest oil content, says Dr. Friedler, so they are the preferred choice for most eczema patients. They’re also better to use in the winter, when the air and your skin tends to be very dry. Oil has a sealing effect that locks in moisture, as well as blocks irritants out. And yes, this includes petroleum jelly and mineral oils as well.
If that oily feeling gets on your nerves (blegh), try creams. Creams have a lower oil content than ointments, which means they’ll create less of a barrier and may need to be reapplied more frequently. They may be a better option in the summer, when your skin may not be as dry. Lotions have the lowest oil content: They’re primarily water, and evaporate quickly without doing much to lock in moisture. They’re not the best products to use on your skin if you have eczema.
When choosing a moisturizer, look for one designed specifically for eczema and/or sensitive skin. Unless your dermatologist recommends otherwise, avoid products that contain ingredients like retinol, vitamin C, alpha hydroxyl, or salicylic acids, as these ingredients can irritate your skin and make eczema symptoms worse.
For more eczema tips, learn how to use topical steroids to manage eczema here.