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15 Eczema Causes You Might Be Ignoring

If you're itching for relief, your first step should be avoiding these common eczema triggers, which may be provoking or aggravating your rashes.

eczema allergy on skinPansLaos/Getty Images

What is eczema?

If you have eczema you’re dealing with itchy, inflamed, frustrating skin rashes. Even if you’re already following a skin care routine specifically for eczema, flare-ups are common. Keep your eczema under control and remember the following eczema causes you might be ignoring.

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Heater air

Winter means warm meals, cozy blankets, and another log on the fire. But it also means a dry, overheated home, which can significantly aggravate eczema symptoms. Heater air affects humidity levels, which in turn disrupts the skin’s hydration balance.

According to Jeffrey Fromowitz, MD, “One of the most significant flaring features is dry skin; this can occur during winter months when the heat is on and the air is low in humidity. Moisturizing your skin regularly as a proactive measure can be effective in reducing the outbreak of eczema.”

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This hazardous chemical is actually more common than you’d think. According to the National Eczema Association, “Formaldehyde is in many places including household disinfectants, vaccines, glues and adhesives, cigarette smoke, and embalming fluid. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are in personal care products such as cosmetics, and may trigger some individuals who are allergic to formaldehyde.”

If you’ve been experiencing unexplainable flare-ups lately, scan all nearby products to reduce potential exposure. (Check out these natural treatments for eczema relief.)

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Temperature changes

Any extreme temperatures—hot or cold—or sudden weather changes can dehydrate your skin, leaving it cracked and aggravated. According to Bobby Buka, MD, “The cause of eczema is a missing protein called filaggrin, which is the glue that ties skin cells together. Without filaggrin, the skin cells are loosely joined, and much-needed moisture more readily evaporates from the skin. When the temperature is either too hot or too cold, it throws off the homeostasis of eczema patients whose skin barrier is already impaired.” The main aim should be to maintain even skin temperature and apply moisturizer as a barrier.

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Hot water

While a nice hot shower or bath may feel great, it’s not doing your skin any favors. Prolonged exposure to hot water can strip the skin of natural oils, causing angry and inflamed patches. In fact, Dr. Buka suggests that people with any type of atopic dermatitis limit their water exposure to ten minutes or less; also, try to settle for cool or lukewarm water. After you bathe, apply moisturizer to your damp, towel-dried skin to help lock in hydration. (Here’s the healthiest temperature for your shower, according to science.)

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The food-and-eczema connection is a bit murky, but there are a few obvious no-nos, says Dr. Buka. “Avoid foods you are allergic to, and it’s a good idea to stay away from food and drinks high in sugar. Sugar has been linked to eczema flare-ups thanks to its role in insulin levels and inflammation,” he explains. Because inflammation is such a strong trigger for eczema, Dr. Buka strongly encourages patients to adopt a diet rich in fiber—it helps tamp down inflammation.

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Unfortunately, most detergents will irritate your eczema: A residue builds up in your clothes, towels, and linens over time, according to Jennifer Roberge, founder of The Eczema Company. “This means clothing, towels, and bedding washed in detergent can expose the skin to an unfavorable alkaline environment all day and all night long.”

Try using detergents designed for sensitive skin, and consider running laundry through a second rinse cycle to remove any soapy residue.

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Dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse MD, FAAD recommends strongly that you avoid soaps with any fragrance. “The label should say ‘fragrance-free,’ not ‘unscented.’ Unscented products use a masking fragrance to get rid of the scent,” Dr. Shainhouse says. “For soaps and skin care products, look for ones that reinforce a normal skin pH to help maintain a healthy, intact skin barrier.”

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When you’re tense, your stress hormones trigger inflammation that can irritate your skin. “Stress alters our body’s natural innate steroid levels, which affect our immune system and how it reacts,” says Hal Weitzbuch, MD, MS, FAAD, founder of JuveTress. “In general, higher stress levels correlates with worsening eczema.”

Avoiding stress isn’t always possible, but you can learn to manage your response. (Check out these 37 ways to relieve stress fast.)

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Ingredients in sunscreen—oxy and avobenzone—can aggravate your skin and lead to excessive itching.

“If this is the case, stay cool in the shade,” says Victoria A. Cirillo-Hyland, MD. “Always wear physical sunscreens, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which tend to be less irritating than chemical sunscreens.” (Here are the top sunscreens dermatologists actually use.)

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“Friction is your enemy when you have dry, irritated skin,” says Adria Ali, founder of Everyday Essence and Skin Therapy. “The rough textures can be like sandpaper to the surface of your skin. To stop the cycle of irritation, avoid abrasive clothing such as wool, mohair, and polyester.” Choose clothes made with a loose weave and breathable fibers to avoid flare-ups. On the plus side, you now have an excuse not to wear that scratchy sweater you got for Christmas.

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Hand sanitizer

People with eczema would be wise to steer clear of alcohol-based antibacterial gels altogether—and opt for these moisturizing hand sanitizers instead. “Not only will these products dry out your skin, they’ve also been found to disrupt the ‘good bacteria’ that naturally lives on your skin,” says Ali. “Disrupting this healthy bacteria can break down the natural barrier that acts to protect you in your daily life from bacteria, germs, and potential viruses.”  (Also, here’s why you don’t need hand sanitizer to stay germ-free.)

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Dish soap

Hand soaps, bar soaps, and especially dish soaps often contain harsh chemicals that aggravate eczema.

“When doing dishes, use plastic gloves that have a cotton lining,” says Ali. “The gloves will protect your hands from the drying detergent, and the cotton-lined interior helps your skin to breathe while staying protected.” (Here are home remedies for eczema on your hands.)

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The salt in your sweat can irritate eczema. “For many people with eczema, perspiring during humid summer days, exercising in a warm gym, or exposure to dry central heating during the winter months can trigger a flare-up,” says Tina Bhutani, MD.

As a general rule of thumb, try to refrain from excessive sun exposure and wear sweat-resistant clothing during exercise.

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Doctors frequently refer to eczema as “the itch that rashes.” A flare leads to itchy skin, you scratch the itch, and the rash gets worse—and itchier. If you keep scratching, you can break the skin and spread your eczema.

To reduce temptation, keep your nails short and keep your rash covered. For immediate relief, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying a cool compress or adding colloidal oatmeal to your skincare routine.

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Pet dander

Your dog, cat, or gerbil could be making your eczema  worse. Many household allergens contribute to flare-ups, explains Dr. Buka.

“These can be particles of pet dander, dust mites, and even cockroach dander floating all around you,” says Dr. Buka. You don’t have to get rid of your furry friends, but you will need to be more attentive to house cleaning.

Another solution from Dr. Buka? “Outfit your bathroom or bedroom with a humidifier that adds more moisture to the air, weighing down those particles with water and dragging them to the ground before they can get into airways or onto the skin.”

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD, on August 24, 2020

Hana Hong
Hana Hong is a journalist/storyteller whose writing has appeared in many publications and websites, including Reader's Digest, InStyle, CollegeFashionista, Her Campus, and The Fashion Network, among others. She hails from the midwest, where she graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.A. in News-Editorial Journalism, but has a passion for the East Coast. Visit her website: Hana Hong.