Welsh journalist Will Hayward recently published a viral Twitter thread about his quest to determine the cause of the red, burning skin on his face. Like many of us with inflammatory skin conditions, Hayward spent years trying to identify triggers and receive an accurate diagnosis. He gave up alcohol, dairy, chocolate and caffeine. He tried steroids, antibiotic creams, and special shampoo. But nothing really moved the needle, and living with highly visible redness and flaking dented Hayward’s self esteem.
Then the pandemic happened. Hayward started working from home, and his skin cleared up within weeks. And it stayed mostly clear, until he went back to the office a year and a half later. Hayward was suspicious and decided to get a patch test. It turns out his symptoms weren’t just rosacea or seborrheic dermatitis, as his doctors had suggested. He was allergic to the chemicals in the air freshener that automatically sprayed in his office bathroom.
If you have an inflammatory skin condition, going to the office can be fraught. Offices are packed with triggers: you could be allergic to your boss’s perfume, or your colleague’s dog that sleeps under the desk, or, like Hayard, the air freshener in the bathroom. Workplace stress can contribute to flares. I have severe eczema and a serious peanut allergy, and I spent years trying to keep peanut butter out of the office fridge and communal kitchen.
No matter how many emails I sent, and no matter how much I tried to involve HR, people kept bringing in peanut products and eating them at their desks. A former boss, in an attempt to advocate for me, once yelled at another employee about her open peanut butter container and made her cry. I was mortified.
The office is also innately social, which makes it easier for people to see—and comment on—your skin. It can feel uncomfortable or embarrassing to go into work when you’re having a flare, especially when it’s on your face. Your colleague may notice your acne and accuse you of eating too many fried foods. They might wrongly assume that your rosacea has to do with cleanliness, or that you’ve been drinking on the job.
I’ve had more itching attacks at work than I can count, and in an effort to try and look normal, I’d scratch surreptitiously under the desk so my colleagues couldn’t see. Dealing with your skin at the office can make you want to hide, and a lot of us do—behind makeup, or hair, or long pants and sleeves. Eczema in particular can result in lost productivity and increased absence from work.
Unconscious bias towards people with visible skin conditions can play a role at work too. In a survey conducted by the National Rosacea Society, 60% of respondents reported that rosacea had a negative impact on their interactions at work, and 19% believed they were denied a promotion or new responsibilities because of their appearance.
Women with acne told Glamour that their breakouts made them feel underestimated or passed over at work. A 2016 study found that people with acne scarring were less likely to be considered successful or have a promising future. And according to a 2019 study by the American Acne and Rosacea Society, 42% of young professionals with acne felt their skin held them back at work.
Workplace norms have changed a lot in recent years, and working from home can provide flexibility and privacy that makes living an inflammatory skin condition easier. Case in point: I’m writing this blog post from my couch, in my sweats, on a day when my facial eczema is flared. I’ll probably stay off Zoom video, and I may sneak in a bath later this afternoon to help my skin feel better. Of course I’ve got my Gladskin Eczema Cream. But not everybody has the luxury of working from home.
As the pandemic wanes and more employers encourage a return to the office, many of us are confronted with the same skin-at-work challenges we faced during the before times. Here’s what we suggest to making office work easier on you and your skin.
Keeping skin comfortable at work starts with the clothes you wear, especially if you have eczema. If possible, dress in loose fitting clothes in skin-friendly fabrics like cotton, Tencel, silk, or bamboo. See if it’s possible to secure a comfortable workspace. If you have rosacea or eczema, avoid sitting near hot radiators, overly sunny windows, or anywhere you’re likely to overheat. Be sure to keep moisturizing creams, medicines, and other products you need on hand so you can access them throughout the work day.
Whether it’s peanuts in the kitchen or air freshener in the bathroom, take stock of the triggers in your workplace that negatively impact your skin. You may need to work with your manager, HR department, or building landlord to address them, especially if the triggers are environmental (think cleaning products or dust mites) or personal (think your boss’s smelly perfume).
If your work requires you to come into contact with substances that irritate your skin, wear gloves in a material that your skin can handle. Remember, stress can be a trigger too, so do your best to keep work stress at bay.
Talk to Your Boss and Your Colleagues
We know it isn’t fair that the burden of educating people about your skin falls on you. But telling your boss and your colleagues about how your skin impacts you and your work can help build understanding and minimize invasive questions and misconceptions. Don’t be afraid to request accommodations or take time off if needed.
Ensuring your workplace is safe and comfortable requires self-advocacy. Remember that you deserve to work in an office environment where you can focus on your job, not just your skin. That way you can build the career you want. We’re rooting for you every step of the way.