Eczema is a multifactorial condition, which means it has numerous possible causes. Eczema risk factors include genetics, an overactive immune response, and bacterial imbalances in the skin microbiome. These factors can be exacerbated by environmental, emotional, and topical triggers which can also lead to eczema flare-ups.
Eczema flare-ups can range from manageable to debilitating. Knowing what triggers your eczema can help you reduce symptoms and avoid flare-ups in the future.
Here’s what you need to know about eczema flare-ups, including the most widely recognized flare-inducing eczema triggers.
What is an eczema flare-up?
Eczema symptoms tend to come and go. An eczema flare-up occurs during the acute stage of eczema, when a person’s eczema symptoms become more “active.” Flare-ups typically happen in response to a trigger or triggers and are often accompanied by intense symptoms, including:
- Dry skin
- Rash (color varies depending on your skin tone)
- Skin sensitivity and swelling
- Thickened skin (rough, leathery patches)
- Scaly, crusty skin
- Hives, burning, blistering
- Skin bumps
The duration of a flare-up depends on the type of eczema you’re dealing with, its severity, and the health of your skin’s microbiome. For more information on the length of flare-ups, please check out our article, “How Long Does Eczema Last?”
Eczema flare-up causes differ from person to person. The following are the most common types of eczema flare-up triggers, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you’ve avoided these triggers but are still dealing with eczema flare-ups, work with your dermatologist to help identify what’s making your symptoms worse.
1. Dry skin
Dry skin and eczema—particularly atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema—go hand in hand. But while dry skin does not cause eczema, it can trigger an eczema flare-up. Specifically, when dry skin becomes cracked and scaly, it becomes more easily irritated.
How to address dry skin-induced flare-ups
It’s very important for people who have eczema to have a skincare regimen that involves regular moisturizing. Moisturizing not only helps keep your skin hydrated, but it also provides a barrier between your skin and outside elements that make dryness worse.
It’s also best to try to avoid activities that dry out your skin, like taking long, hot baths or showers. Make sure that you moisturize directly after showering or bathing, washing your hands, or after exposure to extreme weather conditions, including heat, cold, and humidity.
When people think of allergies, the first symptoms that come to mind are often sinus-related. But your immune system can react to allergens in many different ways, which is why allergens can also act as a trigger for eczema. This can be true whether you’re exposed to allergens via inhalation or by direct contact with your skin.
Note for parents: Eczema is part of the atopic triad, a term used to describe the likelihood that if children have one of three conditions—eczema, allergies, or asthma—they’re more likely to develop the other two. If your little one has eczema, please see our guides to managing eczema in babies and toddlers.
While there are many different types of allergens out there that can trigger eczema, these are the most common airborne culprits:
- Dust mites
- Pet dander
- Smoke (particularly cigarette smoke)
How to address airborne allergen-induced eczema flare-ups
The place where you have the most control over the allergens you encounter is your home. Cleaning regularly can go a long way toward reducing allergens. If you’re allergic to dust mites, try to reduce clutter around your home where dust can build up. Consider investing in a quality air filter and zippered covers for your mattress and pillows. If you have pets that are contributing to your allergies, try to at least keep them out of your bedroom.
Food allergies are a major concern for people with eczema. Common food allergies include cow’s dairy, eggs, soy, gluten, nuts, fish, and shellfish. Allergic reactions to food can result in hives, rashes, or digestive trouble. Severe allergic reactions can cause anaphylaxis: a life-threatening reaction where the airways swell and breathing becomes difficult.
If you don’t have food allergies, you may still be wondering about whether the foods that you eat are causing your eczema. In general, more research is needed on the extent of the connection between diet and eczema. However, there is anecdotal evidence that points to the idea that certain foods may contribute to the inflammation that’s linked to eczema.
How to address food allergen-induced eczema flare-ups
If you’re experiencing a reaction after eating certain foods, contact your doctor right away. They can provide guidance on living with food allergies and will advise on whether allergy skin testing is appropriate.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding processed junk foods is beneficial to both skin and overall health. If you are concerned about specific food intolerances that contribute to long-term inflammation, it’s best to contact your doctor, who may recommend nutrition counseling.
Eczema can also flare up when your skin comes into contact with an allergen. This type of eczema is called contact dermatitis. Common contact allergens include metals (nickel, copper, chromium cobalt, chloride, and gold), rubber, and certain chemicals used in cleaning products, cosmetics, and skin products. We’ll discuss the latter in more detail below, in the section on irritants.
How to address contact allergen-induced eczema flare-ups
Where possible, reduce your exposure to the allergen(s) that are causing your flare-ups. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and the allergen that triggers your flare-ups, this can be a relatively easy or intensive process. For example, nickel is present in more than just jewelry—it’s a naturally occurring metal that can even be found in foods like soy.
If you’re not sure whether you have a contact allergy, speak to an allergist about running a patch test that can help identify which specific allergens may be affecting you. Once you’ve identified your allergens, your allergist can provide information on common sources of your allergens specifically.
3. Climate and environmental factors
Let’s talk about the weather, shall we? Specifically, eczema and the weather. If you live somewhere that is prone to extremes—extreme heat, extreme cold, or extreme dryness or humidity—exposure to any of these conditions can trigger your eczema. Meanwhile, changes in seasons can also trigger reactions within your body’s immune system as your body adjusts to each season’s “new normal.”
Living at very high altitudes may also affect your skin’s health. Cold weather and low oxygen levels present at high elevations both increase the production of stress hormones and make it harder for your body to deliver oxygen to your skin tissues (an important element in your skin’s healing processes).
How to address environment-induced eczema flare-ups
Wearing appropriate clothing for your climate can do more than keep you comfortable—it can help protect your skin, too. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially in colder climates, where you’ll want to opt for clothing that insulates you from the weather but allows your skin to breathe (since, as we’ll cover below, sweat can also cause eczema flare-ups).
And as with dry skin, one of the best defenses against climate-triggered flare-ups is moisturizing. High-quality moisturizers can nourish your skin’s natural barrier as well as create an additional barrier between your skin and the environment.
When you’re stressed out, your body responds by increasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Excess cortisol can suppress the immune system and set off an inflammatory response that can trigger an eczema flare-up. Stressors can include eczema flare-ups themselves, creating a vicious cycle.
How to address stress-induced eczema flare-ups
Sometimes you can’t avoid stress, and the last thing we want to do is add to your stress by putting more things on your to-do list. That said, the following can help you get in a better place mentally: exercising, meditation, getting more sleep, journaling, and spending time with people who leave you feeling energized. Even adding small amounts of these activities into your routine can make a difference. Read more on these tips in our article on eczema and stress.
As with eczema allergens, the list of potential eczema irritants is long. Here are the top irritants to watch out for in your home and everyday life.
Chemicals found in household products
Many household products are not formulated with skin conditions in mind. The following products often contain fragrances, drying alcohols, preservatives, parabens, and other chemicals that can dry out your skin and otherwise induce eczema flare-ups.
- Laundry detergent
- Shampoos and conditioners
- Hand and dish soap
- Bodywash and other bath products
- Makeup and makeup remover
- Cleansers and disinfectants
How to address chemical-induced eczema flare-ups
Go through your cosmetic and household products and replace them with products that are formulated for sensitive or eczema-prone skin. This can be costly if done all at once, so if you’re on a budget, try starting with the products that you use the most.
Your dermatologist will likely be able to provide you with a list of eczema-friendly household products.
Certain fabrics and materials—both organic and non-organic/synthetic—can trigger eczema flare-ups because they either trap heat and sweat or have a rough texture, including:
How to address fabric-induced eczema flare-ups
Replacing clothing made with fabrics that cause irritation can also be cost-prohibitive, so we recommend starting with the core pieces of your wardrobe. Look for pieces made with 100% cotton, bamboo, linen, or TENCEL, and that have a slightly loose fit.
Chlorine & Salt Water
Swimming with eczema exposes your skin to chlorine or salt water which can trigger or exacerbate eczema flare-ups.
How to address swimming-induced eczema flare-ups
Apply a barrier cream before swimming, use sunscreen to mitigate the effects of UV rays, and shower directly after swimming (preferably using a body wash for eczema-prone skin), and moisturize again.
Sweat can trigger an eczema flare-up in several different ways. When your sweat evaporates, it leaves behind a salty residue that can irritate and dry out your skin. Having eczema can also make it harder for sweat to exit your pores, causing the sweat to “leak” beneath your skin. When this occurs, your body may treat the sweat as an allergen and react with an eczema flare-up. Finally, some studies have shown that the composition of sweat in people with eczema may contain higher-than-average levels of glucose, which can act as an irritant, and lower-than-average antimicrobial properties.
How to address sweat-induced eczema flare-ups
See the above section on fabrics for tips on finding eczema-friendly clothing for general, everyday wear. If you’re having trouble managing eczema flares caused by sweat from exercise, try opting for loose-fitting, eczema-friendly clothing, exercising indoors, or switching to low-sweat exercises like yoga.
For parents with kids involved in sports, please see our article on navigating school sports with eczema.
Need Help Tracking Your Triggers? Try Proton Health
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Incorporate Gladskin Into Your Routine
Moisturizing is one of the key ways to stave off and reduce the symptoms of eczema flare-ups. But not all moisturizers are not created equal. Many moisturizers contain irritating ingredients that can make eczema flare-ups even worse.
Gladskin Eczema Cream with Micreobalance® is the only eczema cream on the market that moisturizes your skin while balancing your microbiome. It's steroid-free and clinically proven to reduce eczema symptoms. Gentle and moisturizing, it restores bacterial balance to the skin microbiome to support the skin's natural healing process.