One woman shares a lifetime’s learning on the eczema products that do the job - and a few that don’t.
There is something very uncompromising about skin conditions. They’re difficult to hide. A skin condition introduces itself before you’ve had the chance to say your name.
Until recently, eczema was almost certainly the first thing people clocked when meeting me. If it was a ‘good’ skin day, they might miss the red patches that normally sat under my eyebrows, the flaky skin above my philtrum (the middle area of the upper lip) or the flushed swathe that ran along my jaw. But the jig would be up as soon I extended a hand to shake or wave; the skin there too was textured and rough, covered with inflamed blotches that spread up to my elbows like scaly evening gloves.
Atopic eczema (the genetic strain of eczema - I literally got this from my mama) has coloured my entire adult life. In the grand scheme of things, having a mostly aesthetic-only ailment isn’t the worst luck of the draw but it will affect you.
We live in a society that prizes the beautiful. Eczema is not beautiful. Eczema is an ugly condition that leaves skin leathered and inflamed. People recoil, comment, try and fix you with a ‘miracle cure’ you’ve almost certainly tried.
Even though I’m used to my eczema, other people aren’t and they can never quite let me forget that.
But finally, I think I’ve cracked it. Right now, bar a few spots (I can’t resist mini eggs, sue me) my skin is the best it’s ever been. Even the standard redness that stubbornly coloured my philtrum, no matter how moisturised it was, has gone. My hands are the only giveaway of what I’ve been grappling with for the last eight years and that’s mostly due to the discolouration and rough texture they still display, born from almost a decade of scrabbling at them.
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It has taken an extortionate amount of money, time and experimentation though, to find the products that work best for me. And, the curse of atopic eczema is that these might be utterly useless for someone else - each case seems to require something slightly different. Eczema is a bespoke allergy; so chic!
However, here’s a quick ‘Eczema: This Is Your Life’ style rundown of my adventures in eczema management and how I found what works - and what didn’t.
16-20-years old: The Wilderness Years
Products tested: Steroid creams, emollient, Dermalex, Calendula, Dr Organic, Aveeno
As soon as the scales starting creeping over my skin, amid revising for my A Levels, my mother rushed me to the the GP, who prescribed a topical corticosteroid (aka, steroid cream). It worked but steroid cream is only for short-term use, to wrangle eczema under control, as it thins the skin. Once that treatment is finished, you’re on your own.
Although I was also prescribed a large tub of emollient (a type of treatment that aims to cover skin with a protective layer), it seemed to have almost no effect apart from making me extremely greasy. I glistened in the sun, like a petulant sausage. It was not ideal.
Seeing my struggle, mum also took me to the local homeopath who used a resistance test to discern my particular allergies (and got me out of eating oranges for ever) and proceeded to prescribe me Dr Organic Manuka Honey Rescue Cream. Her healing powers must have been off that day; the cream left my skin red raw and weeping.
“Stick with it,” my mum said, doubtfully, peering at my cracked and oozing paws. “You’re probably just getting used to it.”
That was the moment that I realised this was a long haul project. Forays into trying Dermalex’s Hand Irritation Treatment resulted in similar angry reactions and even Calendula cream - the method my mum had used to heal my eczema as a baby - was rejected.
Thankfully, help came in the form of Aveeno’s Skin Relief range, which I discovered by chance in Superdrug when I started university in 2013. It didn’t completely heal my skin - and using the thick body cream on my face caused spotty outbreaks - but for the first time, my eczema was manageable and under control. I could put it to the back of my mind and even, on occasion, take a secret pleasure in my facial appearance and how normal I looked.
21-22-years old: The Thank U, Next Years
Products tested: Eucerin, La Roche Posay, Bath salts, Mixa, Vaseline, Sudocrem, Coconut oil, Aloe Vera, Child’s Farm, Moo-Goo
Aveeno was still my go-to (by now I’d discovered the face wash too, which didn’t seem to do much but at least wasn’t irritating and kept me cleansed) but I thought surely, the advances made in mainstream, over-the-counter skincare since I was a teen meant there had to be something better out there. I just had to find it.
Unfortunately, I was wrong, or at least not looking in the right places. Eucerin products, touted by many, actively made my skin worse. I tested everything from the brand’s leading product, Aquaphor, to their Eczema Relief range and universally, they left me inflamed. At worst, I had a minor allergic reaction and my eczema began to ooze. I hurriedly abandoned the Eucerin experiment.
While other products I tested didn’t infuriate my skin as much as Eucerin ones did, they also didn’t ease my condition at all. La Roche Posay hand cream, recommended by a member of the Stylist beauty team was almost immediately rejected by my skin (although La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo is the undisputed Holy Grail of spot creams), as were tests of Sudocrem, Mixa and Coconut oil, Child’s Farm, Moo-Goo, pure Aloe Vera, a strange unlabelled balm I found in my local chemist’s… the list went on.
I could tell almost instantly when a product didn’t take - there was a sting, followed by a tightening feeling. I couldn’t quite identify what particular ingredients triggered this (there were so many products!) although I suspected petroleum had a role to play.
The rare success was pouring Epsom salts into my bath, which left my skin unusually soft for a day or too. Unfortunately, my poky London flat didn’t have a bath I wanted to get into on a regular occasion and besides; who had the time to soak?
Resignedly, I went back to my Aveeno.
23-years old: The Together, We Made It Years
As I hit 23, Aveeno started becoming less effective. This is a recurring problem with managing eczema - the skin can become too used to particular products and they stop working.
Although colleagues eulogised enthusiastically about Cetaphil and CeraVe, two affordable, high-street brands that had made waves in America before coming over here, I was disappointed to find it was the same old story when I trepidatiously rubbed them into my skin. Tightening, redness and flaking.
It was sheer random luck (and Jorja Smith) that led to me randomly plumping to try Superdrug’s Vitamin E range, starting with the SPF 15 Mosturising Day Cream for my face, and the Body Butter for the rest of me. The effect was startling and almost instant - my skin calmed, the redness receded and for the first time in years, it looked fully moisturised and even supple. And it was only up from there. I became a full Vitamin E convert, so much so I devoted a whole personal essay to its life-changing effect. I shouted about it everywhere I could - almost a year on, I still get messages from people who thank me for introducing the products (priced only at £2.99!) to their lives.
Coupled with another by-chance discovery of Clean & Clear’s Truly Gentle Facewash (also £2.49), I was flying. I had found two miracle products, both under £4, that didn’t just soothe my eczema - they actively made it better. I truly had never imagined it was possible.
Throughout winter, I still had some flare-ups but this time I was armed, with Diprobase Ointment (£4.29). It did what all previous emollients had promised, yet failed to: formed a protective barrier over my most sensitive areas of skin and kept the moisture in. Yes, I had to scoop it into little pots when I wanted to go anywhere and yes, it turned me into an anti-Midas - everything I touched turned to grease. But it worked and my skin was happy and just a year ago, I couldn’t have envisaged such a happy outcome if I tried. So I stuck with it.
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Weirdly, it was the most severe allergic reaction I’ve ever had that resulted in the skin I’m now enjoying: the sort of skin I saw Maya Jama refer to recently as: “Minding your own business skin: clear and drama free”.
Although still content with the Vitamin E/Diprobase/Clean & Clear Holy Trinity, last month I decided to treat myself after a stressful Friday and a minor flare-up. Lulled into complacency by such an unprecedented stretch of manageable and mostly happy skin, I opted to give Eucerin another chance, bought their Anti-Redness cream and patted it on. I snapped a picture of the packaging, uploading it to Instagram Stories with the caption: “This is what a treat looks like when you have eczema.”
12 hours later, I was sitting in the doctor’s surgery, waiting for an emergency appointment. My entire face was swollen, raw and weeping yellow pus; I looked like a friendly seal or a perhaps, a cartoon bear. In six hours I was meant to be attending a concert.
Thankfully, the cocktail of steroids and antibiotics handed to me by the horrified doctor cleared up the majority of damage within about 24 hours. Three days later, when my prescription course came to an end, I emerged with the best skin I’d enjoyed in ages (that’s steroids for you!) and back to base neutral. So I decided to ditch my paraffin-heavy Diprobase for a bit, in favour of the more natural Weleda Skin Food (£7.50), a rich cream containing calendula and beeswax that Glossier make-up artist Katie Jane Hughes swears by.
So far, so good. My skin already feels healthier and happier although its needs fluctuate between seasons and I still have to be extremely careful when it comes to make-up (normal routine? Glossier concealer, Benefit mascara, a dab of Lumene blusher and a swipe of Nude by Nature’s highlighter stick). But for now I’ve found my four Holy Grails for managing my eczema and as a bundle, they cost less than £20. All it took was eight years.
Main image: Moya Lothian-McLean
Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.