For many of us, the holidays look very different this year.
The parties will be much smaller and outdoors (if they happen at all). Backporch heat lamps and indoor air-purifiers are the new must-have gifts (if you can find them). Festive outfits call for stylish matching masks. And we’re all counting down the minutes until the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Unfortunately for people with eczema, many potential seasonal triggers are NOT really impacted by these changes, and some are likely to be worse this year.
The good news is that you can have eczema and happy holidays too, even in 2020! We spoke with two leading dermatologists about how to minimize your eczema flares during the holiday season, and they had some excellent ideas.
Christmas trees, poinsettias and decorations
If you get itchy as soon as the decorating begins, you’re not alone. Seasonal decorations from greenery to tinsel can aggravate sensitivities to dust, pollen, mold and contact. With trees in particular, flares may occur on the hands, face, eyelids, or other exposed areas due to a substance called colophony or rosin that occurs in the sap of many popular types of Christmas trees.
To combat this potential allergic reaction, Dr. JiaDe Yu, Assistant Professor of Adult and Pediatric Dermatology, Harvard Medical School, recommends wearing long sleeves and gloves as protection. Be mindful of the dust and mold that can also accumulate on any trees or decorations in storage. After the holidays are over, do yourself a favor for next year and pack away your decorations in specialized containers that keep out the dust and dust mites.
Love the color of poinsettias? We do too! However, if you have an allergy to latex, enjoy how they look but don’t touch them, says Dr. Yu. The sap from poinsettias resembles that of natural rubber latex and may trigger your allergy.
Cold weather, central heating and being indoors
According to a study in The Journal of Dermatology, 36% of participants in a Japanese atopic dermatitis study experienced exacerbations during the winter — more than during any other season. Similarly, a report in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology shows that cold and dry weather increases the prevalence and risk of flares in patients with atopic dermatitis both by decreasing the skin’s “barrier” capabilities and increasing its reactivity to irritants and allergens.
Additional weather-related eczema triggers can include increased exposure to dust mites from spending more time indoors, according to Dr. Kanwaljit K. Brar, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, NYU. Winter can also lead to overheating and sweating during sleep. This means it’s important to keep up your cleaning regimens throughout the holiday season and to cool down your bedroom. Dr. Brar advises a cooling fan at night and turning down the heat in the house, in general. “If it’s cold for everyone else in the house,” she says, “it’s better for the person with eczema.”
To combat dry winter air, Dr. Yu suggests a humidifier with the aim of maintaining indoor humidity at approximately 60%. But be sure to keep humidifiers clean to prevent mold growth, which can become an eczema trigger and a health hazard, if you’re not careful. The Mayo Clinic offers helpful tips for keeping humidifiers clean.
Scented candles and essential oil diffusers
According to The Washington Post, about 80% of Americans use some type of scent in their home because it helps them “feel relaxed,” and it’s important to know that the majority of candle sales occur between October and December.
If fragrance is a trigger for you, avoid commercial products such as candles, potpourri, essential oil diffusers, air fresheners and perfumes. For home ambience, perhaps you can enjoy the smells of your own cooking instead.
You may also prefer music, yoga, or an oatmeal bath as an alternative way to relax, no matter the time of year. “Fragrances in scented candles are often triggers of allergic contact dermatitis and atopic dermatitis as well,” says Dr. Yu. “These tend to manifest in exposed areas such as the face, neck, and hands.”
Tacky holiday sweaters and other festive outfits
While you and your family may not be attending tacky sweater parties in person this year, dressing up for holiday photos or bundling up for cold weather could trigger sensitive skin. When it comes to “fancy” and warm clothing alike, Dr. Brar recommends avoiding irritating woolens and selecting clothing that’s comfortable, especially for children. Pure cotton or satin fabrics are better than blended fabrics. Avoid products labeled as “wrinkle free,” “shrink-resistant,” or “stain resistant,” as these can contain resins known to trigger eczema and allergic contact dermatitis. Similarly, choose cotton leggings to go under dresses rather than synthetic tights. If that sweater from your favorite auntie is a must-wear, be sure to layer it with a 100% cotton undershirt.
Stress and changes in routine
Between the usual holiday stress and the pandemic, anxiety is running high this year. That’s obviously not great for people with eczema. “We know that stress can flare eczema and contribute to itchy skin,” says Dr. Brar. “Another factor is anything that causes a deviation from your normal self- and skin-care regimen, potentially leading to a flare.”
For general stress relief, consider meditation, improving your sleep hygiene and exercise (especially outdoor exercise). You can find more de-stressing ideas for people with eczema by visiting this blog.
For maintaining consistent skincare, Dr. Yu suggests “working with your dermatologist to come up with a good daily routine with travel-size topical medications and personal care products to enable you to care for your skin wherever you spend your holidays. Try to stick to your routine that has worked for you in the past and don’t try a bunch of new things at once.”
Increased hand washing
We usually don’t associate handwashing with the holidays, but if we’ve learned anything this year it’s to adapt, wear a mask and keep hands clean. Throughout this winter it’s going to continue to be important to practice excellent hand-hygiene to protect ourselves from Covid-19, the flu, and any other germs that might have us stressing out. With this in mind, it won’t hurt to refresh your memory regarding the CDC’s proper handwashing technique. Good handwashing takes 15-20 seconds, the same amount of time it takes to sing the ABCs or the chorus of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” two to three times.
For people with eczema, frequent handwashing can lead to overly dry skin and flares. To help prevent this, Dr. Brar tells her patients to use a moisturizer after every squirt of hand sanitizer and handwashing. She also advises focusing soaps and sanitizers on the palm side of the hand and fingers, rather than the top or dorsum of the hand. “That way,” she says, “you are still cleaning the surface that touches most things but avoid aggravating your hand.”
Dr. Yu agrees on the role of the pandemic in aggravating skin conditions. “We’ve seen significant hand dermatitis due to over handwashing during the past few months of Covid-19,” he says. “As always, using gentle soaps to wash the hands can be helpful and follow up by moisturizing immediately. If hands are flaring, judicious use of topicals, using thick emollients at night, and occluding with 100% white cotton gloves during sleep can be good rescue therapy.” For more on eczema, Covid-19 and handwashing watch this video.
In closing Dr. Brar says, “Enjoy the holidays, be safe, and try not to let eczema fears detract from this special time.” We couldn’t agree more! We hope you stay well and receive gifts of peace and love throughout this wonderful time of year.
Thanks to Dr. Brar, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, NYU Langone Health, and Dr. Yu, Assistant Professor of Adult and Pediatric Dermatology, Director of Contact and Occupational Dermatitis Clinic, Department of Dermatology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School for sharing their time and expertise with us this busy holiday season.