For twenty-eight blissful years of my life, I never thought twice about my skin. Then eczema happened.
It started as just a bit of dryness on two fingertips of my right hand. Weird, but okay, I thought. But then it grew. It spread to other fingers and down my palm and onto my left hand. The dryness turned into an angry rash that was red, warm to the touch, and itchy. Then, my hands started to erupt in tiny blisters only to crust and crack. Getting a manicure became a pipe dream. Even everyday tasks like folding laundry or washing my hair or hands became painful tactile nightmares. I couldn’t live like this.
What Is Eczema
Eczema encompasses a whole range of skin conditions that all share red, itchy and inflamed skin as the primary symptoms. There are several types of eczema including atopic, contact, and my own personal brand of hell, dyshidrotic eczema. (Dyshidrotic eczema is characterized by tiny fluid-filled blisters that weep and scab over – cute!)
According to The National Eczema Association over 30 million Americans have eczema. Interestingly, it’s more common in children. The National Eczema Society reports that in the UK, one in five children has eczema while that number decreases to one in twelve in adults.
The exact cause of eczema is hard to pin down. The National Eczema Association explains that people with this condition tend to have an over-reactive immune system and/or a genetic predisposition. Then it’s only a matter of coming into contact with triggers which can include chemical irritants, climate, allergens, or even hormonal changes.
In the year and a half I spent looking for answers to my eczema woes, I visited my primary care physician, three dermatologists, and one allergist.
My primary care physician insisted that it must be something I was touching. I assured her that there was nothing new or out of the ordinary I was touching. But as a precaution, I gave up practicing yoga for several months in case sweaty palms were the cause. They were not.
When Topical Treatments Fail
The dermatologists were quick to prescribe topical treatments. My first prescription was for a steroid ointment. It was greasy (the same consistency as vaseline) and made it hard to do anything else once I put the ointment on. I felt paranoid about the steroids rubbing off on my sheets – or accidentally touching my face. I wore cotton gloves over the ointment, but they absorbed the product off my hands. Worse, I saw no results.
The next dermatologist prescribed steroid-free eczema cream. This was less messy and improved my skin for a few days, but then the rash came back angrier than ever. So that dermatologist referred me to an allergist, who refused to test me for allergies without yet another consult from yet another dermatologist. Which made me feel like there would be no end to my doctors appointments.
Would You Sleep In Plastic?
The last dermatologist I saw looked at my hands and lamented over their inflamed state. Concerned that they would get infected, she urged me to return to a stronger steroid ointment. When I complained about the messiness, she told me I should use it anyway and just sleep with my hands covered in plastic wrap. Seriously, lady?
This hit an emotional chord for me. While I understood the logic behind it, I felt disheartened that the professional medical advice I was receiving could be so outlandishly unnatural. Sure, it’s something I could try and laugh about once or twice, but I couldn’t accept this as a long-term solution.
Then, she precautioned that if plastic-wrapped steroid hands didn’t work, I’d have to resort to taking steroid pills regularly. I started crying in her office right then and there. I told her I didn’t want to take steroids. She was sympathetic to my concern and admitted there could be many possible side effects to taking steroids. Breakouts, weight gain, body hair, and sudden mood swings were all on the table. But, she reasoned, at least my hands would be clear.
According to her my choices were to live trapped in my hands – or to live trapped under a barrage of steroid-induced symptoms.
The Turning Point
Frustrated, I stopped booking follow-ups with my doctors and dermatologists and instead sought guidance from HUM Nutrition’s lead dietitian, Sarah Greenfield. As an aficionado in the skin-gut connection, she suspected there was a problem somewhere in my diet and digestion. We just had to identify exactly what it was.
So, we ran a few tests. First, Sarah’s favorite, a stool test. Admittedly, collecting and mailing samples of my own stool was a harrowing experience in itself – but I was determined to get answers. While Sarah suspected that elevated candida might be the problem due to my notorious sweet tooth, in fact, all of my stool test results came back standard.
Then, we ran the MRT food sensitivity test to look for immune system reactions to 170 different foods. The results? Now we were talking. Four items in particular flagged as extremely reactive: sugar, soy, broccoli and cauliflower. All things I ate every week.
Eliminating the triggers… Mostly
Right away, I began to eliminate these things from my diet. I removed the cauliflower crusts and gnocchi from my weekly Trader Joe’s haul. Roasted broccoli has always been a staple in my meal preps, but I swapped it out for other veggies instead. I checked the labels for any hidden soy in salad dressings, frozen foods, and snacks at the office.
But it didn’t stop there. Sarah reminded me to check the labels of my skincare and laundry products. Although our test had been for food sensitivities, if it was triggering reaction internally, external contact reactions were also possible. So, I judiciously read every label in my home. I said goodbye to my soy face cleanser and sugar scrubs. My hand soap was okay, but to my horror, my laundry detergent was full of soy. (Geeze, no wonder I hated folding laundry.)
As a lifelong sweets lover, sugar was the hardest to eliminate. I tried to avoid it for the most part but once or twice a week I might slip up and indulge. After all, who can avoid a slice of cake for an office birthday?
Even with a few sugary slip-ups, I saw a drastic improvement in my hands. The blisters dried up within a week or two. The rash cleared completely from my left hand and shrunk and shrunk on my right hand over the next month. Most importantly, my quality of life improved. I started doing yoga again and didn’t think twice about washing my hair and folding laundry. Best of all, I didn’t feel embarrassed or self-conscious about showing my hands in public.
Looking back, the most taxing part of my eczema journey was really the psychological resilience it required. The symptoms truly made me feel trapped in my own body. The doctors I thought I could trust left me feeling dismissed and disappointed. The advice I got through friends and social media, though coming with the best of intentions, overwhelmed me. I felt attacked with a barrage of things I should be trying on top of everything I was already doing, which only induced further stress and guilt on top of my skin self-loathing.
In the end, I would never presume that what works for me will work for anyone else with eczema. Our bodies are all so unique and have their own responses. There are so many contributing factors that anything that promises a definite cure-all for everyone should not be trusted.
Altogether, I spent an extra $600 on testing to find a personalized, holistic approach to managing my eczema. To me, it was worth every penny to be able to simply modify my diet to live comfortably in my own skin. But instead of encouraging you to do take the exact tests I took, or to eliminate the things I did, I would just encourage you to know that your skin belongs to you and you alone.
Honor your body by finding tools and resources that speak to you. Empower yourself by tuning out all the advice that doesn’t align with your values. And most importantly, show yourself compassion at every part of your healing journey. Our bodies are never defective or broken, but they do sometimes need a little extra love, care, and patience.