Eczema (also known as dermatitis) is a chronic condition characterised by itchy, flakey skin. It is thought to occur as a result of genetic disposition – it often runs in families – and environmental factors, such as soaps and detergents, cold weather and stress, according to the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD.)
Although its occurrence is relatively common, few people appreciate the impact is can have on the mental and physical health of those affected. In a survey carried out this year by the National Eczema Society, 89% of adults said that eczema had significantly reduced their quality of life, while three-quarters of those with the condition reported that it had left them feeling helpless, anxious, depressed, or socially isolated.
Thirty-one-year-old Joanne Rose Hazel from South London has struggled with severe eczema for most of her life. Here, for WH's The Skin I'm In series, part of Hearst Beauty Month 2020, she shares her inspirational story.
*Disclaimer: elimination diets can result in nutritional deficiencies, if not managed properly, so speak to a medical pro before embarking on one. Please remember that every body is different, and you should speak to your doctor before coming off any form of medication. The BAD says: 'It is recommended that ‘natural’ herbal creams are not purchased as they can cause irritation and allergic reactions.*
Ever since I can remember, severe eczema has shaped my life in some way. As a kid, the solution was simple: my mum would get steroid creams from the doctors whenever I had a flare-up, I’d layer them over my itching, dry patches and they would go away.
After childhood, there was a gap where I didn't suffer at all. That changed when I was 19 and expecting my first son. The pregnancy seemed to stoke a bad episode, which was, again, sorted with steroid creams. Come 2016 and my second pregnancy, it came back with a vengeance, so I figured that my issues were linked to hormonal changes, in some way. Soon after, I was pregnant again, which marked the beginning of three years of my eczema becoming more and more severe.
After my daughter, my third child, was born, I read a book on how food and your environment have a massive impact on your overall health. When I finished the last page, I decided to really work on myself and my wellness. I’d been diagnosed with other conditions as well – hypothyroid; fibroids in my womb – and I wanted to approach getting better holistically, rather than purely relying on medication. To that end I cut out junk food and focused on eating organic as much as possible. I also quit using my steroid creams, to see what happened. The upshot? My skin got really bad. Within a couple of weeks, eczema had spread over my entire body.
One morning, I was due to start a new job, but woke up with a completely swollen face, covered in eczema. I had zero choice but to call in and say I was sick, and get my parents to take me to the hospital.
When I got there, a dermatologist asked me to take off my clothes and show him where the eczema was. I stood there in my underwear, with him looking at me in disbelief: He told me he’d never seen eczema like this in his life. My skin was so dark it looked like I'd been in a fire. Everywhere was black, itchy and inflamed. He believed this had happened because I hadn’t been using the steroid creams.
My mum and dad were really panicking about my appearance, so, after an hour of convincing, I decided to go back on the steroid cream. I was told to use it for two weeks and then see what happened. So, I did – three times a day, every morning, afternoon and evening. Rapidly, the eczema went away and everything went back to 'normal.' I knew though, deep down, as soon as I stopped it would be back. I felt like this was not a long-term solution and that it didn't get to the root of the problem.
At that point, I just needed relief because I'd been going through it for so long. You know when you tell yourself not to scratch, but once you start you can’t stop? That was my life. I’d scratch and scratch and scratch until I’d bleed. I could barely wear clothes because my skin would weep and I’d have to peel anything that touched it off. I needed a couple of weeks of respite.
Before the two weeks were up, the palms of my hands started to bubble up and blister as if they’d been burned. This then turned into full blown eczema. I also broke out all over my scalp. They were the only areas I hadn’t been using the steroid cream. It was awful. At this time, I was going through a lot of emotional trauma that I'd never dealt with – and I now know that stress can serve as a trigger for flare-ups.
Carrying my baby was painful, breastfeeding was painful. I called my doctor and told him the eczema had spread to my hands and head. He said he would prescribe a stronger steroid and a steroid shampoo for my hair.
Much as before the hospital trip, after a lifetime of using these products on and off, I wanted to try combatting the flare-ups without them. Swiftly, things took a turn for the worse. Anywhere the eczema had gone came straight back. Within a week I was back to being completely covered.
When it covered my whole body – especially my face – I didn’t go out as much; my confidence was in tatters. I had to retrain my mind into understanding that my skin doesn’t change who I am as a person. My faith really helped. Being a Christian, I trusted that it was a season of time that would pass. But, in the most extreme times, I felt suicidal. I just didn’t want to live like this anymore: dealing with constant pain and discomfort. I had to keep going for the sake of my kids, however.
If you need to speak to someone about your mental health, you call the Samaritans on 116 123, or find out where to access services via the Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393
This time, I focused on trying to dig into what might be causing my flare-ups. I started eliminating things that could be triggers, looking at what I was eating and my environment. At the time, my family and I were living in a damp, mouldy flat. When we moved out, my skin calmed down a lot.
Elimination diets can result in nutritional deficiencies, if not managed properly. Speak to a medical pro for advice.
I then began a trail and error process of seeing what the optimum way to eat was, for me. When I started, I was still eating dairy and meat, but I went organic. I didn't see a change, so I took out them out. I then tried going without gluten, which is a protein found in things made from wheat, like pasta and bread – doing so seemed to help. (I recently re-introduced organic meat and dairy.)
But it's vital to remember that everybody is different: What works for me might not work for you. [When it comes to a link between diet and eczema, the BAD says that: 'Rarely, food allergens may cause a flare-up' but notes that 'Dietary avoidance should only be undertaken with medical advice.' While some studies with small sample sizes appear to demonstrate a link between non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and eczema in some people assessed, other studies have found no link between a gluten-free diet and an improvement in eczema.]
I also tried making a lot of my own creams. I would mix butters like shea and cocoa with coconut oil.
Over the course of a year or two, with various false starts, these, plus the change of flat, working on my stress levels and a focus on eating whole, largely plant-based whole foods, meant that my skin, little-by-little, had fewer and fewer patches of eczema. For the first time, I felt truly comfortable in my skin.
Now, I share my journey on my blog, I'm The PR, and on my Instagram account. These were both geared, originally, around fashion and beauty, but I now focus on helping other people with their eczema, too. I am also working on my own skincare brand.
For anyone else suffering with eczema I would say: Think about factors that might be exacerbating it – have you been through a stressful break up, have you lost your job? Might some sort of relaxation practice help? Assess your lifestyle, what could you tweak, in terms of what you eat and what you put on your skin? But most of all, know that this can get better. I'm proof.
Cut through the noise and get practical, expert advice, home workouts, easy nutrition and more direct to your inbox. Sign up to the WOMEN'S HEALTH NEWSLETTER
You Might Also Like