I woke up covered in welts one morning over Christmas break from college. My skin was hot and inflamed from unknowingly scratching myself in my sleep.
It marked the beginning of a very long, itchy year.
Over the next several months, I saw many doctors and specialists, and spent way too much time online trying to figure out the cause of this ongoing reaction.
Eventually, a doctor diagnosed me with chronic idiopathic urticaria. In other words, chronic hives with no known cause. I was told the hives could last anywhere from 1 to 5 years, and they could come back again at any time — a disheartening thing to hear.
Doctors prescribed me antihistamines for the hives. But each time I was given a higher dose, and the medication would work for only a few days before the hives came back.
So, I sought out other treatments. I took oatmeal baths, put ice on the welts, used lotions — nothing worked.
My skin always felt like it was on fire, and the symptoms spread to other parts of my body. Sometimes my lips would swell up. Sometimes my palms and the soles of my feet would get itchy.
The hives made it difficult to go through everyday life. I couldn’t focus on my classes, internships, or summer jobs. I knew I had to find something to sooth my skin.
That’s when I started digging into the ingredients labels on the personal care products I was using. I thought that maybe if I took a more holistic approach and cut out potentially harmful ingredients, I could finally find some relief.
I began swapping everything from my lotion and shampoo to my laundry detergent for cleaner versions. But as I continued to do my research, I realized that the ingredients weren’t the only thing I needed to worry about in these products — it was also the plastic containers and waste.
I couldn’t believe I had never realized how much I threw away each day and how I was supporting companies that were creating far more than their fair share of pollution.
I was heartbroken thinking of the animals whose homes were being destroyed, of the people most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change, of the planet we are rapidly destroying.
I soon found another corner of the internet that sparked my interest: the zero-waste movement. Members of its large and ever-growing community aspire to send as little as possible to the landfill by avoiding disposable packaging and single-use products.
Given the way our society is set up, creating no waste whatsoever can feel like an impossible goal. That’s why many people in the movement simply focus on practical sustainability and purchasing products with minimal waste — which is what I did.
As I ran out of my bottled shampoo, I switched to shampoo bars with no packaging. When I needed a new comb, I found a bamboo one instead of conventional plastic. And I began buying my clothes and furniture secondhand instead of new.
Along the way, I found so many wonderful small businesses with incredible swaps for everyday products that created little to no waste and contained holistic and healthy ingredients that would benefit my skin.
And as I continued to learn the importance of demanding better from companies and powerful people, and how important it is to vote with my dollar and planet Earth in mind, sustainability became an increasingly important part of my lifestyle and identity — and it all started with my hives.
While I wish I could have learned these lessons without the itchiness, I’m still grateful for the experience. Through it all, I found a passion for holistic health, sustainability, and intersectional environmentalism.
My hives finally went away after 13 months of almost daily irritation, and they’ve been gone ever since. It turns out they were an early sign of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid, which I was diagnosed with 3 1/2 years later.
Did my switch to a more sustainable lifestyle stop the hives? It’s possible, but I can’t be certain. They might have just gone away for no clear reason at all.
The one thing I am sure of, however, is that sometimes our biggest life lessons can come from the most unexpected places.
Hannah Austin is a graphic designer in Chicago. She has taken her passions for design and sustainability to create Earthical, a resource for finding eco-conscious swaps for everyday products, as well as the stores that sell them. Her aim is always to make sustainability as accessible as possible. In her free time she likes learning about sustainability and holistic health, and spending time outside with her dogs. You can find her on Instagram.