Often, the most challenging part of managing eczema is the part you have the least control over — other people. My eczema is mostly on my hands and forearms, which has its advantages.
A downside, however, is that it makes social contact, like shaking hands, a little nerve-wracking. Will they notice my scales? Will they react? Will I have to explain? Are my sleeves long enough to cover that patch? The point is, eczema can seriously affect self-esteem and make otherwise low-pressure situations suddenly worrisome.
Having eczema, however, doesn’t mean you should hide. In fact, there are more than 30 million adults in the United States living with eczema. Knowing you’re not alone can help, but it doesn’t make going to the store in summer with patchy skin or blisters up and down your arms and legs any less uncomfortable. In my experience living (and fighting) with eczema, I’ve picked up a few tips that help me take a bit of the sting out of being social.
1. Keep your head up
There’s no easy answer here. People may notice, stare, or comment. All you can do is take it as it comes and keep being the confident, beautiful person you are. Remember that having eczema doesn’t make you less worthy of respect. It doesn’t make you less kind, less funny, or less intelligent. It makes you itchy.
In close social quarters, like at a party, it can be challenging to avoid questions, especially when they’re less than discreet. (Tip: Pointing to anyone’s skin condition and saying “Oh my gosh, are you okay?!” is probably not helpful.)
Most of the time, a simple response like “Yeah, it’s just eczema” satisfies curiosity. You may even learn that one of your fellow partygoers also has eczema.
2. The more you know
You’re not responsible for educating others about eczema. I’ll say it again. You’re not responsible for educating others about eczema. You have no obligation here. That said, if you want to or find that it helps you be more confident, consider having a brief explanation about eczema for new acquaintances ready to go. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Just let them know it’s not contagious, it’s not uncommon, and (as far as they know) it’s not gross.
There’s a personal benefit to knowing more about eczema, too. When I had my first serious flare in a long time, reading up about eczema and being attentive to my condition helped me understand my body better and, ultimately, be more comfortable with my eczema. Plus, if your eczema flares or suddenly develops, you may have triggers that are aggravating the condition. Being knowledgeable about your personal eczema may help you pinpoint and deal with a trigger as well.
3. Be prepared
If you’ve lived with eczema for a while, you know that all lotions are not created equal. Some lotions dry your hands more than they moisturize, some make you itchy with fragrance, and some make you whimper in pain because they sting so much.
Whether shopping, out with friends, or on a road trip, consider carrying an eczema essentials kit with you at all times. Keep travel-sized bottles of your favorite lotion, bandages, and other skin-savers in your desk or locker at work, in your purse or backpack, and in your car. Packing your own goods means you’re ready for anything.
4. Assert yourself
The mishmash of genetic and environmental factors that affect eczema mean that the condition looks and acts differently on everybody. You’re your own eczema expert. It’s totally okay (nay, responsible) to advocate for what you need. My eczema means being very careful to not excessively wet my hands, so doing dishes or preparing food when I don’t have my gloves handy isn’t a good idea. I’ll be real — I’ve packed pairs of nitrile gloves in my purse on the way to parties. I like being able to help the host set up or clean, if needed. If I forget my gloves, I’ll ask if there’s a pair I can borrow or another task I can help with.
5. Patience, grasshopper
If you scratch it, they will come ... with unsolicited advice. Inevitably, upon hearing you have eczema, someone will tell you to try X lotion because it worked really well for their cousin’s girlfriend’s best friend. They may even ask you if you’re sure you have eczema (yes, this happens). In some cases, it’s easy to dismiss misguided advice with a kind, “Thank you, I’ll look for that.”
Others may take a little more restraint. In these moments, think before you react. Is this a friend who means well? Something along the lines of, “I appreciate your concern, but I’m still figuring out what works for me,” can help acknowledge your friend’s intent while keeping you in control.
6. Boldly go
More than once I’ve turned down an invitation because I didn’t like how I felt about my skin that day. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t notice my eczema when I’m having fun (well, until something gets itchy, then it’s time to moisturize). It’s just the getting there that’s tough sometimes. While you of course shouldn’t be pressured into doing something you don’t want to, don’t let eczema stop you from doing things you do want to do. Again, you’re your own eczema expert and you know your own limits. Stay safe and happy, and live your life.
Whatever the occasion, there’s always a chance that my eczema can steal the spotlight. While these moments are uncomfortable, I’ve learned that confidence, knowledge, assertiveness, and patience are all invaluable tools in my eczema toolkit. You may never be able to control what people do, but you can control how you feel about yourself and how you react to others.
Just remember, eczema doesn’t make you less amazing. It makes you itchy.
Kristen Barta is a doctoral candidate in communication at the University of Washington, where she researches the intersections of technology, social support, and sexual assault disclosure. Prior to graduate school, she worked as an educator and activist in the movement to end violence against women. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and enjoys gardening and cooking elaborate vegetarian meals in her spare time.