The soak and smear technique involves applying a moisturizer immediately after bathing. Healthcare professionals generally agree the method can help manage eczema symptoms and keep flares under control.

Eczema, aka atopic dermatitis, is a condition that can cause dry, itchy skin and rashes. As many as 16.5 million adults and 9.6 million children have atopic dermatitis. Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes it but believe an overactive immune system may be partly to blame.

A common technique for managing eczema symptoms is the “soak and smear” method of daily bathing, followed by applying a moisturizer or prescription steroid cream. Experts have recommended soak and smear for years, but there’s some debate as to how much the method actually helps.

Research shows bathing can help or aggravate your condition, depending on how you treat your skin during and after the bath. Here’s what to know about soak and smear.

“Soak and smear” is the name for a common treatment for eczema-prone skin. It means soaking or bathing in warm water, then applying moisturizer, ointment, or medicated cream. Researchers say to smear within 3 minutes of a bath.

There’s been debate over whether corticosteroid cream works better when applied to dry or wet skin after a warm bath.

A small 2016 study in children with eczema found no difference when applied to dry or damp skin, but the study sample was small, and the children had mild eczema.

Most skin care and health organizations support using soak and smear to help keep eczema from crusting or worsening, regardless of whether the smear is a medication or a lotion.

Many health organizations support using warm baths and appropriate lotions for skin health. Supporters say that it helps keep your skin from drying out, which worsens the symptoms of eczema.

The National Eczema Association (NEA) also recommends a similar method called “soak and seal.” This technique involves applying a wet wrap around the affected area after smearing.

The NEA also recommends moisturizers with high oil content and timing your bath or shower for nighttime. Bathing and applying lotion before bed helps your skin retain moisture for longer.

Despite a consensus that it’s best to moisturize right after you bathe, healthcare professionals sometimes offer different advice about how long to bathe and how often.

How you bathe or shower may either worsen or help your symptoms.

If the water is too hot or you soak too long and don’t apply moisturizer, your skin can dry out and may have eczema flare-ups. Washing your skin in hot water too often can disrupt the skin barrier, according to a 2021 study.

Experts recommend you aim for a lukewarm bathing temperature. Other organizations also recommend short, cooler baths rather than long, hot baths.

Bathing once or twice a day may be more helpful than less frequent baths and showers. A small 2021 study of children with eczema found that bathing twice daily and moisturizing with thick cream or ointment right after was more helpful than less frequent bathing.

Eczema bathing tips

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re bathing with eczema:

  • Use gentle skin cleansers and not regular soap.
  • Use them only on your hands, feet, face, underarms, and genitals or to remove dirt.
  • Don’t scrub or over dry your skin.
  • Use a moisturizer right after you get out of the bath or shower.
  • Look for scratches and breaks in the skin, which crop up when you scratch an itchy rash.
  • Watch out for redness, swelling, or heat that could indicate infection.
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Here are some answers to questions many people have about treating their eczema.

Should you let eczema dry out?

People with eczema usually have dry skin because their skin barrier is already damaged. When the barrier is damaged, retaining the moisture that keeps skin healthy is hard. It’s essential to keep your skin moisturized to avoid worsening or triggering a flare-up.

The NEA recommends moisturizers without fragrances and suggests ones with the following ingredients:

How long does it take for triamcinolone to work on eczema?

Triamcinolone is a common steroid doctors prescribe to treat atopic dermatitis and other conditions. A typical dosage for adults with eczema is a 0.1% ointment or cream applied 2 or 3 times a day, often after meals. Symptoms usually clear up within a few days of consistent topical use.

Is “soak and smear” the same as “soak and seal”?

Soak and seal is a similar technique to soak and smear. Soak and seal involves one additional step of applying a wet wrap to the affected areas after smearing lotion. According to the NEA, many healthcare professionals recommend soak and seal.

Most researchers and healthcare organizations recommend the “soak and smear” or “soak and seal” method for treating eczema-prone skin. That means taking short, lukewarm baths once or twice daily and liberally applying moisturizer, ointment, or topical medication right afterward.

The soak and smear method won’t hurt your condition, but taking showers or baths that are too hot and too lengthy — and not moisturizing afterward — can dry out your skin and may make a flare-up more likely.