Atopic dermatitis: Understand your triggers

Learn to identify (and avoid) irritants that trigger your eczema.

Atopic dermatitis (eczema) is caused by a combination of genes and irritants in the environment. If someone in your family has eczema, you're more at risk of developing the condition. Some people with atopic dermatitis have a gene variation that creates filaggrin. Filaggrin is a protein that helps the body maintain a healthy protective barrier on the top layer of skin. Without a strong skin barrier, moisture escapes and bacteria and viruses can enter the skin.

You can't change your genes. But you can manage your eczema and reduce flare-ups by understanding what triggers a reaction.

Common triggers for atopic dermatitis

The triggers for atopic dermatitis vary widely from person to person. Generally, try to avoid anything that causes an itch, since scratching often triggers an eczema flare. Keep in mind that a flare-up can appear well after exposure to the irritant. This lag time can make identifying your triggers difficult. It helps to track your symptoms in a diary or app and look for patterns over time. Some common triggers include:

Dry skin. When your skin gets too dry, it can easily become brittle, scaly, rough or tight. This can cause eczema to flare. It's important to moisturize your skin multiple times a day with a rich moisturizer.

Allergies. Allergies to pollen, pet dander, dust mites and mold are often associated with eczema flares, and they may make your symptoms worse. It might help to dust and vacuum regularly, and wash bedding weekly in hot water.

Soap. Hand and dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, bubble bath, and body wash can irritate skin. Choose products that are fragrant-free and mild. Avoid antibacterial soaps that dry out your skin.

Hot water. Use lukewarm or cool water so that your skin stays calmer after hand-washing and showering.

Cleaning products. Surface cleaners and disinfectants can irritate skin and trigger eczema — even natural products. To reduce your chance of reacting, wear cotton-lined gloves when cleaning.

Metals. Some metals that contact your skin are irritants. You may need to check your jewelry and avoid nickel, chromium, cobalt chloride, copper and gold.

Smoke from tobacco. Cigarette smoke is a common irritant. If you smoke, talk with your doctor about ways to quit that are effective and long lasting.

Fragrances. Some people find their eczema flares when they use scented lotion or shampoo, wear cologne or perfume, or use air fresheners and scented candles. If in doubt, avoid using scented products in general.

Stress. Anxiety and stress can make skin conditions like eczema worse. When you're tense, the body's stress hormones cause inflammation that can irritate your skin and trigger eczema. Try relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation or deep breathing.

Fabric. Some fabrics like wool and polyester can irritate the skin. You may need to remove the tags from your clothing as well. Choose loose fitting clothing made from fabrics that breathe, like cotton or bamboo.

Heat and sweat. Being too hot can make your skin itchy. Wear light, breathable clothing on hot days and turn on the air conditioning. If your eczema is irritated during exercise or by sweating, take a break and apply cool compresses until your skin calms down.

March 08, 2023 See more In-depth