The Basic Facts
The outermost layer of skin (the stratum corneum) is composed of cells lined with lipids, which form a protective barrier, keeping skin soft. But external factors (harsh cleansers, indoor heating, and dry, cold weather) can strip them away, allowing moisture to escape and letting in allergens (potentially irritating substances like fragrance, dust, and pet dander, to name a few). Typically, your skin just gets dry, but if you're allergy-prone, the effect is worse--flaky, irritated skin, or eczema.
What To Look For
You may have eczema if you have:
>A family history of the skin condition, asthma, or hay fever The same allergens trigger all three, so if one of your parents has asthma, you could end up with eczema instead.
>Dry, itchy, scaly patches and tiny blisters Common places include the face, scalp, hands, inside of elbows, behind the knees, and on the soles of the feet.
>Tackle the itch ASAP Apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream twice daily for up to two weeks, or take an antihistamine like loratadine (Claritin) for three to five days.
> Switch to gentle soap- and fragrance-free cleansers They won't irritate skin. We like Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar ($1.40) and Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment ($6; both in drugstores).
>Consume foods high in essential fatty acids They're known to calm inflammatory skin problems, says Jaliman. Nuts, flaxseed, and avocados are good sources. Or try a daily supplement of evening primrose oil (500 mg) or fish oil (1,800 mg).
>Take time to relax Studies show yoga, meditation, and calming music can relieve symptoms and reduce occurrences.
If skin doesn't improve within three weeks of following these suggestions, see a dermatologist, advises Debra Jaliman, M.D. She may prescribe a steroid cream, which will ease itching and inflammation fast. Other prescriptions include immunomodulator creams such as Protopic or Elidel, which suppress the immune system, essentially turning off skin's allergic response. >The bottom line Eczema is easy to treat, but the longer you wait to deal with it, the worse it will get, says Jaliman. "A few days on a prescription may be all you need to calm annoying flare-ups."