If you struggle with eczema, you know it can be one of the most difficult skin conditions to treat. It can flare up when you least expect it, symptoms are often obvious and uncomfortable, and there’s not actually a cure.
“Eczema is an inflammation of the skin that can cause itchiness, bumps, and irritation,” says Newport Beach-based board-certified public surgeon and ENT specialist Dr. Kevin Sadati, M.D. You can experience eczema on the body or the face, and the treatment differs based on where it’s happening. Here, skin care experts share a comprehensive guide on how to treat facial eczema, from what can trigger flare-ups to the ingredients you should incorporate into your beauty routine.
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What Is Facial Eczema?
Facial eczema is the same condition as body eczema, only with the rash-like symptoms occurring above the neck. Your skin will become itchy, inflamed, dry, and red during a flare-up. Of course, when you have eczema on the face, it’ll be more noticeable than when it’s on your body — and it can be more tender. “Inflammation in facial eczema is often very uncomfortable due to the location,” says New York-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Arash Akhavan, M.D. “It can be extremely painful as the facial skin is sensitive.”
Los Angeles-based celebrity facialist Gina Mari, who often treats clients with facial eczema, understands why the chronic condition — which, according to the National Eczema Foundation, affects over 31.6 million people in the U.S. — can be distressing. “Psychologically, it can seem worse than an outbreak on the body due to the fact that it’s visible and a bit challenging to cover up,” she says.
To add to how pesky eczema can be to treat, there are actually three types (and, yes, all three can emerge on the face): atopic dermatitis, the most common variety that’s considered long-lasting or chronic; contact dermatitis, also known as allergic contact dermatitis, which occurs at the site of exposure (a poison ivy rash is an example) and calls for medical attention; and seborrheic dermatitis, which is triggered by oil buildup and mainly happens on your scalp, back, or chest (though it could be on the face). Typically, when people say “eczema,” they’re referring to atopic dermatitis — though treatment for all entails using gentle, calming products.
What Causes Eczema Flare-Ups?
A long list of factors can cause eczema to flare up. “It could be anything that activates the immune system or anything you come in contact with,” says Sadati. Among these triggers are food, the environment, weather, and, most commonly: stress. In fact, in a National Eczema Society landmark patient survey conducted in 2020, stress was identified as the single biggest trigger of eczema flare-ups. Interestingly enough, far more women (57%) were affected than men (41%).
The silver lining? “Face flare-ups typically don’t last as long as ones on the body,” notes Akhavan. They can still last a few weeks, he explains, but that time can be shortened with the help of proper treatment.
How To Treat Facial Eczema
Remember: There is no magical cure, but there are a myriad of remedies that range from topical steroids to light therapy facials. To start, Sadati suggests using over-the-counter hydrocortisone for itchiness. “But if it doesn’t go away after a week, go see a dermatologist,” he says.
If you want to see a pro for relief, Akhavan says you can benefit from the right kind of facial. “For someone with facial eczema, we would suggest a noninvasive facial to moisturize and help with the outbreak,” he tells Bustle. If you’re experiencing an active flare-up, the experts recommend weekly (and in some cases more frequent) facials until it subsides.
“I will generally do a combination of vitamin and oxygen therapy to provide some eczema relief,” shares Mari. The pro applies vitamin E combined with a bit of jojoba oil to first add hydration. “Then I’ll steam the skin by applying a hot towel to really get the ingredients to penetrate into the skin. I follow that by applying pure oxygen to the skin,” she adds.
Red Light Therapy
Another popular treatment is phototherapy, also known as LED light therapy. “Red light therapy is incredibly healing due to its ability to increase ATP production (aka cell repair) and boost fibroblast (collagen production) activity,” says Mari. The National Eczema Society reports that regular LED light treatments — done about two to three times per week — reduce inflammation levels, itching, and pain. It even helps speed recovery time and prevent chronic symptoms.
What To Avoid
In the midst of a flare-up, skip anything harsh, whether it’s a product or a treatment. “Alcohol, fragrances, acids, retinoids, vitamin C, lanolin, and essential oils can all irritate and dry out your skin if you are prone to eczema,” says Sadati. Mari points to microdermabrasion, peels, and microneedling as treatments to steer clear of if you’re dealing with eczema since they’re on the abrasive end of the spectrum.
Ingredients To Look For
For your skin care routine, seek hydration-based ingredients. These are the top six that topped our experts’ lists:
- Ceramides: “Ceramides are a favorite because they’re made naturally by the skin, but often, eczema-prone skin lacks them,” explains skin expert and medical esthetician Cassandra Bankson. Sadati echoes this, adding that the ingredient helps soothe the skin.
- Hyaluronic Acid: Hydrating staple hyaluronic acid is another solid choice since it’s a humectant that helps pull in extra moisture to the skin from the air, says Akhavan.
- Colloidal Oatmeal: In beauty products, this is comprised of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory plant chemicals to calm itchy skin.
- Niacinamide: Akhavan recommends niacinamide as it helps strengthen the skin’s natural barrier, which is often compromised during an eczema flare-up.
- Humectants: “Humectants [like honey] can also be good for barrier repair,” notes Sadati. Glycerin is another option.
- Natural Botanical Oils: Plant-based oils, like jojoba, rosehip, coconut, and geranium, will deeply penetrate the skin to help relieve dryness.
Remember that finding what your skin responds best to is a trial and error process. “Every person’s skin is different. Always patch test before trying a new product,” says Sadati. To help, here are product recommendations from the pros that could help heal persistent outbreaks.
Products For Facial Eczema Relief
A Gentle Cleanser
This serum-like cleanser from celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden is extremely nourishing. It’s made with hyaluronic acid, olive and chicory leaf extracts, plus oat bran extract to help to nurture the skin barrier without stripping your face of its natural oils.
A Simple Face Cream
Akhavan suggests using a cream from CeraVe, like this popular one that contains both hyaluronic acid and ceramides. “I suggest applying moisturizer within three minutes after bathing to lock in the moisture,” he adds.
A Soothing Moisturizer
“This moisturizer is an absolute favorite. With ceramides, it provides fragrance-free skin and barrier support,” Bankson says. It also has oat kernel flour to help smooth and soothe, as well as niacinamide to help balance oil production.
For Sun Protection
This redness-correcting sunscreen is specifically made for those afflicted by eczema. “In general, mineral formulas will be less irritating and more tolerable, as long as they don’t leave behind a cosmetic white cast,” explains Bankson.
For A Skin Barrier Boost
This 100% pure squalane from BeautyStat — a brand created by cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson — is specifically made for sensitive skin. The soothing hero ingredient easily penetrates the skin barrier to boost moisture retention and alleviate dry patches. The best part is it’s so lightweight, it doesn’t leave behind a greasy residue.
For Hydrating TLC
Honey is an MVP for soothing angry or inflamed complexions. “This mask feels wonderful on irritated skin, and Manuka honey has always been one of my go-to's for healing,” says Mari, who recommends using this mask for relief.
The Drugstore Buy
Saditi recommends reaching for a calming face mask like this one from Aveeno, which you can get at a drugstore. “This oat mask is infused with soothing pumpkin that works with the oatmeal to calm inflammation,” he says.
Patrizi, A. (2015). Management of atopic dermatitis: safety and efficacy of phototherapy. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4599569/
Dr. Kevin Sadati, M.D., Newport Beach-based board-certified public surgeon and ENT specialist
Dr. Arash Akhavan, M.D., New York-based board-certified dermatologist
Gina Mari, Los Angeles-based celebrity facialist
Cassandra Bankson, skin expert and medical esthetician