Soothing Sensitive Skin

Sometimes allergies make you sneeze...and sometimes they make you itch.
If a scratch-provoker of some sort leaves you lumpy and uncomfortable, take heart—
you can find lasting relief.

By Susan Weiner

March 2007

The itchiness began a short time after Miriam Marshall placed the new ring on her finger. At first, the New Jersey grandmother thought of the irritation as nothing more than a passing annoyance. Soon, however, she was twisting the ring and scratching her fingers to try to alleviate the prickly sensation. When she finally removed the circle of silver, her ring finger—in addition to the fingers on either side—were covered with red, pinpoint bumps. “I have allergies, but I never had this type of reaction before. It felt like a scaly patch of irritation,” she recalls.

Miriam’s daughter Louise, who studied jewelry design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, and who designs and repairs jewelry for a living, had seen the skin reaction before—having experienced it on her own wrists. “Some individuals react to gold, but typically it’s the base metal nickel, which is mixed in with silver, that causes the reaction,” explains Louise. In fact, nickel is among the top ten causes of skin allergy. Repeated nickel-to-skin contact can culminate in allergic sensitivity, and sweat—which dissolves the nickel contained in jewelry—exacerbates the itchy reaction.

Contaminating Contact

Skin allergy—known formally as allergic contact dermatitis—varies in severity depending on the type of irritant, sensitivity of the individual and body part affected. Redness may clear up quickly with soap and water or progress into skin-damaging sores. For those with metal sensitivities, a huge array of everyday products—including zippers, cupboard handles, silverware, pens, doorknobs, scissors, eyeglasses and razors—can trigger reactions, making daily life a challenge. With metal allergies hiding around every bend, even sources as seemingly harmless as seawater, cement, shoe leather, soil and blue pottery can trigger unsightly and painful rashes, since these items typically contain the metals cobalt or chromate.

Identifying the Source

If a sudden case of contact dermatitis has you scratching like a dog with fleas, it’s time to put your sleuthing skills to work. That’s because skin allergies may not only erupt after contact with something new but can also be triggered by something that you’ve been using every day for years. And with over 3,000 known reaction triggers, finding what makes you itch can be a challenge.

Location is a vital clue. Anything on the face, scalp or neck suggests such cosmetics as shampoo, hairspray, shaving cream, moisturizer, makeup, perfume and sunscreen. Reviewing your personal products can help, although eyelid woes can be traced to nail polish and toothpaste can inflame lips. Body irritations are often linked to laundry detergents and fabric softeners, along with clothing dyes and finishes. Feet can be affected by rubber compounds and dyes; known as shoe dermatitis, itchy, red feet can also be set off by the nickel sulfate used in leathermaking. The same metal is employed in eyelash curlers, bra fasteners and jewelry, all potential catalysts for breakouts. And a few airborne allergens, such as ragweed and insect spray, can lead to pain and itching.

An eruption on the hands will really test your detective powers, since hands are into everything. Your job is one possible allergen source, but home-based activities are also suspects. And it may take a while to identify the culprit if the rash appears days after exposure, if it’s hastened by sunlight or if too many products are involved. It’s tedious, but try maintaining a list of every item handled; if all else fails, ask you healthcare provider about a patch test.

Allergies to metal and other topical irritants are so common that more than 54% of the US population had a positive skin test response to one or more allergens, according to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (8/05). Often allergies can develop seemingly out of nowhere. “I’ve seen it happen with customers before,” says Louise. “One day, without warning, they developed a metal allergy.” And metal isn’t the only offender; repeated use of any product—from eye shadow to fabric softener—can eventually sensitize skin, causing an outbreak. If the inflammatory substance histamine is released, hives—red, bumpy and extremely itchy—can result.

While more common among adults, allergic dermatitis is the most widespread skin condition in children younger than 11 and the percentage of kids diagnosed with the ailment continues to increase, according to the American Medical Association. Why the jump in allergic skin reactions? The problem lies in an ever-increasing number of chemicals and substances that act as contact allergens, causing miserable episodes that can develop at any age. In addition to the increasing popularity of body piercing—triggering metal allergies in places your mother never dreamed of—a surge of trendy yet chemically laden beauty products, up-to-the-minute topical drugs, and “new and improved” detergents, soaps and lotions are adding fuel to the itchy fire.

Qi is the Key

Viewing skin disorders through a whole-body lens can help bring the problem into sharper focus. “In general, I find that people who tend to have allergic reactions also tend to easily catch colds and flu, are likely to have a history of asthma and/or eczema, and tend to fatigue more easily with mild to moderate amounts of exercise,” says Lisa Nicholson, LAc, QME, DNBAO, an acupuncturist and herbalist at Eastern Body Therapy in San Diego, California. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)—which sees the body more as a collection of functions than as a collection of organs—the skin is considered to be asso­ciated with the lungs, both of which serve as a line of defense against outside influences; this explains why individuals prone to skin allergies would be likely to also suffer from upper respiratory ailments.

According to Nicholson, allergic reactions are considered to be the result of disordered wei qi, the body’s defensive energy against disease—and too much or too little qi can result in allergic reactions to rela­tively minor stimuli. She says that skin allergies can also result from excesses of what TCM terms “heat” or “dampness”—basically, imbalances that disturb the flow of energy within the body—which results in itching and either red blotches or weeping lesions.

When treating someone for allergies Nicholson uses a combined approach that sometimes involves acupuncture, the art of inserting thin needles into the skin to help balance bodily energy. In addition, “depending on the constitution of the patient and how the allergic symptoms present, I would give herbs to nourish the wei qi and clear heat and/or dampness,” she says. (Her arsenal includes astragalus, an immune regulator also used to protect against upper respiratory infections.)

Healing an Outbreak of Hives

One of the most maddening forms of skin allergy, hives (medically known as urticaria) can involve just a small patch of itchy bumps no larger than peas—or an over-the-top immune response with raised red patches over large areas of the body, even a life-threatening emergency if the victim’s windpipe begins to swell. Obviously severe, chronic hives require professional medical care, but there are natural ways to ease more minor cases.

Good nutrition can help keep hives at bay. Jeanette Jacknin, MD, author of Smart Medicine for Your Skin (Avery/Penguin), recommends the following on a daily basis: A high-potency multivitamin, 3,000 mg of vitamin C and 200 to 400 IU of vitamin E, along with two botanical inflammation fighters, bromelain three times daily between meals and a tablet of quercetin four times a day, five minutes before meals. During an outbreak, Jacknin suggests adding B-complex (100 mg of most of the major Bs) four times daily plus two herbs, bilberry (60 mg three times a day) and stinging nettle (one capsule every two to four hours). Mix liquid beta-carotene with calamine lotion for topical relief.

Determining a patient’s constitution requires a lot more than a cursory examination; Nicholson considers everything from digestive function to a woman’s menstrual cycles before making a diagnosis. “I will focus on the constitution rather than symptoms,” she says. “As you bring the body into balance, often the symptoms clear up on their own.”

Day-to-day adjustments are vital to taming skin breakouts. “Lifestyle changes are a common recommendation, and usually include eating organic as much as possible and avoiding synthetic fabrics,” says Nicholson. “I sometimes recommend patients change detergent or beauty products, or discontinue use of products that are suspected of causing reactions.”

Don’t Scratch

While you’re dealing with the underlying causes of your itchy misery, it helps to remember what mom told you when you had the chicken pox: don’t scratch! Not only can scratching lead to infection, it can lead to scarring as well. Often, rinsing with soap and water or applying cool compresses will soothe the sting. (If you absolutely must scratch at least keep your fingernails short; this helps hold damage caused by scratching at a minimum. Also try scratching around the itchy spot, especially if open sores are involved.) Folk remedies known to have beneficial effects on inflamed skin include apple cider vinegar or a paste of sea salt and water, applied topically. If your skin is dry, use a hypoallergenic moisturizer (test it on a small area first).

There are herbs that can help cool fiery-feeling skin. While an herbalist or other trained healthcare practitioner can recommend remedies that match your specific condition, the herbs typically suggested include burdock, an anti-inflammatory that also boosts the immune system; calendula, a natural antiseptic that can be applied topically as a lotion, ointment or oil; and cooling aloe in gel or lotion form, which can be massaged into the affected area. Another is boswellia, a product of India’s Ayurvedic healing tradition, which is available in both supplement and topical forms. This well-respected anti-inflammatory is useful in treating a wide range of heat-generating disorders, including skin complaints (DNA Cell Biology 4/05). A paste containing goldenseal root or peppermint oil may also help soothe the burn.

Soothing problems on the outside can be aided by what you take inside. Be sure to get all the nutrients you need, especially such skin savers as omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamin complex and vitamin C. You can also try cutting gluten—a protein found in wheat and other grains—out of your life to see if that clears your skin.

For some individuals, skin allergies play a huge part in their lives; between identifying allergies, relieving symptoms and avoiding allergens, it can feel like a full-time job. For others, the occasional outbreak is nothing more than an itchy nuisance. So try filling your medicine chest and utility closet with non-allergenic, fragrance-free items, from makeup and beauty products to dish detergent and house cleansers. After all, if you steer clear of the itch-maker, there’ll be no need to scratch that itch.

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