The Surprising Reasons My Dermatitis Flares Up — & How I Deal

by Jessica DeFino
Nicky J Sims/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As a beauty editor, it's kind of my job to have good skin — or at least, to know enough about skincare to treat problems as they present themselves. And for the most part, I do: Pimples are no match for my DIY turmeric spot treatments; I kick dry skin to the curb with a coat of Weleda Skin Food; leftover acne scars fade fast with a dab of diluted frankincense essential oil. But whenever my dermatitis — an issue defined by red, scaly patches of dry skin over my eyes and mouth — flares up, I can't help but feel frustrated. As a chronic condition, it's one that even dermatologists don't fully understand (in most cases, there's no known cause and there's no lasting form of treatment), and learning how to cope when my dermatitis won't go away has been my biggest beauty challenge to date.

Read more: Steroid Skin Creams Almost Ruined My Face — & Here’s How I Fixed It

Honestly, I thought I "beat" it. I had been free and clear of dermatitis for almost a year... but then it made an appearance on my eyelids earlier this week, throwing me into a skincare spiral. Why now? I had been doing all the right things, like eating healthy and using gentle skincare products, and my skin was responding well. This flare-up served as a reminder that dermatitis is categorized as chronic for a reason. It doesn't just go away; it’s usually a lifelong issue that requires consistent upkeep, even when outbreaks aren’t active. And that upkeep can be draining.

Jessica L. Yarbrough

Anyone who suffers from psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea can probably relate: The physical treatment (antibiotics, steroid creams, and “miracle curls” peddled on Instagram that you can’t resist) is time-consuming enough, but handling a chronic skin condition takes an emotional toll as well.

Ahead, everything I’ve learned about managing my outbreaks — including expert advice from derms and the role of self-care.

Be Mindful Of Known Triggers

The first step in minimizing dermatitis outbreaks is recognizing “known triggers” — aka, things that have been shown to cause or worsen symptoms from a dermatological standpoint. “In regard to perioral dermatitis [around the mouth], one particular trigger is products with fluoride,” Dr. Jennifer Vickers, a dermatologist at Sanova Dermatology in Texas, tells The Zoe Report. “Some people improve when they try a more natural toothpaste such as Tom's.” I’ve found this to be true, so I stay far away from fluoride (I use Uncle Harry’s Natural Toothpaste instead).

Some other common triggers include fragrance (both in terms of perfumes and the fragrance added to skincare and makeup products), detergents and dryer sheets, and metals like nickel (sometimes found in high-shine cosmetics).

Jessica L. Yarbrough

Figure Out Your Personal Triggers

Since it’s not fully understood how or why dermatitis presents, it’s important to attempt to figure out your personal triggers. Keeping a daily journal was helpful for me; I logged everything I ate and everything that touched my face, and noted when flare-ups occurred. From this process, I learned that almonds and chia seeds worsen my condition — both can cause inflammation if eaten in excess — and that my skin is clearer when I’m off gluten, dairy, and sugar.

Skip The Makeup

It’s one of dermatology’s cruelest jokes: All I want to do is cover my dermatitis in a coat of longwear foundation, but makeup actually makes the condition worse. However, going makeup-free isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

Call it a #firstworldproblem all you want, but walking into work with my face covered in red, scaly skin for the first time (see pictures above) felt traumatic. Coworkers stared at me in meetings, my boss called me into her office to tell me I “was still beautiful” in her eyes (um, what?), and a guy in the elevator asked if I was contagious. So, no, skipping the makeup isn’t easy — but in the end, it’s worth it. Now, I only wear makeup on really special occasions — like my own wedding — and sure enough, I always notice the beginnings of a dermatitis rash after I wash it off.

Stick With Gentle Products

“Because the skin is very sensitive with this condition, anything that is harsh or irritating can worsen it,” Dr. Vickers says. “Products that are gentle and bland are recommended.” For this reason, I have to pass on most trendy skincare products — vitamin C serums and retinol oils are just too rough. My routine today consists of basic natural ingredients: rose water for cleansing, tea tree oil to keep pimples to a minimum, and jojoba oil to moisturize.

Jessica L. Yarbrough

Avoid Steroids

Topical steroids should be avoided,” Dr. Vickers tells TZR. “They may initially help, but they will ultimately makes it worse.” Because steroids offer momentary relief, many dermatologists will prescribe them to treat dermatitis — including mine. In the long run though, the steroids further aggravated my condition. I totally understand craving the sweet relief of a steroid cream… but if long-term skin health is what you’re after, skip it.

Keep Stress Levels Down

“Stress can also contribute to dermatitis flares,” Dr. Vickers shares. I’ve seen this reflected in my own outbreak pattern. When I’m in a high-stress situation or working under a tight deadline, my dermatitis comes to keep me company.

Managing stress looks different for everyone; you might find calm after an intense workout, or you may need to treat yourself to Netflix binge on the weekend. Personally, I’ve found daily meditation keeps my mind and my skin clear.

Jessica L. Yarbrough

Give Yourself A Break

I’ve spent years designing my life around dermatitis prevention — and ultimately, all the things I listed above have helped. But chronic conditions are just that — chronic — and sometimes, no matter how clean you eat or how well you take care of your skin, the dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea will come back. So give yourself a break every once in a while: Eat the pizza, wear the makeup. At the end of the day, I think it’s good for the soul to give up control.