How dry skin condition eczema can leave children tortured
National Eczema Week highlights the impact of a dry skin condition that can leave children feeling tortured. Leona O’Neill talks to one mum whose daughter struggles with the condition and a skincare expert who is worried about the rise of eczema.
East Belfast mum Catriona Couston’s 12-year-old daughter Ruby has eczema. The 49-year-old PR professional says that her daughter’s skin gets so raw at times that it bleeds and she has to use steroid creams to help her heal. Ruby’s condition is linked to other allergies she suffered as a baby.
“When Ruby was a year old she took an anaphylactic reaction with eggs,” Catriona said. “We had no idea that she had any kind of allergies. Her dad and I had been away for the weekend and we had come home just as my sister was giving her scrambled eggs. Ruby got very agitated and her lips started to swell. Her tongue did too and she was starting to find it difficult to breathe. We lifted her and raced her to hospital where they helped her. We were blue-lighted to the Allergy Clinic in Dundonald where she was given Epipen treatment.
“An after-effect of that is she developed a nut allergy and a side effect of that is eczema — her skin can become very, very dry and a bit lumpy. She suffers a lot with it, especially in the winter time in the cold. Her hands can be almost raw.”
This week marks National Eczema Week. In the UK one in five children and one in 12 adults live with the dry skin condition.
In mild cases the skin is dry, scaly, red, itchy and uncomfortable. In more severe cases there may be weeping, crusting and bleeding. Constant scratching causes the skin to split and bleed, leaving sufferers open to infection.
Catriona explains: “I remember stripping the beds one day and I saw blood on the sheets. It turned out she had been scratching the back of her knees in her sleep so hard that they were actually raw and bleeding.
“It’s one of those things that she has gotten used to. There are times when I’ve had to get her steroid cream for her hands because they have got that bad over the winter time. Obviously as she gets older I’m more able to ask her how her skin is and she can tell me.
“When she’s in the shower she can’t use anything perfumed at all, because it makes her skin really dry and just aggravates whatever rawness is already there. It is mainly on her hands and on her legs, where they are scratched to the point they are raw red and sore. Sometimes her upper arms can get quite agitated also — it’s mainly where her joints are.
“The cold weather seems to really flare it up particularly, but all year round there is a roughness to her skin, particularly on her legs and her knees and upper arms. It’s really quite localised. It wouldn’t be on her torso or on her back.
“I feel sorry for her. There are times when she says to me that her hands in particular are just so painful and she doesn’t know what to do. On other occasions she is putting the cream on even though it is actually really sore to do so. She has to put it on about half an hour before she goes to bed because she can’t sleep with the stinging. It’s something that she has kind of got used to, but last winter was particularly bad and I’m hoping this winter isn’t the same.”
Catriona says that the condition does not impact on her daughter’s confidence, rather it’s something she has learned to live with. But it does make her miss out on certain aspects of life that other 12-year-olds might take for granted.
“I don’t think the condition affects her confidence,” she says. “She is at grammar school now. In winter they have to wear nylon tights and sometimes it is very cold but if her skin is particularly bad she would have to wear socks until it subsides.
“Also, but teenagers like to wear skinny jeans and things like that, sometimes Ruby would have to wear leggings or something looser, like jogging bottoms. Otherwise the tightness of it would aggravate the skin.
“It is not something that I would have overly noticed as being bad when she was a baby, but it seems to have got worse as she has got older. And last winter was the worst. Her hands were literally chapped raw. It’s just trying to keep on top of her to put the cream on first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
“All these allergies seem so common these days. I don’t remember hearing about anything like this when I was younger.”
Catriona has this advice for other parents navigating the choppy waters of a child’s eczema diagnosis.
“Go to your GP for some kind of professional advice to see how bad it is,” she says.
“Obviously with children’s skin being so sensitive, it is delicate. And as children get older, you need to keep an eye on the skin products that they are using.
“Girls love things that are probably not great for their skin, like highly perfumed lotions and potions, maybe cheap quality products. You need to make sure that anything they are putting on their skin is properly tested and it isn’t going to aggravate the situation.
“It is all about making sure they have the right product in the bath, because water dries the skin out so badly, and making sure that in the shower the water is not too hot.
“Staying on top of it, monitoring it and making sure you are using the right product is key to managing it. It’s whenever it is sore on their skin, it’s awful. You can only imagine what’s it’s like. Whenever they are trying to get to sleep, or study, or do sports, it’s torturous for them.”
Skincare CEO is third generation of her family to tackle condition
On the other side of the eczema spectrum is Dundalk-based Joanna Gardiner, CEO of Elave Skincare, a company blazing a trail in healing skincare for people with the condition. The mother-of-three took over the reins of the 80-year-old family business which was born in the back of a chemist shop in Newry.
“The business itself was set up in 1934 by my grandfather,” she says. “We were the first manufacturing chemist in Ireland. It was originally based in Newry and then it moved to Dundalk.
“My grandfather was Joseph Gardiner. Of 27 grandchildren, I was named after him. He was a commercial traveller — he travelled the whole island of Ireland. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, chemists were making creams and ointments, you didn’t have the likes of Boots and the array of skincare you would have these days. Just like the chemists were making cough bottles and other potions, he basically took that from the back of the chemist shop to a manufacturing site. We made creams and ointments and then delivered them back into pharmacists nationwide. Joseph started it, my dad took over from him and now I’ve taken over.
“I was born into the family skincare business, and when my first two children were small and I had them swimming and I noticed the rise in eczema in other kids and mums coping with it, I said to myself that it seemed to be on the rise and I was right,” she says.
“Two generations ago, 3% of babies got baby eczema and now it’s 25%-plus and rising.
“So I did a bit of research. As it happened my father was a pharmacist and he formulated our skincare. Obviously with the whole history of apothecary creams and ointments we looked into it and created a new range called Elave. We medically researched ingredients that were triggering rises in eczema, like sulphate and MI and we created a range of products to manage sensitive reactive skin, including eczema and dermatitis.
“We looked at it in terms of managing it from head to toe, developing a range free from ingredients that are known triggers for eczema. It’s a little bit separate from natural and organic, it was more about what was causing this rise in eczema and how can we stop it.”
Joanna says that modern life is having an impact on our skin.
“It’s not just the ingredients in skincare that causes eczema, it is also modern living,” she says. “It’s heated houses, over-washing and stripping the skin of essential oils. We can dramatically improve the condition by just managing it and reducing the need for steroids, which is very important for people. They don’t want to overuse steroids, which are very good treatment for severe cases. But you want to use them as little as possible.
“We spend a lot of time with medical professionals and charities like TinyLife, for example, where skin of premature babies is very delicate. We work with nutritionists and dermatologists, so we go very much on recommendation of trust and efficacy.
“We’ve done a lot of research on the skin barrier, head to toe, from the scalp right down and all over the body. And if you keep the skin barrier away from chemicals, particularly those which are known to trigger sensitive skin, shampoo, body washes, creams and ointments that repair the skin barrier and that total therapy, is what is different about us.”
Joanna, whose family brand is now sold across the globe, is excited about Elave moving into Northern Ireland.
“Our product is not well known in Northern Ireland at the moment, but it is a high-performing, multi-award winning brand in the Republic of Ireland,” she says. “We would be in every pharmacy here. We are very focused outside of Ireland also and have brought out product in Hong Kong, China and the Middle East, particularly the Gulf states.
“It is a mission of mine to get into Northern Ireland and have a good business there, particularly as we’re so close, we’re on the border here.”
Elave Baby is available from local pharmacies, online at www.elaveskincare.com or via Amazon. A donation of £1 from every Baby Essentials Pack sold goes to support the work of TinyLife, which is marking its 30th anniversary this year with lots of special fundraising events in November. Elave Baby is the only product range with Approved By status by TinyLife