Dermatitis

Originally Published: January 19, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 16, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I have always used moisturizer during winter time because of my dry skin. However, something strange happened last spring. Areas of my face turned reddish as if it were flushed and were slightly puffy. It went untreated for a while as I thought it was only a minor irritation or allergic reaction. After 2 months, as it had not gone away yet, and the condition fluctuated between almost about to heal and starting to puff up, I went to a dermatologist who diagnosed this as sebborheic dermatitis. He said it is something I'll always have if I don't wash my face often and keep it clean. He also said moisturizers are off limits as someone my age (19) would not need it.

That was during the summer and I could live without moisturizer. Also, during that time I found that if I used soaps to wash my face, my skin would start to get red again. I stayed away from soaps, cleansers, and moisturizers for the summer and relied on warm water. Now it is winter. HELP! My face feels like a desert without moisturizer, but any moisturizer I have used irritates my skin. I haven't found any cleanser which doesn't give me immediate bad results either. Can you suggest anything for me to use or explain why my skin is reacting the way it is to anything and everything besides water?

—Winter blues

Dear Winter blues,

As you've begun to experience, eczema, or dermatitis, is a bit of an elusive disease to the medical community. Seborrheic dermatitis is a common, scaly superficial skin condition that affects more men than women. It appears to be associated with an oily complexion, and historically has been found in two major age groups, the first three months of life and 40 to 70 years. Onset in adults is gradual, and the dermatitis is usually only apparent as dry or greasy scaling of the scalp with variable itching. Genetic and climatic factors seem to affect the incidence and severity of the disease — it is usually worse in the winter.

Treatments for seborrheic dermatitis range from use of an anti-dandruff shampoo for the scalp to corticosteroid lotions and hypo-allergenic cleansers and moisturizers for the skin. For anyone suffering from sensitive skin, it is a good idea to conduct a patch test first of each new product you try: put a dab of the product on your forearm and cover it with a small bandage. Repeat daily for three or four days, and then wait another day or two. If you have no reaction, it's probably safe for you to use. If the facial cleansers at your local drug store are too harsh or irritating, you may want to check the types available at a natural food store to see if they have any extremely mild cleansers or lotions. And since the treatment your dermatologist recommended isn't working for you, it might be a good idea to get a second opinion. Another dermatologist may provide a different diagnosis of your condition or have a suggestion for another treatment.

Dermatologists are available for Columbia students by referral through Primary Care. Columbia students may log onto Open Communicator or call x4-2284 to make an appointment. Best of luck putting your best face forward!

Alice