Gleams & Notions

The causes and treatments of dermatitis and eczema.

By Harvey M. Fishman, Consultant | February 4, 2010

Two month ago ("More on Skin Treatments," December Gleams & Notions), I wrote about acne. Other skin maladies are dermatitis and eczema. Dermatitis is any type of skin inflammation not caused by an infectious agent. Eczema is chronic dermatitis and may result from a family history of asthma, hay fever, hives, etc. Dermatitis may result from an external natural source such as poison ivy, or from many other natural and synthetic chemicals, which are capable of sensitizing the human skin. To treat dermatitis from external contacts, it is necessary to determine which substance or group of substances are responsible. Eczema may also result from internal chemicals circulating through the blood stream, which produce inflammation of the lower layers and blood vessels of the skin. These irritating substances may be inhaled pollen or dust, or food or drugs taken orally, or by reaction to fungus or bacterial infections elsewhere on the body.

Eczema may be caused by a variety of external and internal irritants.
Some precautions to take include avoiding sweating or overheating; scratchy materials such as wool or other irritants; harsh soaps, detergents and solvents; environmental factors that trigger allergies such as pollens, molds, mites and animal dander; foods that cause allergies; and last, but not least, trying to avoid stress—which is easier said than done in our time-crunched society. If chronic eruptions persist, psychosomatic and emotional factors may play an important role, and may perpetuate the itching and inflammation of the skin long after the original cause was determined. I recall that when my daughter, at a very young age, was upset about something, she would break out in a rash. A few hours after she was calmed down, the skin eruptions would disappear.

Keep Skin Moisturized

In order to prevent scratching, since eczema is usually dry and itchy, constant application of creams or lotions is recommended to keep the skin as moist as possible. It is suggested that moisturizers be applied immediately (within three minutes) after a bath to lock in moisture. These creams or lotions may contain active ingredients to help relieve itching and soreness. A useful active ingredient is benzocaine, which at a minimum of 5%, is a safe and effective remedy for pain and itching. Its beneficial activity occurs almost wholly within the skin and mucous membranes where it blocks the pain-conducting nerve endings. A single application may quell pain and itching for 4-6 hours. Menthol in concentrations of 0.1-1% will effectively control itching and pain. It can be combined with external anti-pain ingredients such as camphor. Menthol will penetrate broken and unbroken skin to reach sensory nerve endings. Allantoin, with its healing ability, can also be used. These anti-itch ingredients are called antipruritics.

Here is a simple formulation for an anti-itch cream:

Anti-Itch Cream

Cetearyl alcohol (and) 15.0
sodium cetearyl sulfate
Salicylic acid0.4
Waterq.s. 100

Procedure: With constant stirring, put water in a batch tank. In a separate container, melt the first ingredient at 70°C and add salicylic acid and menthol to it. When uniform, add to the water also at 70°C. Cool to room temperature.

A bactericide, if desired, may also be added. The salicylic acid is a skin-exfoliating agent that is widely used to treat skin disorders. Cold compresses applied directly to itchy skin may also help relieve itching. If the condition does not improve, a nonprescription corticosteroid ointment can be used to reduce inflammation. Other treatments for more severe cases include the use of more potent prescription corticosteroid creams and antihistamines to help reduce the itching.

About the Author
Harvey Fishman has a consulting firm located at 34 Chicasaw Drive, Oakland, NJ 07436,, specializing in cosmetic formulations and new product ideas, offering tested finished products. He has more than 30 years of experience and has been director of research at Bonat, Nestlé LeMur and Turner Hall. He welcomes descriptive literature from suppliers and bench chemists and others in the field.