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What is dermatitis? What is eczema? Key differences and ways to help

What is the difference between dermatitis and eczema?
Liz Thompson
Liz Thompson July, 21, 2020

Freelance writer, green beauty expert, coffee drinker, beach bum wannabe

Experiencing itchy, red skin? How do you know whether it's dermatitis or eczema?

Well, when your skin is red, itchy and uncomfortable, accurately diagnosing the condition can help you find a more appropriate solution. While dermatitis and eczema are both common sources of skin irritation, knowing the difference is the best way to make sure skin avoids its next flare-up.

What is dermatitis?

If you've always mentally placed eczema and dermatitis under the same umbrella, then you're actually on the right track. Both are words for upset skin conditions. But are the terms totally interchangeable? To start off simple, let's cover the basics.

Dermatitis is a general term skin inflammation. It's typically characterized by skin that's red, itchy or scaly. As with eczema, there are several types of dermatitis. One of the most common is contact dermatitis, where the skin reacts to exposure to a particular substance.

What is eczema?

Woman scratching arm indoors, space for text. Allergy symptomsAccording to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is an inflammatory skin condition. But while some types of dermatitis can come and go, eczema is typically a chronic condition, often starting in infancy.

This means that when managing symptoms, the same or similar products and tips often provide some relief for either condition.

According to experts at the National Eczema Association, atopic dermatitis most often appears early in life as chapped skin that goes through wet-dry cycles, meaning the skin repeatedly becomes damp (because of sweat, saliva or other liquids) and then dries. The condition is most common in skin folds or around the mouth or groin area.

Allergens, including ones that arrive seasonally, can also aggravate feelings of irritation brought on by eczema. Eczema usually leads skin to become red and itchy, and some types of eczema may even cause skin to weep, peel or blister.

But dermatitis can come in several forms. If you're unsure exactly why your skin is bothering you, get your doctor's opinion. A dermatologist will be able to recognize other types of dermatitis — like contact dermatitis and seborrheic dermatitis — and get you started on effective treatments.

Who is prone to eczema and dermatitis?

Research from National Jewish Health shows that eczema and atopic dermatitis may indicate a weakened skin barrier — the skin's acid mantle which protects against environmental stressors and bacteria. Skin that doesn't have that protection may be more prone to allergic reactions and could develop a deficient skin microbiome — the usually healthy balance of bacteria that live on the skin to help protect it.

How to make skin feel better at home

Even skin that's susceptible to eczema and dermatitis can stay free of future irritation. When dealing with dermatitis, make an effort to:

  • Avoid potentially irritating ingredients and materials.
  • Be careful with exfoliants — never exfoliate broken or irritated skin.
  • Steer clear of environmental stressors and allergens.

For eczema, try to:

  • Avoid showering in water that is too hot.
  • Keep skin from drying out by using a gentle moisturizer that seals in hydration.
  • Support the skin microbiome with probiotics.
  • Try not to scratch inflamed areas.

You might find that implementing all of these changes can be helpful, regardless of whether you're dealing with eczema or dermatitis.

Before using any type of medicated cream or ointment, see what your doctor has to say — but when you notice an angry red patch at home, these simple, practical skincare habits can help you make your way to more comfortable skin.

DISCLAIMER: Be sure to have a licensed doctor diagnose any medical conditions.

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