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I’m convinced climate change is worsening my eczema

I used to look forward to summers, but the uncontrollable heat is aggravating my skin condition.

29 Sep 2021

“Are you ok? You’re bleeding,” my flatmate asked, sounding concerned and in disbelief, as she entered our shared kitchen. I had my back to her, washing plates. ‘How can it be? My menses ended two days ago,’ I thought. Before I had a chance to speak, she carried on, saying, “I think you should have a look at your knee”. The next thing I knew, I felt like I was stabbed. 

“Ouch!” I shouted as I dropped the plate I was washing and reflexively curled my leg. My heel hit my flatmate and when I turned around, I saw her on the floor, with a hand on her nose and the other holding a piece of blood-stained paper. Embarrassed, I couldn’t stop apologising to her for the rest of that afternoon. I also couldn’t figure out the right words to explain to my flatmate of two months that my skin is an untamable beast and it randomly bleeds a lot.

My atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, never fails to put me in awkward situations like this. Even before I received the official diagnosis at 14, I was told to stop scratching as if I hadn’t already showered for days, or had people point at me because of the blisters and scaly skin cloaking my arms, elbows, thighs, and feet. One time, the affected area came so close to my wrist that my classmates called the school counsellor to make sure I wasn’t doing anything dangerous. In fact, as I am typing this, I am refraining myself from thinking about the itch between my index and middle fingers. 

“As the climate crisis keeps bringing on frequent heat waves in Britain, my skin keeps getting worse”

Eczema is a chronic, relapsing condition which compromises the skin’s ability to serve as an effective barrier against the environment. It manifests differently in different people. For me, my skin is not able to retain moisture, so it dries and cracks easily. It’s more irritating in a warm and humid season when everything can trigger a flare-up of red patches, itchiness and burning sensation. Some of the rashes may darken over time (hyperpigmentation) even after the itch and cracks subside, resulting in uneven skin tone and texture. 

That explains why the back of my knee bleeds on its own and why as of late, I’m starting to dislike everything about summer. And as the climate crisis keeps bringing on frequent heat waves in Britain, my skin keeps getting worse. 

It’s not surprising that there currently aren’t many studies addressing the relationships between inflammatory skin conditions and environmental factors such as hot outdoor temperatures, but I often wonder if I’m the only one experiencing this odd phenomenon. A one-of-its-kind study published this April underlined a possible association between short-term exposure to poor air quality caused by wildfire smoke and exacerbation of skin conditions, and some dermatologists have expressed that they have seen an increased number of eczema patients in warmer weather. 

Growing up, I had a pretty strict childhood and summers usually consisted of Bible school and spending time with my grandparents while my parents were at work. So naturally, I always held onto the belief of gaining more freedom as I entered adolescence. I imagined summers of strolling through the park with my friends, trying out new watersports on really hot days or going hiking in Snowdonia. Yet now that I have this freedom as an adult, eczema has painted my dreams in colours I didn’t expect.

It can be stressful at times to manage all the frustration I get from eczema”

And now, with the growing extremity and unpredictable weather patterns in the UK due to the climate crisis, it’s even harder for me to have control of my skin condition. For one, moisturiser and anti-itch cream are no longer my best friends. I perspire even more under intense heat and when my sweat mixes with the lotion I have on my body, that substance instantly becomes a giant, invisible fur ball that tickles me to no end. 

I’m not afraid of displaying my “scars” in the summer. It’s just that in hot weather, my perspiration stings them and chemicals from sunscreens inflame my skin rather than shield me from the UV light. While water provides temporary relief, swimming outdoors is almost impossible as I can’t stay in the swimming pool nor the sea for long given the chlorine and salt levels, which are also bad for my skin. Worst of all, I have a rare blood disorder, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), characterised by low platelet count, which prolongs the healing time of my skin. In short, I have “fragile” labelled all over myself in elevated temperatures. 

It can be stressful at times to manage all the frustration I get from eczema, since I’ve always succumbed to the itch which turns me into a fidgety person that I am not. Given the discomfort, I’ve also suffered from many sleepless nights and became exceptionally anxious about the thought of not being able to scratch to stop my itch during interviews, meetings, or any occasions that may make me appear unprofessional. 

I hope I can soon find new ways to feel less bitter or guilty during the warm days”

It’s bad enough that I’m constantly reminded of the climate crisis due to my tingling skin, but in the midst of these emotions, I also feel immense guilt over the up-keep of my eczema and how it’s bad for the environment. My eczema gets uncontrollable when I stop using plasters or bandages to keep myself from having direct contact with certain clothing materials, or if I stay in air-conditioned places as much as possible. This sparks a vicious cycle and I tend to use even more non-biodegradable plasters and skin care products (many of which come in plastic bottles) throughout the summer.

I have been living with eczema for most of my life. But over the last few summers, during the warmest years on record, I feel like I am drained of ideas to make my skin condition better. As we’re increasingly aware that global warming brings serious consequences, I hope I can soon find new ways to feel less bitter or guilty during the warm days. Until then, please keep in mind those of us whose skin literally feels like it’s burning under these new levels of heat, just like the rest of the world.