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Why Your Eczema Burns After Applying Lotion

Medically reviewed by Steven Devos, M.D., Ph.D.
Posted on September 15, 2023

Finding the right moisturizer is a top priority when you’re living with eczema, but it’s essential to avoid products with ingredients that irritate your skin. In fact, some people with eczema say certain lotions create unbearable burning sensations.

“I only use Vaseline or olive oil — the creams burn like crazy,” one MyEczemaTeam member wrote. Another said, “I just ordered unscented shea butter.”

Read on to learn why your eczema may burn after applying lotion, plus get some tips for managing it.

Ingredients Matter

Moisturizers are necessary for controlling eczema because they protect your skin barrier — the outermost layer of your skin — and prevent dryness. However, not all moisturizers are the same. Depending on ingredients and formulations, certain moisturizers can cause burning when applied, especially to skin affected by eczema flare-ups. Lotions, for example, may contain preservatives that burn when applied to broken skin.

Because eczema reduces your skin-barrier function, people living with the condition are more sensitive to all kinds of irritants and are more likely to develop contact dermatitis (itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance) from exposure to them. As a result, reviewing lotion ingredients before using them is essential.

When choosing a lotion, people living with eczema should try to avoid those that contain ingredients commonly associated with skin irritation and allergic reaction. These ingredients include:

  • Fragrances
  • Perfumes
  • Dyes
  • Essential oils
  • Lanolin
  • Urea
  • Retinoids
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine (common foaming agent)
  • Propylene glycol
  • Ethanol

Ingredients generally considered helpful for eczema-prone skin include:

  • Niacinamide
  • Vitamin E
  • Petrolatum
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Glycerin
  • Oat butter
  • Shea butter
  • Aloe
  • Humectants

In addition to lotions containing these helpful ingredients, hypoallergenic lotions are usually better for eczema-prone skin because they’re free of common allergens. Importantly, some people may still experience irritation, burning, and/or contact dermatitis after exposure to lotions containing these ingredients or that are labeled as hypoallergenic.

“I only use unscented lotions,” one MyEczemaTeam member wrote. “Anything with a fragrance burns like crazy.”

Is It an Allergic Reaction?

Experiencing a burning sensation after applying lotion to eczema may be a sign of an allergic reaction. It can be difficult to distinguish between burning caused by an allergy and that caused by mild irritation that will improve on its own. For some people, initial irritation can be short-lived.

Signs of allergic contact dermatitis include:

  • Itchy rash
  • Leathery, dark patches, most common on darker skin
  • Dry, scaly skin with cracks, most common on lighter skin
  • Blisters that ooze or look crusty
  • Swelling
  • Burning or painful rash

If you have any of these symptoms, you should stop using the moisturizer you applied. That said, it can be difficult to tell what’s causing the allergic reaction, and seeking medical advice is recommended. Additional rash qualities that should prompt a doctor visit include:

  • Itchiness that interferes with sleep
  • A rash that is severe, spreading, and doesn’t improve within three weeks
  • Involvement of the eyes, mouth, face, or genitals

Immediate medical attention is needed if you develop signs of infection, such as fever, pus oozing from a blistering rash, difficulty breathing, or throat swelling. In addition, if you’re concerned that you may have ingested a substance that’s irritating your throat or stomach lining, call a doctor right away.

Moisturizer Alternatives to Lotion

Moisturizer type also affects the likelihood of irritation or burning when it’s applied to eczema-affected skin. Lotions, unlike other moisturizers, contain mostly water. As a result, they tend not to be as long-lasting or as moisturizing as other options. This leads to dry, itchy skin that’s more likely to burn on future moisturizer applications.

Besides lotion, the three main types of moisturizers are creams, ointments, and skin-barrier creams. These are distinguished based on their oil and water content. Ointments are usually recommended first for people with eczema because they have the highest oil content, thereby reducing the risk of burning when applied to sensitive skin. Higher oil content also means that ointments are best at locking in moisture.

The National Eczema Association recommends products like petroleum jelly and mineral oil for their high oil content. One member on MyEczemaTeam shared how they use ointments, stating, “I use a little petroleum jelly on eczema near my eye area.”

That said, ointments can feel greasy because of their high oil content, which some people find bothersome. Creams are a good alternative in this scenario because they contain slightly less oil than ointments. This reduces greasiness, but the content is high enough for you to retain skin moisture.

Importantly, creams, like lotions, can contain preservatives that irritate the skin. Finding creams that are designed for eczema-prone skin is usually best.

Skin-barrier creams can be particularly helpful for eczema-prone skin because they’re infused with lipids and ceramides — fats found naturally in healthy skin barriers. These fats form a layer over the skin to keep in moisture and keep out irritants. This function allows for better skin healing and reduces eczema symptoms. These creams should be used with the help of a dermatologist and need only be applied to areas affected by eczema.

Moisturizer Tips

The National Eczema Association has several useful recommendations for choosing and using moisturizers. Tips for choosing new moisturizers include:

  • Always check a product’s label before buying, especially to identify any ingredients to which you already know you’re allergic.
  • Review the National Eczema Association Seal of Acceptance list of moisturizers to see if your desired moisturizer is included.
  • Apply a small pea-sized amount of product to the underside of your wrist or inside of your elbow when trying something new. Avoid washing the area for 24 hours to 48 hours, and monitor for signs of an allergic reaction.

Good habits for using your chosen moisturizer include:

  • Rubbing the moisturizer between your hands before applying it to make it softer on the skin
  • Applying moisturizer in smooth strokes without rubbing it in
  • Applying it in same direction as your hair grows to help prevent follicle blockage
  • Moisturizing your hands after each wash and moisturizing your whole body several times a day
  • Leaving excess moisturizer on your skin to give it time to fully absorb
  • Moisturizing within three minutes of bathing or showering and using lukewarm water to bath or shower
  • Adding oatmeal to a bath or shower for extra relief

Importantly, use the best methods and products that work for you. Every person’s skin is different, so pay attention to what improves your symptoms and makes you feel better.

If you’re experiencing symptoms like burning after applying lotion or have signs of an allergic reaction, your dermatologist can help you find options to relieve symptoms and provide guidance on products that they recommend. They may recommend an epicutaneous patch test to figure out whether you have allergies to certain ingredients.

Find Your Team

On MyEczemaTeam — the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones — more than 49,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.

Are you living with eczema? Have you experienced burning when applying lotions to your eczema? Share your experiences with other MyEczemaTeam members and start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on September 15, 2023
    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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    Steven Devos, M.D., Ph.D. received his medical degree and completed residency training in dermatology at the University of Ghent, Belgium. Learn more about him here
    Chelsea Alvarado, M.D. earned her Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and her Doctor of Medicine from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Learn more about her here

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