Finding the Right Skin Creams for Eczema

If you have eczema—inflamed, itchy skin—you likely apply lotions, corticosteroids, or antibacterial creams to get a break from the itch. But your relief efforts may be backfiring, thanks to ingredients in these products.

Person itching their arm.

What the research shows

In a study appearing in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers tested 2,453 people and found that those who had atopic dermatitis, or eczema, were more likely than people without eczema to have an allergic reaction to certain ingredients in topical products. The reaction—allergic contact dermatitis—can result in a rash or red, itchy, swollen skin, sometimes with blisters.

Skin cream in a container.

Formaldehyde releasers

The allergens in the study that caused the reactions were cosmetic preservatives called formaldehyde releasers. Formaldehyde releasers are designed to take advantage of the bacteria-preventing benefits of formaldehyde while bypassing the chemical’s adverse effects such as skin irritation and the possibility that it may play a role in cancer development. If you have eczema, help prevent reactions by trying these tips:

Woman choosing skin products in a store.

Avoid these ingredients

Avoid skin-care products containing the following formaldehyde releasers: quaternium-15; imidazolidinyl urea; DMDM hydantoin; 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol; and diazolidinyl urea. Exposure to paraben preservatives, such as methyl, ethyl, propyl, and butyl paraben, did not cause any allergic reaction in people with eczema in the study.

Lake water with ripples.

Choose low water content

Choose products with a low water content—for example, ointments, since they usually contain no preservatives—if you have mild eczema and are looking for relief.

Pumping lotion into hand.

Pick parabens

Pick parabens over formaldehyde releasers if you opt for a lotion, cream, or other product that contains preservatives.

Choosing a moisturizer to use after a shower.

Apply moisturizer

Apply a moisturizer within three minutes of a short, warm— not hot—shower or bath using mild, unscented soap. (Pat, don’t rub, skin dry with a soft towel first.)

Dermatologist using lotion for treatment.

See a dermatologist

See a dermatologist if your eczema is chronic, severe, or not relieved by over-the-counter products. He or she can help you sort through skin-care options and prescribe treatment to help relieve inflammation.

Meet Our Writer

HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.