This is Part I of a four-part “Our Story” article. In this part, I explain how I came to find the solveeczema website and why I think it’s valid. In subsequent parts, I discuss:
Our Story, Part I: Finding and Believing solveeczema.org
Our Story, Part II: Results After Switching to Soap
Our Story, Part III: How Eczema Made Me a Granola Mom
Our Story, Part IV: What’s this Blog About?
When my son was less than 2 months old, his beautiful, soft, clear baby skin erupted in patches of raised, blistery, itchy and angry red. The eruptions were initially sparse, small and infrequent enough for me to think they from a fleeting irritant. But by 4 months, he had a full body rash (exacerbated by food allergy, it turns out), and our pediatrician diagnosed him with eczema. Not having eczema myself, and therefore without my own tried-and-true methods of relief, I readily accepted the well-established and generally-accepted advice our doctors and the eczema associations gave for skin care and eczema management.
Most of our doctors told me that eczema can’t be “solved”, that we can’t know what exactly causes flares and it was not really possible to figure it out. I resigned myself to a continual, near superstitious cream moisturization and topical steroid regimen to control and prevent the unexplainable and random flares. I felt captive to the randomness of the flares, to my superstitious attempts to prevent them, and watched helplessly as my precious baby attempted to explore the world greasy from head-to-toe and slippery with Vaseline and other moisturizers. I had faint hope that I might be able to identify a pattern for the flares and figure out the cause of the eczema so we would not be reliant on continual steroid or creaming, but over time it became increasingly easier to reach for the steroid at the first inklings of a flare and to accept the prevalent mainstream theories that my son’s skin was defective.
When my daughter was born, I was reluctantly hopeful that she didn’t have the same degree of atopic manifestation, that she’d be free from eczema. She seemed generally reddish, but her skin wasn’t blistery, and it certainly didn’t seem to be as dry as my son’s had been as a newborn. But by the time she was 6 weeks, she had her first really bad eczema flare. It was so severe that the skin on her broken cheeks hardened into sheets of yellow pus. My heart sank.
Within 2 months, I became engulfed by hopelessness and felt captive to the randomness of, and superstitious attempts to prevent, the flares.
Reluctantly I started down the same path of moisturizing and topical steroid application on my daughter as I was doing for my son. I hated every moment of it, especially needing to apply steroid to her face, and the fact she almost seemed to be “addicted” to it. That is, at first she would only need 1 application once a day to have clear skin. Then she needed 2 applications. Then 3. When she was up to 5x a day, she was exceeding the limit for her relatively mild steroid (1% hydrocortisone) but her skin still had that red tinge that betrays topical steroid use. Though her skin was clear, it didn’t look healthy.
My level of desperation climbed. I kept on with the steroids and moisturizing creams, trying to manage my unease. I had to choose between squelching my reservations or watching my children squirming with patchy, raised red skin all over their bodies.
One afternoon, beaten down by the constant management of my kids’ eczema and the cognitive dissonance that came with it, I felt in my chest that too-familiar desperation for any new information from a different perspective. I sat down at my computer and did a Google search for solutions for eczema. I don’t know why I expected to find something different and unique this time. After all, I’d read pretty much all the standard and scientifically-credible eczema entries before and had not previously found anything helpful. Either I would find information already shared by our own doctors, or the suggested solutions were ones that I’d tried and found didn’t work. I was also wary of what I’ll call “the other types” of eczema writing that litter much of the internet: at best, sites that espouse scientifically-implausible theories and lack efforts related to scientific validation, or, on the darker side of the spectrum, those that seem to be peddling snake-oil.
I don’t remember exactly the search terms I typed on that afternoon’s search, but something I’d never seen before came up. The 3rd search result from the top caught my eye: “Eczema – One Family’s Solution”. Something about the tagline, “One Family’s Solution” was humble and inviting. It seemed to be saying, “Here’s what we did that worked for us. You be your own judge.” It was so different than the aggressive, too-good-to-be-true claims of questionable sites.
Finding that site changed my family’s life, our practises, our outlook, and in some ways, my purpose, in dramatic ways. That’s what my site and blog is about. Why I believed what I read is what I’m explaining in this first part of “Our Story”. But, I get ahead of myself.
www.solveeczema.org was the site I found that afternoon. The site is written by a mother who, approximately a decade before I found it, through meticulous observation and problem-solving, discovered that her then-infant son’s eczema was caused by synthetic detergents. She makes the distinction between natural soaps that are made from the saponification of an oil with a strong base (e.g. lye) versus synthetic detergents which are created by a different chemical process, and separates these two broad categories of products based on how they differentially impact skin barrier function and membrane permeability. She proposes that synthetic detergents, which cause greater barrier disruption and permeability, cause eczema. The key, as the site discusses, is that synthetic detergents are everywhere and in everything in our modern environments: in personal care products, household cleaning products, and even in household dust (being on shed skin cells that are coated with detergents in personal care products and on clothing lint). In short, detergents are not only, as I used to think, just on our clothes from laundry products.
In her site, author A.J. Lumsdaine also discusses other causes of eczema that need to be addressed in addition to removal of synthetic detergents, such as microbial interaction and food allergy. However, the role of synthetic detergents, I presume given their ubiquity in modern environments and resulting widespread effect on the general population, is a main focal point of her site. The site lays out an approach and a framework for problem-solving your child’s eczema so it goes away without the use of drugs and moisturizing regimens. The photos and thank you letters from other parents who’d implemented the site’s framework, the “before” photos of children who looked like mine when their steroids wore off versus the “after” photos of happy children with beautiful and healthy skin who weren’t using steroids, gave me real hope.
I started to devour the contents, carefully following all the links in an exhaustive way, using the top menu as a launching pad to which I kept returning. I read quickly at first so I could get an overall sense of what the author was presenting and decide where to focus later. But, to say that I became overwhelmed with what appeared to be the enormity of the problem (due to the ubiquity of detergents) part-way through reading The Solution page, would have been an understatement. My head was spinning as I read more, and I did not want to even consider that something that was literally everywhere and so difficult to eliminate, could be the problem. I walked away from the computer and took a break.
As an aside, I often recall my initial reaction to the information on solveeczema to help me temper my surprise when others to whom I give the link, whose children (or selves) suffer so much from the relentless pain of eczema, dismiss it outright or give up shortly after trying to make the change. I’m detailed and intense by nature, and — there isn’t a more graceful way to say this, but — I’m a workhorse. I tend to be able to slog through large amounts of unappealingly detailed and unglamorous work because I seem to be driven to achieve the release and relaxation that comes from “having everything in its place” and “having everything in a state of completion – for now”. I’m also a recovering perfectionist. Looking back at my life, particularly my professional life, I conclude that I seem to be able to push through difficult situations that have little immediate reward, and delay gratification for a longer time than most. That even with these traits — “even I” — was initially overwhelmed by what I read on solveeczema, by the enormity of the detergent problem and the diligence required to problem-solve my kids’ eczema, is significant.
I want to tell others who desperately want a solution for their children but are overwhelmed by conceding the source of the problem could be detergent, that it’s understandable to feel this way. I hope that the fact that I floundered while we were making the changes, and sometimes felt like I would break under the sheer weight of how much needed to change, but yet, I was compelled to believe it and keep going, is some encouragement for you to keep going too. It’s important to say, however, that eventually those overwhelmed feelings also convicted me of how widespread detergent products are, and how widely-applicable the problem is in our modern environment. Ultimately, the feelings of how big and far-reaching the problem is also convicted me that I have to do something about it.
Back to the afternoon I found solveeczema. I had stopped reading and was feeling overwhelmed. I felt like a David to this giant Goliath if I was to believe what site author A.J. Lumsdaine wrote was valid. And yet, as the day progressed, I turned around in my head what I had read on the solveeczema site. I found I could not let go of the plausibility and promise of what I’d found and read.
There have been many well-written blog posts and stories describing how eczema is unbearable, how it turns everyone’s life upside down, how it can’t be viewed as “just eczema”. Even with steroid and other interventions, it’s a heavy constant burden. I may write my own piece about this, too, one day. For now, I’ll just say that everything in my mama heart was breaking as I observed my daughter travelling down what appeared to be a steeper path than my son, and I still bore a burden for my son because his eczema was only under control because of continuous topical steroid use.
I desperately wanted to know the hope that we could actually solve, actually control, the eczema — and to do so without constantly applying steroids and greasing the kids up with moisturizing creams and ointments. This was the hope that solveeczema offered. I was drawn back to the computer and resumed reading the site.
Over the years, I have often wondered what in my life experience primed me to accept what I’d initially read as plausible, which ultimately compelled me to return to it and believe it enough to put the considerable time, effort and investment into making the switch in our home environment. I have come to understand that I have had significant experiences that laid the groundwork required to help me so readily accept the message of solveeczema.
On the one hand, a set of discussions I’d had with a friend were instrumental to making me consider and believe the obserations and theories presented on solveeczema. This friend had grown up with eczema and still suffers from it today. We had discussed how she managed her son’s eczema a full 2 years before I stumbled upon solveeczema.
But on the other hand, my BSc. degree in Biology really prepared me to engage intellectually, on a deep and sustained level, with the content on solveeczema. I completed my degree at a university whose program strongly focused on the theory of evolution and concepts of population genetics such as selective advantage, fitness, and adaptation. My education primed me to see the entirety of the solveeczema theory as plausible not only from a pragmatic, daily-life, problem-solving-for-my-child perspective, but also from a purely scientific and theoretical perspective. It’s this more foundational and theoretical engagement, and belief that the solveeczema theory is plausible, that was the source of my conviction to adopt a different mindset and lifestyle before I knew from experience it would make a difference. Now, empirical evidence in our family’s lives that the approach works certainly bolsters its staying power.
As I mentioned earlier, I had quizzed my friend, the mother who’d grown up with eczema and was now managing her son’s eczema, about what she learned were triggers for eczema and what steps she took in to mitigate eczema flares. 2 years before I ever found the solveeczema site, she told me things she’d discovered that were consistent with what I was now reading on solveeczema. My friend told me things like:
- She used milder soap bars for her own skin and in fact, for years used the Dove Sensitive Skin bar (mentioned on solveeczema as a product that worked, before Dove changed the ingredients).
- She used milder laundry products (Ivory Snow and others).
- She had to keep her house nearly “dust-free”. She dusted constantly because, for a reason unknown to her, her baby son’s eczema would flare if he’d been crawling in dust. Her husband (not an eczema-sufferer) thought this behaviour was excessive and that she was a bit of a “clean-freak”. But she knew the dust was an issue even if she didn’t know why. NOTE: It turns out I don’t believe the dust was the issue per se, but detergent residues in/on the dust. (See my blog post about not needing to be dust-free to be eczema-free.)
- She worked tirelessly to prevent water from sitting on her son’s skin to prevent eczema flares. For example if he cried in his crib and she didn’t immediately run and dry his tears, he would get large racoon-eyes eczema rings where the tears had pooled.
- She could feel her own eczema twitching towards a flare whenever the weather changed dramatically (particularly when it became colder or the humidity changed).
That fateful afternoon, as I read solveeczema, I reflected on how my friend, who had managed her own eczema for nearly 30 years before having to manage her child’s, had unwittingly stumbled upon the same observations that the solveeczema mom A.J. Lumsdaine was presenting. My friend had not known why she had to do what she did, she had just collected the evidence and adjusted her behaviour accordingly. The solveeczema mom was presenting the reasons why. In my mind, the merger of those two worlds, the experiences of these two women — the empirical observations of the one and the theorizing of the scientific mechanism of the other — was a beautiful marriage. As those two worlds fit together in my mind, it was like a combustion, and then I entered a new state: the beginnings of a strong intuition, deep in my gut, that this has got to be true.
But, what really locked my devotion to the theory into place went back farther, to something that was more of a foundational thread in my life. It went back to knowledge gained more than 20 years before I found the solveeczema site, from my biology degree. Not only did the actual science and facts about the chemical structure of detergents and the makeup of membranes sit soundly with details I’d learned in my science degree, but, and perhaps more importantly, the solveeczema site presents a theory that resonated soundly with the foundation of all that I was taught in my Biology degree — concepts of adaptation, natural selection, selective advantage and fitness.
Site author A.J. Lumsdaine suggests that synthetic detergents are a relatively new influence on the human population (they’ve been around for less than 100 years versus a significantly longer human history), and that they meddle with the skin barrier function and increase membrane permeability. She postulates that synthetic detergents affect every human to some degree. Contrast this to the components of natural soaps, whose base ingredients are compounds that humans have evolved alongside and exist naturally in our world (e.g. animal fats, plant oils, and caustic ash – such as derived from the soot of a wood fire used to cook over, for instance). It is quite plausible that our skin is more tolerant to natural soap due to our significantly longer-term association with its ingredients and method of synthesis.
As per “Some Opinions About ‘Normal’ Allergy” at the end of solveeczema.org’s The Solution page: in our human history, “normal” eczema (and “normal” allergic reactions) would have been a signal to the conscious brain that something is wrong and damaging in the environment, and would motivate the sufferer to move or otherwise change their environment. In modern day, eczema as a result of exposure to synthetic detergents is due to environmental influences abnormally lowering the contact thresholds needed to have a reaction. I concur with A.J. Lumsdaine that everyone (and every living thing) is negatively affected by synthetic detergents, but not everyone signals that there is a problem. So those with the genetic profile to express with eczema are like sentinels, or the proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine, for others who don’t seem, at least outwardly, to be impacted by synthetic detergents. What would normally have been an advantageous trait, one that would be rare, but helpful in preventing secondary issues that come from disrupted skin barrier that threaten health and life (like serious infection by microbes!), becomes a painful and inescapable liability when in an environment with abnormally high amounts of this unnatural influence.
When my son was first “diagnosed” with eczema, I had accepted the commonly-held notion that susceptibility to eczema was a genetic defect resulting from an overactive immune system. Though I don’t think any doctor said the exact words, the notion as I understood it was that the atopic (allergic) genetic profile which gave rise to this condition was maladaptive. And, without any intellectual arguments to challenge that perspective, it certainly appeared to be maladaptive in our current environment! The message of solveeczema changed my perspective. What seemed to be a very plausible theory in light of my educational background was that my children and others like them might have had a selective advantage in our human evolutionary history, but are being penalized for an unnaturally high and frequent exposure to an unhealthy class of chemicals in today’s modern environment. And on a larger scale than just eczema, what also seemed very plausible is there might be an advantageous purpose driving the evolution of allergy, but allergic disease might be at epidemic proportions today because of a set of unnatural environmental influences.
And, I’ll admit it: it was a relief to stop thinking this was my “genetic fault”, or to silently accept the shame and contempt I felt when others looked upon my children as if they were “genetically defective”. There is undeniably a genetic predisposition for atopy (family of allergic conditions), but, as this researcher and others have said, the manifestations clearly cannot be attributed to genetics alone (see this also). There is an environmental influence behind the current epidemic rates of atopy.
At the end of that afternoon, when I finished reading solveeczema in detail for the day, there was one final droplet of water that “broke the dam”. As the metaphorical chest of evidence slammed shut, it made a reverberating thud in my mind. I recalled awful eczema flares that both my children had experienced, that neither I nor our doctors could explain, which finally had an explanation in light of solveeczema’s theory. In fact, in some cases the kids seemed to flare despite employing good, well-accepted and mainstream eczema control measures (like moisturizing daily with creams) as prescribed by our dermatologists and other doctors. I later discovered that almost all creams (as opposed to petroleum-based ointments) contain detergents that function as emulsifiers and applying them to my children’s skin multiple times a day almost definitely contributed to their problem.
A few previous mysteries that readily came to mind were:
- My son crawling on a friend’s shampooed and doggie-shed-on carpet and having an unprecedentedly severe eczema flare on his face and neck.
- Prior to continual use of topical steroids, trying Glaxal Base as a moisturizing cream because so many people told me it worked well, but unexpectedly discovering it made his skin drier and eczema worse.
- Frequently washing my son’s head with baby shampoo to try to control his cradle cap, but it seeming to get worse after every wash, to the point where we had to shave his head at 3 months because his scalp was covered in layers of scaly, yellow, dead skin which caused his hair to fall out in clumps.
- My hands becoming so unbearably dry after I started washing my hands numerous times a day when my son was born. The dryness also corresponded with changing to a hand wash product that was touted as “natural”, but I had no reason to suspect the product at the time.
- Washing my days old daughter’s hair with the same baby shampoo that didn’t work for our son, and a day later seeing what looked almost like chemical burn marks on her forehead near the hair line where the shampoo had touched her skin.
- My daughter’s bad eczema flare at 6 weeks which got worse — in fact, it became infected and crusted over with thick sheets of hardened yellow pus — after I applied cream (Cetaphil) to it, to “moisturize” her “dry eczematic skin”. I wondered if there was bacteria growing in our Cetaphil (and there may have been), but my son was still using the same tub of Cetaphil seemingly without issue. Applying moisturizing cream was something that should have made it better according to the well-accepted skin care regimen for eczema. So why did it make it worse?
Well, the theory on solveeczema gave me a likely explanation to those flares and many others previously inexplicable. The answers lay in synthetic detergent. I’ll expand in a subsequent post.
That weekend, my husband and I started our journey towards “making the switch” as A.J. calls it. See Our Story, Part II: Our Results After the Switch to Soap to find out what changed for every member of our family, including how my daughter’s skin completely cleared without ongoing use of steroids or need of the typical eczema skin-care moisturization regimen, and how my lifelong asthma retreated to the point where I felt like I didn’t have asthma.