NEA and PeDRA wrap up their Eczema Counts project with new priorities for eczema research.
Published On: Jan 16, 2024
Last Updated On: Jan 16, 2024
Physical touch with a partner can pose a challenge when your skin flares. And whether you’re with a new or a long-term partner, navigating conversations about intimacy and eczema can feel like a mental rollercoaster.
We spoke with Summer Forlzena, a licensed therapist at Forlenza Marriage and Family Therapy, Inc. and a person with eczema, as well as Patricia Cervini, an outspoken eczema advocate, about managing physical touch during a flare. Each provided deep insights into physical intimacy with eczema and normalized the mixed emotions that often accompany exposing flaring skin.
Eczema can feel isolating in the bedroom, but you’re far from alone. One study found up to 57% of adults with eczema experience difficulty with intimacy or try to hide their skin from intimate partners.1
“When physical intimacy is involved, it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to be open, honest and communicative about your skin and needs,” recommended Forlenza, who specializes in treating trauma and abuse in her practice in Rancho Cucamonga, California. If you’re seeing a new partner, she advises choosing a private, comfortable setting to talk about your eczema.
You can ask if they’ve noticed your rashes, explain what eczema is if they’re unfamiliar and answer any questions. “I think it also points to the other person’s character,” said Cervini, 59, who lives in Washington, D.C. “If that’s going to scare them away, do you want to be with someone like that?”
Long-term relationships offer opportunities to build deeper connections and boost your self-confidence. “Your partner can be a safe person who understands that eczema is more than ‘just a rash’ and that it impacts your identity and daily life,” said Forlenza. “Maybe they can help you to see yourself and your skin in a different light over time.”
Cervini met her husband about eight years before her eczema became more severe. “When it began to get really bad, starting with my calves, Henry saw the struggle, but never did he indicate it was a problem,” Cervini said. “What was most helpful was that he knew that it wasn’t contagious. He’s never made me feel unattractive, undesirable or anything negative.”
Eczema may add a layer of complexity to intimacy, but enjoying intimate moments with a partner is very possible. It’s all about thinking ahead, getting creative, and prioritizing your needs and comfort. Here are a few tactics to help you and your partner with physical touch.
1. Maintain open, honest communication.
As in any relationship, it’s vital to communicate your needs. You are the expert on your skin. “If parts of your body are in pain, let them know,” said Forlenza. “This can be as simple as saying, ‘I’m flaring on my inner thighs today, so please be gentle with me there.’”
And vice versa, let your partner know what feels good to help them support you. Regular, healthy communication can bring you closer to your partner and deepen your connection over time.
2. Minimize your triggers.
Does heat exacerbate your flares? Forlenza recommended setting up fans before sex or physical intimacy or making sure to run the air conditioner. If you’re particularly sensitive to fragrance, try to use cotton bedding and avoid contact with clothes washed in fragranced detergents.
Sweat can also trigger a flare for many people with eczema, so take breaks to cool down as often as needed. “Sex should be fun and feel good, and if your skin starts to interrupt that, it’s OK to take a step back and focus on whatever does feel good,” said Forlenza. You can also take breaks to grab an ice pack from the freezer or invite your partner for an intimate cool-down shower.
3. Explore new ways to deepen intimacy.
Sometimes flares can become too itchy and painful for sex or certain physical activities. “Any healthy sexual relationship will not only accept but celebrate your ‘no’ because it honors your needs and maintains a healthy sense of trust in your intimate relationship,” assured Forlenza.
When this happens, take time to explore different ways to deepen your relationship. You can prioritize cuddling, kissing and hand-holding instead. Or, if your eczema flares around your hands or mouth, perhaps your partner can help you apply lotion to your sensitive areas. You could also talk through a list of questions designed to deepen romantic connections as a non-physical option.
4. Work on your self-confidence and body image.
Revealing your flaring skin to a new or long-term partner can feel vulnerable. Eczema can impact your confidence and body image, and many people will often find ways to avoid the topic entirely. However, the more you practice being open about eczema with a partner, the more your confidence can grow.
“My advice is to start slow and give yourself permission to accommodate yourself if it helps,” said Forlenza. “Low lighting or cozy pajama tops are OK if they help you to be more open to intimacy.”
When you become comfortable talking about your eczema, you encourage your partner to feel the same. “I also think at some point you have to have a sense of humor about it,” noted Cervini. “And your partner will likely take the cue from you.” A sense of humor can help break down walls and lay the foundation for more transparent communication between you and your partner.
Dealing with an eczema flare can be frustrating and challenging. Being open with your partner about how you’re feeling and your comfort level for intimacy and physical touch when you’re going through a flare is key to having a healthy relationship. “Having experiences of intimacy where you allow yourself to be vulnerable in a safe environment can be healing and empowering,” Forlenza said.
1. Ring, J., Zink, A., Arents, et al. Atopic eczema: burden of disease and individual suffering – results from a large EU study in adults. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2019; 33: 1331-1340. doi.org/10.1111/jdv.15634