Board-certified allergist Dr. Michael Pistiner shares what he wishes more of his patients knew about the association of eczema and allergies.
Published On: May 27, 2021
Last Updated On: Jun 7, 2021
For a relatively small clothing item, a swimsuit has some big responsibilities. It has to stay put through flip turns, cannon balls, body surfing, boogie boarding and water slides … and ideally it looks good too. The qualities of the design and fabric that allow a swimsuit to meet all of our needs can also be part of the “rub” (literally and figuratively) for those of us with eczema.
To help you select an eczema-friendly swimsuit for yourself or your child, we connected with pediatric dermatologists, an exercise physiologist and a textile designer to give you all the background you need before hitting the beach or pool.
Traditionally, swimsuits are made of durable, synthetic textiles like nylon, polyester, spandex (which contains latex) and neoprene, as well as many combinations and blends of these fabrics. Kara Cirese, a California-based textile designer, explained that these synthetic fabrics give swimsuits their stretchiness, but they don’t breathe as well as natural fibers and they’re often petroleum-based. This can potentially irritate sensitive, eczema-prone skin. As an example, according to a report in the medical journal American Family Physician, approximately 1-2% of Americans are allergic to latex, which can be found in some swimsuits. For many people with eczema, polyester is also a common trigger. In contrast to petroleum-based options, consider looking for natural fabrics like cotton, hemp and bamboo as more eczema-friendly alternative textiles for swimsuit material.
Skin irritation related to fabrics is sometimes called textile dermatitis. Experts have observed that textile dermatitis is more common with clothes made from synthetics, such as those commonly found in popular swimwear. Trouble spots include anywhere that fabric tends to rub against the skin, like along folds of skin, under the breasts, under the arms, along seams, between the thighs, and anywhere clothing is tight: so, potentially, underneath your entire swimsuit.
Even the cut of a bathing suit can be an issue for a person with eczema who’s often told to wear loose, flowing clothing. Swimsuits tend to be tight-fitting with snug seams and straps to help them stay put, while causing problematic friction; add sand and water onto the skin and you’ve got the potential for even more rubbing and chafing: a perfect storm for flaring. “I generally see few problems with fabrics,” said Dr. Diana Purvis, a pediatric dermatologist in Auckland, New Zealand. “But the friction can often irritate sensitive skin.”
If you suspect your swimsuit is causing a flare or you’re on the hunt for a new suit, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
If you’ve had a reaction to a swimsuit in the past, check the fabric composition to identify potential culprits like latex and polyester and search for new suits in hypoallergenic alternatives. With interest in sustainable fabrics on the rise, there’s a new generation of manufacturers designing hypoallergenic swimsuits made out of organic fabrics like cotton, hemp, or bamboo, sometimes blending these fabrics together. Note that environmentally friendly does not always mean hypoallergenic — you still have to do your homework — but sustainably sourced fabrics are much less likely to include the chemicals and synthetic allergens, typically associated with contact dermatitis.
Also ensure the suit fits well without being too tight or digging into any part of your body. Some designs offer a double fabric layer that protects skin from an elastic seam.
Before you go, be sure you know: try your swimsuit on at home before you head to the beach or the pool. If you experience an eczema flare at home, it’s more likely to be due to the swimsuit or a laundry snafu than some trigger at the pool or beach. If this is the case, you might want to rewash and rinse your swimsuit thoroughly. If that doesn’t solve the problem, it’s likely the fabric.
Use a gentle, hypo-allergenic detergent free of dyes and fragrances. It’s especially important to wash new swimsuits before you wear them to get rid of any chemicals used during production of the fabrics. To be extra safe, consider a second rinse cycle. Also, be sure to wash your swimsuit between trips to the beach or pool to flush out any chlorine, salt, sunscreen residue or sand.
It can be easy to let your skincare routine slide over the summer months whether you’re on vacation or just taking advantage of the long warm days at a local swimming hole. For those with eczema, though, it’s critical to maintain your usual skincare regimen including consistent moisturizing of the skin and staying well hydrated.
“Establishing a good regimen and sticking to it is one of the great secrets of keeping eczema in check,” says Peter A. Lio, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “A daily shower or bath with a gentle cleanser, a good moisturizer twice a day, avoiding known triggers, and getting good sleep can all go a long way to maintaining clear skin.”
Once you’re out of the water, get out of that wet swimsuit and put on some dry clothes. Dr. Purvis explained that rinsing off promptly after swimming with clean, fresh water can minimize the risk of flaring from swimming-related triggers. Walking around all day in wet, tight-fitting fabric, even if it feels fine in the water, is a sure-fire recipe for friction and flaring.
In some conditions, you may want to supplement your swimsuit with additional layers of clothing or a wetsuit. For swim shirts, look for an ultraviolet protectant factor (UPF) rating of 50 or higher for optimal defense against UV rays. Most wetsuits are made of neoprene, and, while neoprene allergies are rare, if your wetsuit causes your skin to flare and you suspect it’s because of the fabric, not the fit, consider trying a hypoallergenic wetsuit made with thiuram-free neoprene. Some outlets, such as the Wetsuit Warehouse, a retailer who specializes in various water apparel, will offer to send sample fabrics to potential customers to see if the fabrics work for their skin before the customer makes a decision about which wetsuit to purchase.
Dana Schuman, a California-based exercise physiologist, explained the importance of “making sure your wetsuit fits snugly and isn’t even the slightest bit too big.” This can help minimize the friction and rubbing of a suit that’s too loose or too tight in the wrong places.
Once you’ve picked out the right swimwear, be mindful of where and when you swim and of preparing your skin, too. Dr. Purvis explained, “There is a risk of spreading bacterial infections at the pool so you shouldn’t swim if you have a skin infection or if you have a lot of broken skin.” If skin seems well enough for swimming, Purvis noted the importance of “applying moisturizer before heading to the water” and that “swimming in the late afternoon when the sunlight isn’t as strong can be helpful, followed by rinsing off with fresh, clean water once you get out.” And Schuman added that goggles and swim caps made out of silicone, instead of rubber or latex, are also recommended as they are less likely to cause a contact flare. If you need additional info about sunscreens, we’ve got you covered there, too.
Take a look at our Eczema Product Directory to browse sunscreens that have the NEA Seal of Acceptance™ before you hit the water.