Mama’s battle with eczema began with an itchiness from barely-there fine bumps that only she could see in the mirror, before covering them with face powder. She was the 30-year old single mom and daughter of a nurse, so heading to the doctor every time a small thing came up just wasn’t the mindset. There was always a cure at home. Hers was an anti-itch cream rubbed on at night while she continued wearing makeup by day.
The itchiness was bearable until it became intolerable. Mama’s skin began sliding off like a mask. “I could take my fingers at one point and pull it down like a second layer of skin,” she says. “I can remember using a big clear roll of masking tape to stick it to my face and pull these patches of skin off.”
Of course, by this point, she’d banished make-up from her face and begun a year-long journey without the precious beauty routine she’d taught herself and loved since the age of sixteen. Foundation. Lipstick. Eye shadow. Lip liner. It was over.
“I remember some days I didn’t go to work because I couldn’t wear make-up,” she says. “I felt really, really unattractive and inappropriate for the workplace. It was a major attack on my self-esteem.”
A dermatology clinic sat around the corner from my mother’s job at a community college in North Carolina. When she finally returned to work, she drove to the clinic on breaks, sat in the lobby and cried. There, she was officially diagnosed with eczema and began a series of treatments that failed one after the other.
Eczema is a cureless skin condition—often affecting people of color—that results in scaly, itchy patches of skin. These patches may be red or dark brown depending on skin tone. Skin allergies, dryness, extreme heat or cold, sweat, stress and a slew of other triggers can cause it to flare up. Everyone’s fight with eczema is different. For some, it is a mild childhood experience to be grown out of (with proper treatment) by the age of ten, but as early as age three. For others, it’s a lifelong adjustment.
Mama’s is lifelong and wasn’t just relegated to her face and neck. An itchy redness hid beneath her breasts and the insides of her elbows. “I could even dig and pull skin out of my ears,” she says.
This meant make-up wasn’t the only thing she had to change. The doctors finally found a medicine that could keep her skin inflammations under control. Her beauty routine from now on would be one that carefully inspects labels before heading out of a store with a new color to play with and sticking to a limited number of brands.
Beloved shower gels, facial soaps without a fragrance-free label, all shimmery shadows and powders, glosses with too much glitter and too many ingredients. All of it was packed up and shipped out of her bathroom.
And just when she thought she’d gotten her eczema under control, more flare-ups arose. But this time it wasn’t on her body. The itchy, scaly, redness had found me, her daughter.
“I don’t remember feeling like ‘Here we go again’,” mom says. “I just remember knowing exactly what it was and knowing what to do.” My eczema turned out to be a much smoother ordeal because “we” caught it early. She passed her creams down to me and showed me how to rub olive oil on my skin to minimize irritation. And of course, she raided my bathroom to rid it of every fragrance-filled product. My switch from, say, Palmer’s cocoa butter to Vaseline’s fragrance-free lotion was a smooth transition.
My makeup switch was the smoothest: I didn’t wear it anyway and after seeing what my mom went through, I had little interest.
But you better believe my mom got my skin on track and had hopped back in her make-up bag. She now uses her fragrance-free Queen Latifah foundation, lipsticks (matte only) and several collections of eyeshadow (no glitter). She still has to avoid soap in public bathrooms (“It makes my hands swell up,” she says) and though she keeps a few sweet-smelling shower gels, she can never let them touch her face or neck.
What she does use on her face (and I do, too!) is facial cleansers by Clinique—a brand that promotes itself as 100% fragrance-free. Not all of the products work well on her skin or mine and we don’t even use the same ones from the line. But trial and error—however devastating that can be at times— is how we’ve learned what works best for our skin as Black women with eczema.
For my mama, this condition became as much an emotional test as a physical one. Tears, prayer, and positive self-talk helped her get through it as much as the doctor visits and medicine. “I had to learn how to really live with it,” she says, “I discovered what it really means to be comfortable in your own skin.”
Today? You’ll always catch her with a beat face at work or Sunday service, but you also may catch her on a no makeup day. Not because she’s having a bad skin week or ran out of her products.
But just because she now feels confident with or without the powder.
Are any of you all battling eczema as brown women? Share your stories.