Autoimmune Disorders and the Skin


If you suffer from an autoimmune disorder, it’s likely you no longer recognize your own skin. Literally. Skin disorders are prevalent among people with autoimmune disorders. The skin is an organ and like any other organ it can be attacked by a malfunctioning immune system, often causing interesting and unusual results. Some people who had perfectly healthy, normal skin prior to their illness suddenly face skin problems like keratosis pilaris, xerosis, psoriasis or eczema (click the individual diagnosis to find out more about each condition).

Though I’ve never had an official diagnosis, I’m pretty confident that I have psoriasis, which showed up about five years ago. Technically, a skin biopsy is required to be sure, but my dry patches look exactly like those in pictures and all of my symptoms are perfectly matched. My mother, who had lupus and fibromyalgia also had psoriasis the last decade of her life and the advice she gave me initially has kept my outbreaks to a minimum and me out of the dermatologist’s office seeking costly medications.

I also suffer from xerosis, a fancy term for chronically dry skin, often caused in autoimmune patients by a drying up of sebum, the oil that protects and nourishes our skin naturally. This also happens as part of the aging process. In addition to low sebum production and the possibility of developing skin disorders, most people with autoimmune disease experience an increased sensitivity in the skin that ranges from intolerance to certain topicals or foods to a new skin allergy and the products you used to use may no longer be right for your skin’s sensitive nature.

In my experience, the best treatment for these conditions is prevention, across the board. Here is what works for my skin, both for preventing psoriasis outbreaks and keeping my severely dry skin in check.

In my younger years, I only applied lotion every now and then in the winter. Now, I have no choice but to lotion my skin almost daily in the winter and every other day in the summer. I also have to use sensitive skin lotions that are free of dyes, perfumes, soy, and oatmeal. The lotions I’ve come to depend on are Eucerin’s Skin Calming lotion or Intensive Repair lotion. They aren’t the only ones that will work, but they are the lotions I’ve found that give me the best results.

If you have psoriasis, it’s also time to say goodbye to regular soaps and body washes. Opt instead for a non-soap body washes with skin nourishing oils, like Eucerin’s Skin Calming Body wash, which is the only such wash that actually has a little bit of lather. It seems weird at first to use such washes. I remember wondering if they could really get me “clean” and hated the non-suds washes because I felt sure they weren’t cleaning my skin. However, they do work well and I never let any other cleanser touch my skin because I know I will be a dry itchy mess if I do.

I also had to say goodbye to daily showers (as if I have the energy for them anyway) and now can only shower once every 3-4 days. Even when applying lotion after every shower and using the Skin Calming Body Wash, showering is simply too damaging to my skin and the more I shower, the more my psoriasis patches grow. I sink bathe instead, concentrating on the parts that need washing more often than the rest of my skin.

Dealing with Psoriasis

For my psoriasis, sometimes the lotions I use are enough to keep the patches at bay. In winter I often need extra help. It’s not too hard to find over the counter ointments for psoriasis and eczema, though some work better than others depending on the severity of the problem. Sometimes washing with a coal tar or salicylic acid containing dandruff shampoo can help with psoriasis, too.

The key is to keep the skin calm and well nourished, or at least that’s been the case for me. My skin lets me know when it’s unhappy. If I find myself itching, I head straight for the lotion bottle, even if it’s my second application of the day. I’ve also had some luck with using facial care serums and creams containing salicylic acid by applying them directly to a psoriasis patch 2-3 times a day until it’s gone. These can be expensive, but so is paying for a dermatologist’s treatments out of pocket.

Ultraviolet light is also very good for psoriasis and is even used as a treatment in psoriasis, but you have to be careful with the type of UV light and the damaging effects it has on the skin, including an increased risk of skin cancer. I’m a swimmer, always have been, and while I can’t be nearly as active at the pool as I used to be, nothing makes me happier than laying out for a little while, wading and treading water in the pool for as long as I can stand and freely floating for the remainder.

This is how I found out that UV light truly works. In fact, this summer I went to the pool at least twice a week and low and behold, it’s the first time I’ve been completely free of psoriasis scales in five years, despite the regular use of sun screen with an SPF of 30. What’s even more interesting to me is that a lot of my psoriasis is covered by my swimsuit and it still went away. I don’t know if it’s because of UV ray penetration of my suit or if the pool chemicals are helpful for psoriasis, but I’m not arguing either way. As of November, I’m still patch free!

Don’t be fooled by the hype of using tanning beds to aid in psoriasis management. Not only are they well lit skin cancer coffins, they don’t use the kind of UV light that will heal psoriasis; narrow-band UVB. Also please properly protect your skin when tanning; skin cancer is not a rare thing, especially among those with dysfunctional immune systems.

Skin Allergies/Sensitivities

The best way I’ve found to test whether something is irritating my skin or causing an allergic reaction is through the process of elimination. If I start to break out in hives, it’s as good a chance that something I’m eating is causing the problem as what I put on my skin. If you’ve been using a product for a long time, you can still develop an allergy or intolerance to it because a body with a faulty immune system is a constantly changing body.

Start by eliminating the foods and products you use that contain one or more of the more popular allergy and intolerance foods and substances; eggs, milk, tree nuts, berries and tropical fruits, gluten, soy proteins including MSG, dyes, perfumes and dairy. To properly test for an allergy or intolerance to any of these products, eliminate them from your diet for 2-4 weeks. If the problem clears up, you know one of these is the culprit, but not which one. One at a time, add one of these items back into your diet/skincare regimen and see if the problem comes back. If it does not, you’re not likely intolerant or allergic.

Keep in mind that intolerances change all the time. For a while, I couldn’t eat any gluten or soy. Now I can eat gluten of any kind without any trouble, but if I eat soy, I still experience a number of ill effects. Sometimes I can tolerate any tree nut except cashews which I’m thoroughly allergic to and other times all tree nuts make me sick. It’s frustrating, annoying and frankly sometimes confusing, but like all things with ME/CFS, I don’t get to pick and choose. All I can do is determine the problem and act accordingly.

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have decent skin with an autoimmune disease, treat your skin well with natural and/or sensitive products and inspect your skin regularly for signs of trouble. If you do have a skin condition, read up on it and make sure you understand how to treat it and when it’s necessary to seek out treatment. If you suspect a problem, but don’t know what it is, review skin conditions until you’ve identified the correct problem and then research that problem and whether or not there are ways to treat it and help prevent outbreaks, even if you are scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist. I can’t state enough times that even when seeking professional care, you owe it to yourself to be knowledgeable of your own illnesses and in autoimmune diseases there are always a plethora of co-morbidities that will push you to seek out that knowledge.

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