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healing skin, hormones, and hot nights

fire wallpaper
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It’s currently 3am and I’m awake despite the little one actually having been asleep since 830ish.

“Why on earth are you awake?”, you may be asking yourself, and rightly so.

Well let me tell you, internet reader. I am hot.

Now though the ambient temperature in the room feels cool, I know I set my thermostat a bit high (in my defense, with the skin disorder I’m usually always freezing, and the baby likes it warm too). However, I am not sweating. I’m just really warm. Warm enough to sleep in just a t-shirt and underwear, which I haven’t done since before my skin declared mutiny on my body (circa 20013?).

So as I’m over here pondering my existence in a semi-lucid state at 3 in the morning, the question that keeps popping up on the forefront of my mind is: this heat, what does this mean?

What does this mean? I’ve got a few theories.

  1. My skin has shown an unprecedented amount of healing lately. I have soft skin on my face, stomach, back, and thighs. Perhaps I have done the majority of my topical steroid withdrawal pemance and am finally seeing the results, aka having skin of normal thickness and elasticity and with the ability to retain heat and moisture.  Maybe. Or, maybe,
  2. I have finally hit the point where, despite still breastfeeding (which can delay this), my hormones are kicking back in, and I am soon to rejoin the ranks of menstruating-aged women. In which case, hormones could be the culprit for my heated sleep body. Or, perhaps,
  3. My circadian rhythm is so butchered from having to wake up at all manner of times during the night shift for the last 7 months (more if you count pregnancy months too) that my body doesn’t know what to do with un-externally regulated sleep interruptions, and so in a desperate attempt to keep its new status quo, it’s driving me awake via continued thermoregulation fluctuations. Maybe that’s it.

Or maybe it’s some culmination of the three of those things because as is often the case with complex systems like humans, we don’t always have a simple solution.

At any rate, I’m enjoying the fact that my little one is getting so much sleep, and that I’m getting some silky smooth patches of skin. I’m not stressed and as I am awake I am making sure to hydrate, so I’m sure in time I’ll learn to sleep again. So c’est la vie et bonne nuit (that’s life and good night).

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moisturizer withdrawal for eczema

person pouring plastic tube bottle
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Moisturizer withdrawal (MW) is a hotly controversial topic in the field of eczema (especially in regards to topical steroid withdrawal). The medical community generally is anti-MW, while there are some specific doctors and communities that are very much for it.

Some of the pros I’ve read about on giving up moisturizer include:

  • moisturizers seal in heat, which makes going through eczema/topical steroid withdrawal more uncomfortable
  • your skin produces cortisol naturally, but adding moisturizer can suppress this production (more on that in a bit)
  • you are losing so much skin (more in reference to TSW) that you don’t want to try to lubricate the dead skin and slow your body’s attempt to rid itself of the old tissue
  • most moisturizers have something in them (usually to help them be more shelf stable) that does not help the natural skin biome. As such, they may hinder healing because more resilient skin bacteria, ones that can survive the pH and chemical changes created by said moisturizers, are usually not the benign ones

I then proceeded to go down a rabbit hole in studies trying to understand more about the skin and its own ability to create cortisol (again this was more in reference to trying to understand how to overcome TSW more easily/quickly). The rabbit hole led me to read about keratinocytes and how our skin reacts to stressors.

Keratinocytes (a type of outer skin cell) can create cortisol in response to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), as studied in cultured keratinocytes (meaning keratinocytes on petri dishes or other lab-made mediums) and in human skin samples. Keratinocytes also make glucocorticoids (GCs) which are known to block wound healing, but also block pro-inflammatory cytokines (something we know run rampant in those going through topical steroid withdrawal). So, it’s my thinking that the GCs could help as a balancing factor with the excessive inflammation that comes with eczema and TSW. The amount of cortisol produced also changes in response to things like trauma and UV light and dryness. It was the dryness that intrigued me because with conditions like topical steroid withdrawal, we are taught to combat it by applying more moisturizers to prevent dryness, but what if that is decreased the skin’s ability to hit a homeostatic level and kick up its cortisol production?

In Japan, there is a doctor (Dr. Kenji Sato) known for his treatment of eczema and topical steroid withdrawal, and he works in a hospital (Hannan Chuo Hospital) on a program where people enter specifically for TSW and then they stay for an average of 40 days or so and then leave, supposedly healed. Note, they are healed from TSW, but they can still have eczema flares, though those usually aren’t as bad. I’ve been curious about his treatments for a while, especially because the regime doesn’t require strict diets, and the main things it requires are keeping your nails really short, exercising everyday, and not using any moisturizers (no soap, no lotions or creams or ointments, and any showers must be shorter than 1 minute). For those interested in the hospital, there were two comics I came across a while back that tell stories of what it was like to be a patient at this hospital. The first is done on the artist’s personal experience, and the second was created after an interview with a fellow patient.

Personally, I am starting to think moisturizer withdrawal may be the way to go (for myself). I’ve noticed that I itch horribly after baths and sometimes showers, and itch even worse when I put on my lotion or creams on wet skin (which is usually the recommendation of the medical community to help seal in the moisture). To be fair, I do tend to take baths/showers that are too hot by those same medical recommendations, but water tends to cause me pain at any level of exposure so I think I enjoy hot water because it’s a different pain sensation so it blocks out the burning of open wounds.

After thinking about it, as it is currently winter in Massachusetts, this would be a terrible time to go through moisturizer withdrawal. My skin tends to fissure something horribly when it’s dry and especially in winter/when indoors with the heat on. I will think about going through MW in the spring/summer and post about a 40 day trial then.

 

REFERENCES

Cirillo N, Prime SS. Keratinocytes synthesize and activate cortisol. J Cell Biochem. 20011 Jun; 112(6): 1499-1505.

Zhu G, Janjetovic Z, Slominski A. On the role of environmental humidity on cortisol production by epidermal keratinocytes. Exp Dermal. 2014 Jan; 23 (1): 15-17.

Vukelic S, Stojadinovic O, Pastar I, Rabach M, Krzyzanowska A, Lebrun E, Davis SC, Resnik S, Brem H, Tomic-Canic M. Cortisol Synthesis in Epidermis is Induced by IL-1 and Tissue Injury. J Biol Chem. 2011 Mar 25; 286(12): 10265-10275.

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one year mark

bright celebration christmas color
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With everything that’s been going on, I completely forgot to note that it’s been a year since I’ve been off topical steroids!

It was about this time last year that I found out I was pregnant and thus decided to give up topical steroids cold turkey. I had read that using them during a pregnancy could result in developmental delays of a fetus (if using too strong a dose for too long, or over too large of skin surface area), so instead I decided to completely cut it all out. Long story short, my eczema has been complicated by topical steroid withdrawal since that point, like I’m on some sort of a topsy-turvy roller coaster ride.

In fact, last night I had to have Jake cut my wedding band off my finger because my finger got so swollen and neither ice nor lubricants helped bring swelling down or get the ring off respectively.

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It was a sad and frustrating moment where I realized that despite all my perceived healing, I still cannot even wear any jewelry (minus my tragus piercing, which I think is only fine because it’s an area of the ear that has more cartilage than skin or nerve endings).

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Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, everything else tends to bother my skin (or be scary to wear like in the case with the ring yesterday).

I’ve also been struggling with bouts of intense nighttime itching, which has resulted in me scratching myself open more, (even when wearing gloves) as I have less mental fortitude to prevent myself from doing so late at night. The worst I’ve done so far was on my leg the other day, which definitely warranted some wound care attention.

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I remember as I scratched that I felt it start to weep but it was still so excruciatingly itchy, almost as bad as when I get hives, that I couldn’t stop.

So what’s a girl to do especially with the winter onset and the heater constantly running? Make a skin plan of course!

My current plan is as of now comprised of the following steps (in no particular order):

  • Get a new dermatologist (we’re moving soon) and make sure to request bloodwork and a skin prick test (the latter if my back can stay flare-free enough to do so)
  • Research about best emollients and supplements that include essential components for skin and skin healing (like ceramide and filaggrin) and confirm with new derm
  • Consult an herbalist to work in more herbs into my diet, bath, etc and to help address my sleep issues more naturally
  • Figure out more about the endocannabinoid system and what else helps it besides CBD oil since said oil is quite pricey
  • Take the dermatology technician certificate to get a better clinical understanding of dermatology and what doctors think (without having to go to med school and then through a dermatology residency)
  • Get myself moving more again. Brave the cold and go for more walks and seriously get back into intense yoga because it helps
  • Avoid all added sugars including honey and maple syrup until my inflammation has dissipated a bit more
  • Contemplate seeing a psychologist to address my excoriating disorder and stress issues
  • Fix my diet overall which includes following seasonality, eating a more diverse array of vegetables,  and keeping track of what I eat too
  • Read more books on eczema including ones whose contents I am on the fence about
  • Learn more about newer treatments including dupixent and eucrisa
  • Get my life together enough that I can participate in calls in the online eczema community program I am involved with

There are probably more pieces of my plan that I’ve forgotten and a better step-wise way to present them but I’m too worn out to care right now.

Sometimes the constant skin drying out or the fear that what I ate is hurtng  me, or the annoyance at having to adjust so many commonplace day-to-day activities like how my husband can touch me or how I can hold my baby really get to me. I can see why it’s so easy to turn to a medication that can quickly get rid of symptoms, yet for many of us, our skin conditions have become the result of such medications, which feels like a betrayal of the modern medicine world, like science has failed us.

I need to do a post on topical steroids soon, and how they work, and then read and talk about how the newer medicines on the market work and how they are faring. There is no miracle cure to illnesses and quick acting solutions can come with a price. It seems more and more important to show that there will be some level of struggle involved for those unlucky enough to be susceptible to this kind of condition.

all posts, miscellaneous

the reflections from the middle of midlife

beautiful beauty blue bright
Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

I read somewhere that hives and sweating were signs of recovering from topical steroid withdrawal. As I am finding myself developing hives on occasion and able to sweat more normally again, I sorely hope that that is the case and that this particular journey with eczema will soon be over.

But what does that even mean anymore? So much of my life has now been formed by eczema and going through topical steroid withdrawal that I can’t remember life without them as constant companions.

I dropped out of my clinical graduate program to avoid physical contact and other triggers to my skin, and instead went more towards the research-based side of academia, which derailed my initial streamlined plans.

I have seen all hours of the night as my skin raged: the itches of eczema and the topical steroid withdrawal heat flares and weeping skin. As a result I have learned to be flexible and take a good day at face value, to reflect.

I reconnected with and got married to a man more understanding about my skin and its flares than I thought capable which led to confidence about speaking up about my condition. And then had our magnificent little baby, which subsequently created an even more difficult paradigm for myself if the ambition was to return to the initial 9-5 job plans but caused me to find new passion (the postpartum period, library advocacy) and reignite old ones (writing, French, storytelling) which have started and continue to turn into new opportunities.

I poured hours and hours into self care and forgiveness and lifestyle alteration to be able to manage my condition and as a result became a calmer, happier person, though I also amassed a collection of products (and a product graveyard in my cabinets) and wasted money.

I developed a deep distrust for dermatologists and their lack of advice on the role of sustainable practices (such as nutrition/diet) and their quick fix mentalities. All I crave are conversations towards investigating correlations, and talking shop about safest management practices for the longterm.

I have learned the power of an anecdote, and how many kindhearted souls have advice to spare, showing the breadth of ways this condition is handled, but also that people care and want to help if they can. There still exists community.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what my identity would be if I am no longer plagued by this disease; it’s so much a part of me now it’s almost like having a second shadow lingering from constantly well-placed lighting.

And as a result I’ve developed into a completely different person these last 5 years, almost unrecognizable in demeanor and attitude from that healthy-skinned 22-year old.

I’ve had to learn to do things all over like figuring out how to exercise in ways that don’t trigger a flare, or how to manage symptoms when they are triggered by a social encounter, stress, or the weather. How to be okay with a body that is less than ideal and not as healthy as it was in the past.

Though I’ve had to give up a lot, I’ve grown from it and become a stronger, more introspective person who has had to work less hard to find others’ hidden untold stories. I’ve learned to be brave in my exposure, to hold my head up even when suffering, but also to acknowledge my own limits. I’ve learned to ask for help, and to accept it.

Who I am today is inexplicably linked to my experiences and in the last five years; I have been stained by this disease, this condition that requires so much sacrifice and change, but also so much empathy and strength.

As I stand back and reflect, I note that a quarter of my quarter of life has been influenced by eczema/TSW. A huge intractable part of me has worked to understand and accept this reality, and I will continue to do so, and see what happens next: what else I’ll learn and how else I’ll change.

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how to “solve” eczema

assemble challenge combine creativity
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Over the years I have gotten so much advice from well wishers about how to cure my eczema/topical steroid withdrawal (because in my case, the condition that changed my life was TSW, which was caused by the treatment of eczema). While some of the suggestions may be useful, more often than not they aren’t, and it may not be because the advice is something I’ve already tried or something outlandish. It may be more so because advice about a single aspect in my life to change doesn’t do anything impactful, because eczema’s root cause can be anything but singular.

I know some people are lucky: they remove the allergen (mold, gluten, soy, eggs, nightshades, dairy, dust), they decrease their stress, they exercise more, they find a supplement that really works, and bam, no more eczema. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

My root cause seems to be tied to many different aspects, from overuse of topical steroids, to unresolved emotional issues after familial deaths, to increasing sensitivity to foods (on top of food allergies I was born with), to increasing discomfort with specific exercises and a sensitivity to heat and sweating, to insomnia and other sleep issues, etc. So being given a new product to try doesn’t really solve the other issues preventing me from quickly recovering from each flare.

What I do find interesting, is people that have learned to live with eczema (and/or topical steroid withdrawal) and the various lifestyle changes they have done to help keep their flares under control. I came across a post a while back called The Metaphysical Meaning of Eczema – Do People Get Under Your Skin, which I thought would just be talking about how my emotions cause my eczema, but I was pleasantly surprised to read the author’s inclusion of a whole host of other things she does in her life to help. Because yes, I am sensitive, both skin-wise and emotion-wise (I can now flare-up from heightened nervousness from public speaking, or due to misunderstanding over trivialities at the store) but, and I am indignant about this, my sensitivity didn’t cause my eczema, and it definitely didn’t cause my topical steroid withdrawal. It probably is the reason it takes me so long to heal (on top of the constant flow of changes in my life… e.g. getting married, moving 4 times, leaving my graduate program, buying a house, having a baby- all within the last 3 years). I have learned to be zen about skin-related sleep deprivation, about hives from foods I normally can consume, over having to adjust all forms of activity I enjoy, over forgiving myself for making “mistakes” that then provoked a flare, etc. I know I still have a ways to go to consistently help my emotions flow naturally and not build up stress, but I have made immense progress and my skin doesn’t always reflect that. Hence why I get up in arms when people try to reduce my condition down to me “just not doing x”.

Woof, okay so now that I’m done that rant, back to my initial idea around today’s topic. The point is, eczema can be a multifaceted b*tch of a condition, with varying twists and turns that dictate how it goes for different people. If you don’t believe me, try reading the experience of Daniel Boey in his book Behind Every Itch is a Back Story: The Struggles of Growing Up with Rash, or peruse any number of personal blogs out there these days about someone going through TSW.

My point is that while I am happy for people who find ways to rid themselves of eczema flares through a singular method, I find it frustrating when we see the gimmicks of “anyone can cure their eczema if they just do x!” and find it somewhat damaging to reduce all people with eczema into the same world because said singular solutions don’t work for everyone. I appreciate people that talk about the myriad of changes they have had to do, because it shows that the cause of eczema, as it is still unknown for the most part, requires different management for different people, hence why it is so hard to “solve”.

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why do i have wrinkles on my knees?!

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My skin is going through what I believe to be another topical steroid withdrawal. My reasoning? I have excessive wrinkling on the extensor surfaces of my skin (I call this stage of skin my “elephant” phase, and I’m not alone; see the study here), and I was on a moderately potent steroid ointment for most of my body and a lower potent one for my face/crooks of elbows and knees when I found out I was pregnant. What finding out I was pregnant meant for my skin was that, because the more potent one was not necessarily safe for a growing baby, I was taken off of it earlier than planned and told to use just the lower potency one all over my body instead. Unfortunately my thicker skin areas were used to the higher one so the response was less than ideal and I ended up still flaring a lot as I did my low potency taper. I gradually phased out using the lower one despite some discomfort because having to use topical steroids over such a large surface area of skin does increase the risk of it being absorbed into the bloodstream, making it more likely to affect my baby.

So in a nutshell I had a fairly quick taper and now am cold turkey off all topical steroids again. The result has been interesting. This winter has dragged on which means I have been starved for vitamin D, more sluggish from being trapped indoors, and cold. Whenever I have a withdrawal, my skin is hotter to the touch because it is acting as an impaired barrier and letting my core temperature heat go. The result? I am a grouchy popsicle of a human.

Luckily, we have finally seen a break in the northeast chill, and I was able to enjoy the weekend basking in the sun and walking for miles. Hopefully getting outside and playing more will help me get my skin back to its old equilibrium before the baby comes.

Nighttime presents its own problems. Though I am less stressed about losing sleep nowadays (having a remote job helps), I do find that physically sleeping is still a trigger. The last few days I have had hives that appear on my back when I am in bed (but not in the same part of my back each day which would have made me think it was my sheets or  lotion). I also tend to get heat rash-like symptoms on whatever side of my body I am laying on, or even if I roll over to lay on my back for a bit. I haven’t figured out why that is, but it’s extremely irritating and usually affects my IT band area on my legs the most. And naturally since I am awake weird hours, I notice how my skin dries out as the night goes on (but I am usually too tired to actually get up and re-apply another coat of lotion/moisturizer).

My methods of combatting this withdrawal flare are the following:

  1. keeping calm. I have been extraordinarily unfazed by my skin this time round. I am not worried it will never heal, and I am not worried when I miss sleep (I just try to take more cat naps later on or go to bed the next day at crazily early times like 5pm).
  2. diluted bleach baths. I tend to take one many once every one or two weeks just to make sure I keep the potential infections at bay. I usually know when I have had bad scratching bouts or see signs of what I think may be early infections, and I decide when to do these baths by those feelings.
  3. sugar reduction. Yes, despite being a sugar-lover, I am trying to cut down on added sugars. I don’t even put sugar in my oatmeal anymore (instead I cut up a fresh green apple into it or add berries if I have them). I let myself have one treat on Saturday and Sunday, but I make it so I have to work for it (like walk 2 miles to get the treat, then walk back).
  4. finding a good product for the skin presentation. Lately I’m hooked on Exederm’s daily care moisturizer. It doesn’t stop me from still drying out and flaking but it also usually doesn’t burn or cause excessive itching (except sometimes at night, but my skin is an unpredictable animal at night).
  5. living the “motion is lotion” motto. I have been trying to increase my NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) meaning I have been trying to reduce the time I am a sedentary lump. The warming weather is helping (I will happily walk anywhere in my town even if it is a 1-3 mile walk one way), and I have been doing a 100 push-up challenge every night before bed (I do modified pushups as my belly has been getting bigger!). I also started incorporating more hip workouts and squats/lunges to keep my legs in shape as this baby grows. All in all, “I like to move it, move it”.
  6. showers first thing. When I get up from bed (which sometimes is a struggle in itself), I get into the shower to start my day. One, I find it therapeutic, the feeling of water. Two, it helps me soften the skin and wash off some of the dead skin so that the lotion/moisturizer can be better absorbed. Three, it bases me in a routine.

All in all I feel like I am handling this withdrawal much better than previous ones. My skin has more or less remained skin-colored this time (instead of reddening everywhere). I’ll give updates if it starts to subside or if it gets worse in time.

Oh and here is a photo of what I mean when I say I have elephant skin (this is my right knee):

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REFERENCES

Sheary B. Steroid Withdrawal Effects Following Long-term Topical Corticosteroid Use. Dermatitis. 2018 Jul;29(4):213-218.

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my addicted (skin) life

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As the science of skin (dermatology) progressed, more information was understood about what this large organ is made of, how it works, and how to keep it healthy.

I won’t go into the skin anatomy today but one thing that was more or less universally accepted was: dry skin = bad skin. So in practice this meant that doctors prescribed patients to take baths and let our skin absorb lots of water and then get out, lightly pat dry, and apply the topical medication. An NEA webinar mentioned you need to get the topical medication on within 3 minutes of getting out of the water, which for a full grown adult with eczema over the entire body, proves to be a bit of a challenge.

So now let’s go more into the specifics about topical medications, let’s start with steroids. Topical steroids come in 7 classes: from Super Potent to Least Potent. A high potency topical steroid is one we’d put on our hands/feet/wrist/ankles or the areas that are more likely to have excessive thickening. A mid-strength topical steroid may be safer for the whole body but only for a 3–5 days for thin skin areas (around the eyes, mouth, genital areas). A low potency topical steroid includes the things you can get over the counter like hydrocortisone (1%).

A useful fact to keep in mind is you should know the name of the steroid you will/are using as well as the concentration (listed as a percentage). When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to google up your specific steroid to see what strength it is if you are not sure, or ask your doctor.

Now for the more recent developments in the eczema world: the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (like Protopic and Elidel). Both are types of topical calcineurin-inhibitors (TCIs), which is a big term that just means they block T cells and stop the too much cytosine (a protein that can cause redness, inflammation, and itching) from being released. TCIs are great because they help the skin without decreasing the amount of healthy cells, and without going as deeply into the skin layers (unlike topical steroids, which cause thinning of the skin if used for a long time).

Protopic is usually stronger than Elidel, but both are often seen as medications to be used after you’ve finished the course of a mid-strength topical steroid, the reason being is that the TCIs can be used for longer periods of time. They are said to be safe to use around those thin-skinned areas, but that they generally don’t work on lichenified (or thickened) skin.

An even newer development was Eucrisa. This is a non-steroidal topical ointment that works by blocking an enzyme called phosphodiesterase (which is increased in immune cells of people with eczema), which then also blocks out the production of excessive cytokines. More research is still to come, but Eucrisa seems to be another promising non-steroidal option.

Lastly, let’s talk about topical corticosteroid (TCS) withdrawal (also known as topical steroid withdrawal or TSW). The health community is still hotly torn on this issue. On the one hand, in 2015 it was stated that the TCS withdrawal is a potential adverse effect of prolonged use of topical steroids, though it was said to be a rare occurrence with not a lot of evidence backing it, and that it was probably caused by topical steroids being used incorrectly. To be honest though, it seems it would be difficult not to have misused topical steroids in the past as the research behind how much to use and how often has changed over the years.

On the other side, there are organizations like the International Topical Steroid Addiction Network (ITSAN) or individuals like Dr. Rapaport that argue that the Red Skin Syndrome (RSS) is directly because of the topical steroid use/overuse/abuse in societies.

An interesting blog post I came across talked about how much cortisol a healthy body can normally produce, and how the commonly prescribed topical corticosteroids measure up. His analysis was that the potency of prescription steroids are often so much higher than what our bodies could naturally produce, which might explain why it seems so much more common to hear about people’s skins getting addicted. He was testing out how using very low potencies and/or low doses to mirror how much cortisol our bodies could normally produce, and see if that helped him maintain his skin throughout the winter.

Also food for thought, we know that studies are incredibly expensive to fund, and so to get a lot of evidence backing up TCS withdrawal or RSS, there would need to be big companies supporting the research. However, if these studies could then have results that jeopardize major supporters (like a pharmaceutical company), it becomes less likely any such companies will want to fund said studies. I’d bet it will be a while before we get a lot of evidence around more specifics of TCS withdrawal/RSS.

 

REFERENCES

Carr WW. Topical Calcineurin Inhibitors for Atopic Dermatitis: Review and Treatment Recommendations. Pediatr Drugs. 2013 Aug;15(4):303-310.

Hajar T, Leshem YA, Hanifin JM, Nedorost ST, Lio PA, Paller AS, Block J, Simpson EL. A systematic review of topical corticosteroid withdrawal (“steroid addiction”) in patients with atopic dermatitis and other dermatoses. JAAD. 2015 Mar;72(3):543-549.e2.

Paller AS, Tom WL, Lebwohl MG, Blumenthal RL, Boguniewicz M, Call RS, Eichenfield LF, Forsha DW, Rees WC, Simpson EL, Spellman MC, Stein Gold LF, Zaenglein AL, Hughes MH, Zane LT, Hebert AA. Efficacy and safety of crisaborole ointment, a novel, nonsteroidal phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4) inhibitor for the topical treatment of atopic dermatitis (AD) in children and adults. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016 Sep;75(3):494-503.e6.