Bathing and moisturizing for atopic dermatitis

Avoiding dry skin is an important part of treating atopic dermatitis. This is done through bathing and using moisturizers.

  • Bathing keeps you clean and moisturizes your skin. As you soak in a bath of clean, warm water, your skin absorbs much-needed water.
  • For the best effect, moisture should be sealed into your skin by applying a nonsensitizing, nonperfumed moisturizing cream, lotion, or ointment (emollient) within 3 minutes of bathing.

However, excessive bathing with soap or failure to use a moisturizing lotion may leave the skin dry, making atopic dermatitis worse. Your health professional will suggest how often you should bathe based on your skin and the climate where you live.

General bathing and moisturizing guidelines for people with atopic dermatitis are as follows:

  • Soak in clean, warm (not hot) water for 3 to 5 minutes. The skin will absorb water and still retain its natural oils. Losing the natural oils makes the skin drier. You may shower when atopic dermatitis is under control or when an outbreak is mild.
  • Avoid washing with soap during every bath. When soap is needed, use a gentle, nondrying product, such as Aveeno, Dove, Basis, or Neutrogena. Use soap regularly only on the underarms, groin, and feet, rinsing immediately afterwards. Don't let children with atopic dermatitis sit in soapy water.
  • Avoid adding bath oils to the bath water, because they can reduce your skin's ability to absorb water.
  • Avoid using scrub brushes or washcloths.
  • Pat your skin dry after a bath or shower. While your skin is still moist or even wet, apply a moisturizer immediately‚ÄĒwithin 3 minutes of leaving the bath or shower. Waiting longer allows the skin to dry out. Moisturizers include Aquaphor, Eucerin, or Purpose. For severe dryness, try petroleum jelly, mineral oil, or Crisco. Also apply the moisturizer several times a day.
  • In warm, humid climates, greasy lotions or moisturizers may block sweat glands and make your skin uncomfortable. For greater comfort, use:
    • Oil-free lotions, such as Cetaphil or Aquanil.
    • Cream-based or gel-based medications and cream moisturizers.
  • Talk to your health professional about using a wet bandage over the affected area. It can help relieve symptoms, but it may not be a good idea if medication is being used on the skin.

When an atopic dermatitis rash results in open, oozing, or crusted sores, clean the affected area. In this case, your health professional also may suggest:

  • Taking frequent sponge baths (4 to 6 times a day) or soaking in a bath of clean, warm (not hot) water for 10 to 30 minutes, 2 to 4 times a day. Adding colloidal oatmeal to the bath water [3 Tbsp (44 mL) per tub] can help relieve the itching. Colloidal oatmeal is available in the health and beauty section of a pharmacy.
  • Using a cloth dampened with a soothing medication or water for rashes that cover small areas.

Last Updated: May 5, 2008

Author: Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS

Medical Review: Martin Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine

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