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My Eczema Makes Shopping Hell

No unnatural fibers, no ruffles, no fun.

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Hand reaching for clothing rack Photo: Tetra/Getty Images

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I’d been eyeing the dress for a while. It was a red T-shirt dress with a simple cut and short sleeves, just as I’d imagined it. I’d been looking for a dress like this for ages, bored with all the dark colors in my wardrobe; this dress would liven up my style considerably. But I knew I wouldn’t buy it. It was probably too expensive, I told myself, and I bet they wouldn’t carry my size anyway.

Still, I needed proof that this dress wasn’t meant for me, so I went inside the shop and touched it. It was just as I expected. The rough fabric was a shock to my fingers, and I knew it would be hell on the rest of my skin. This was not the first piece of clothing I couldn’t buy because of my skin condition. It wouldn’t be the last.

I have atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema. The National Eczema Association estimates that over 30 million Americans are affected by this skin condition. Symptoms include dry, itchy skin and rashes, which range from slightly annoying to basically hell. Eczema comes in several types, the most popular being contact eczema, and that’s exactly the one I have. This particular type is not caused by anything I eat or inhale. Instead, it flares up at random moments throughout the year. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes it’s worse, but it never really goes away. There is no cure for atopic dermatitis. All I can do is to care for my skin and try not to scratch myself. I use special creams to relieve my symptoms, but that only takes me so far. And while I don’t have to change my diet, I did have to change my lifestyle to work with the condition. That includes how I dress.

I was diagnosed as a teenager. First, I noticed ugly blotches on my hands and wrists. Then, they moved to my feet. I noticed that when I wore certain shoes on bare feet, they left itchy patches on my skin. Recently I noticed that it was getting worse, and I ended up getting rid of most those pairs, except for the few I wear with nicer outfits once in a while.

Then I went through my wardrobe and started cleaning it out. Everything with ruffles had to go. Ditto for lace, artificial fabrics, cinched tops, and tight skirts. Not that I ever wore them that much anyway. My wardrobe has now become emptier, and certainly more boring. And I feel ambivalent about that: On the one hand, I no longer have to worry whether a piece of clothing will cause my skin to break out. I can just put on whatever I grab first thing in the morning. But I really enjoy the look and feel of a nice piece of clothing. I’d actually enjoy shopping for nice clothing if it wasn’t for the fact that potential itchiness is always on my mind.

And there is the price issue, of course. Natural fabrics, which irritate my skin less, often cost more than artificial ones. Wool scratches, and cashmere, the only warm fabric I can wear, is expensive. I don’t wear earrings because my skin only accepts gold. Anything else causes infection in my earlobes. A way out of it would be, of course, to not wear earrings, but I just happen to have a particular love for this piece of jewelry. I have a pair from all the countries I’ve visited, and I love all of them. But they’re mostly not made of gold. Taking a moment to admire them from time to time is the best I can do.

Sometimes I think of shopping like I think of drinking wine or coffee: I love the idea of it, but I don’t actually like doing it. The images of luxury and pleasure they conjure appeal to me. In my mind, I often imagine going on shopping sprees, picking out the most adorable outfits. The reality couldn’t be more different. It’s getting excited about a piece of clothing, then realizing it’s way over your budget, it probably won’t fit you, and even if it does, it will probably make your skin scream in protest.

There are a few go-to items I know I can always wear: jeans, cotton T-shirts and underwear, soft bras. In other words, things that have been part of my regular outfit for years. Maybe a part of me always intuitively knew to avoid certain fabrics and styles.

On one hand, having eczema makes my life easier. I don’t face the same shopping choices that many women have because I’m so focused on just feeling comfortable in my skin, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. The only thing I do is liberally slather myself up in body lotion. I don’t know how to use most makeup products, and my morning routine consists of brushing my teeth, washing my face, putting on day cream, and getting dressed in the nearest jeans and T-shirt ensemble I can find. It saves me money as well.

But sometimes I wish I could just buy whatever clothing I want without having to wonder whether it will cause itchiness. I wish that I could go back to that store, take but one look at that perfect dress, and know that it could be mine.