If you’re getting itchy, inflamed or sore skin around your eyes, it's likely to be a type of dermatitis! But what’s causing it?
‘Dermatitis’ is a bit of a vague term; it simply refers to any skin irritation, anywhere on the body. Dermatitis affecting your eyes can be caused by all sorts of things, and is sometimes referred to as ‘periocular dermatitis’, which just means it's irritation that occurs on skin around the eye.
Dermatitis can look very different on different people, different skin tones and on different parts of the body but it’s still all known as dermatitis! When the skin around the eye gets irritated it can come up in bumpy rashes, spots, cracks, discoloured or swollen patches, or just feel dry, itchy and sore.
Because the skin in that area is so very thin and delicate, compared to almost anywhere else on the body, it is particularly susceptible to irritation. But it’s also quite hard to treat; creams that you might have tolerated well on your hands or arms can sting or aggravate the problem when used on the eyelids or the corners of the eyes.
Possible culprits for sore eyes: existing conditions
How can you tell what’s causing the trouble? It might help to look at the different kinds of irritation that can trigger dermatitis.
First, there are the skin conditions that can appear elsewhere on the body as well; if, say, you’re prone to eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis) on your face, it could well also appear around your eyes. Likewise, psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis that affects your scalp can stretch down to the area around your eyes.
Some variations of rosacea occur around the mouth and eyes, as spotty, inflamed rashes; known as perioral, periocular, periorificial or papulopustular rosacea, these types of rosacea are particularly triggered by cosmetics, sunscreens, toiletries, and topical corticosteroid creams. See our article How To Treat Perioral Dermatitis Around The Eyes for more information.
It’s likely you’ll already know if you’re prone to any of these conditions flaring up on your face, but if you suspect you’ve developed them, get a diagnosis from your doctor to be sure.
Possible culprits for sore eyes: irritants & allergens
If you’re pretty sure the dermatitis is not connected to any existing condition, then the culprit could be something you’ve come into contact with.
Irritant contact dermatitis
This is caused by an irritant substance on the skin causing a reaction. Irritants that can trigger dermatitis around the eyes include:
- Ingredients in hair care
- Ingredients in cosmetics
- Ingredients in skincare
- Prolonged contact with water (particularly hard water or tears)
Allergic contact dermatitis
This type of dermatitis is caused by an allergen, though not necessarily one that comes into direct contact with the affected skin, as allergens can cause itchy inflamed skin around the eyes as a part of a general inflammatory response. Examples include:
- Nickel, such as in jewellery
- Food allergens, such as dairy or citrus
- Some plants, especially flowers
- Industrial chemicals
- Some medicines, including topical corticosteroids
If you think any of those things might be affecting the skin around your eyes, the best thing to avoid it as far as possible!
Consider what you’re putting on your skin carefully: scented shampoo, for example, can affect the eyes. What do you use to wash your face? What’s in your foundation? Your skin cream? Do you wear perfume?
We’d recommend using an oil-based balm on the delicate skin of the eyes, rather than a water-based cream. This can also help protect sore skin from streaming eyes or if the itchiness is making you rub your eyes.
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