Eczema and Acne: Diagnosis and Treatment

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Red, inflamed skin is easy to spot. What can be difficult to figure out is the cause of your outbreak. It could be acne, but it is also possible eczema. Here’s how to tell what skin condition you have so you can get it under control.

How are they the same?

Both are common skin problems that can occur at any age. Each can flare up, go away for a while and then return. And both skin problems can be stressful and embarrassing.

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But acne and eczema are different in many ways.


eczema and acne diptychEczema, or what is sometimes called atopic dermatitis, is an autoimmune disease. That means it’s caused by a problem with your immune system. Doctors don’t know why it happens, but your skin doesn’t make as many fats and oils as it should and struggles to retain moisture.

You are more likely to get it if it runs in your family or if you or one of your family members has it allergies, hay fever, or asthma.

Eczema can appear anywhere on your body. Babies and children are more likely to have it on their face. It can look different from person to person. Some people develop rough, leathery skin, while others have red or brownish-gray spots or small raised bumps on parts of their bodies. Swelling, oozing and crusting are other signs. But the most common symptom of eczema is itchy skin.


Acne affects the sebaceous glands under your skin. When the tunnels connecting those glands to small holes on the surface of the skin (pores) become clogged, a pimple grows. Sometimes these bumps contain pus and hurt.

Acne most often occurs on your face, neck, back and shoulders.

You are more likely to get acne if:

  • Your parents had acne
  • You sure take medicines, including steroids (powerful drugs that help with inflammation)
  • You wear oily makeup
  • you are under voltage
  • Your hormones change (such as during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause)


You don’t need a lab test to know if you have acne or eczema. A dermatologist (skin doctor) can see what you have by looking at your skin and asking about your family history.


How it is treated depends on what skin problem you have:

Acne: Your doctor will try to clear up your acne and prevent other breakouts. The sooner you start treatment, the smaller the chance of scarring.

Several medications can help get rid of acne. You apply some right to your skin (called topical medication), but you may need a stronger medication if your acne is severe. This may be an antibiotic for several months, high doses of vitamin A (isotretinoin), light therapy (your skin is exposed to special light), or chemical peels or facials to get rid of the pimples.

Eczema: There is no cure for eczema, but your doctor will try to relieve your pain and itching and prevent your skin from getting worse.

Commonly prescribed creams can help with your symptoms. Some contain steroids, while others contain drugs that relieve inflammation or affect your immune system. If your itching is severe, your doctor may give you a antihistamine (usually used to treat allergies).

“Wet wrap” therapy can also soothe your skin. Wet dressings are applied to your skin to keep it moist and better absorb the medicine. As with acne, light therapy can also be good for your skin.

home care

Taking good care of your skin can help control both eczema and acne. These things can help:

Be gentle. Use a mild soap to wash your skin twice a day and after sweaty exercise. Take it easy. Scrubbing or using harsh cleaners can make it worse.

Try not to touch the area. If you have itchy eczema, try not to scratch. This can damage your skin and lead to infections. If you have pimples, don’t pick them.

Stay safe in the sun. Some eczema and acne medications make your skin burn faster. Try to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s UVB rays are most intense.

If you have eczema, use a mineral-based sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. People with acne do best with a brand that is oil-free or “non-comedogenic,” meaning it won’t clog your pores.

Relax. Stress and anxiety can cause acne and eczema to flare up. Try meditation, take a yoga or tai chi class, or find other ways to calm yourself.

Put your best face forward. If your skin condition makes you self-conscious, you may want to wear makeup to cover it up. But you have to use the right products. Some makeup can help absorb oil, others cover up redness and smooth your skin. Ask your doctor what is best for you.

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