Cosmetic Dermatology

Therapies to Improve the Cosmetic Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis

Author and Disclosure Information

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is a chronic pruritic inflammatory skin disease. The cosmetic symptoms of AD can have a serious impact on a patient’s quality of life. Although there currently is no cure for AD, treatment is aimed at relieving its symptoms and preventing acute exacerbations as well as improving cosmetic appearance to enhance quality of life. The standard of care focuses on avoiding skin irritants and triggers along with the use of moisturizers; topical corticosteroids (TCs); topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs); and other treatments such as wet wraps, light therapy, and systemic immunomodulation therapies.

Practice Points

  • Cosmetic symptoms of atopic dermatitis can have a serious impact on the patient’s quality of life.
  • Avoidance of flares and prevention of triggers is an important aspect of care.
  • Treatment options range from optimized skin care to topical prescription therapies to systemic medications.



Atopic dermatitis (AD), more commonly referred to as eczema, is a chronic pruritic inflammatory skin disease that frequently affects both children and adults. Atopic dermatitis is most common in urban and developed countries, with a prevalence of approximately 11% in the United States.1 The pathophysiology of AD is complex and not fully understood, despite the increasing incidence of the disease.2 A myriad of factors, including genetics, defects in the innate and adaptive immune response, and skin barrier abnormalities all contribute to the pathogenesis.3,4 As a result of these abnormalities, patients with AD are more prone to damage from environmental irritants and allergens.

The diagnosis of AD is made clinically based on patient history and visual assessment of the skin.5 Atopic dermatitis follows a chronic and relapsing course characterized by severe pruritus and visible skin changes including xerosis, redness, blistering, oozing, crusting, scaling, thickening, and color change.6,7 Due to the genetic predisposition to make IgE antibodies in response to common environmental and food antigens, patients also may develop allergic rhinitis, asthma, and food-induced anaphylaxis.8,9 Patients also are susceptible to cutaneous viral, fungal, and bacterial infections, the most common of which is an infection with Staphylococcus aureus.10

Atopic dermatitis can have a substantial impact on quality of life, which has been revealed in studies linking chronic skin conditions to depression, impairment of self-esteem, and financial hardship.11 Because skin appearance impacts how a person is initially perceived by others, patients often report feeling self-conscious about their disease and experience teasing or bullying.12 To improve their physical appearance, patients may incur considerable medical expenses. According to 2 population-based studies comprising more than 60,000 adults aged 18 to 85 years, individuals with AD face substantial financial burdens and utilize the health care system more than those without the disease. On average, patients with AD spend $371 to $489 per year on costly out-of-pocket medical expenses and report more absences from work.13

Although there currently is no cure for AD, treatment is aimed at relieving its symptoms and preventing acute exacerbations as well as improving cosmetic appearance to enhance quality of life. Treatment must follow a stepwise approach, which focuses on hydrating the skin, repairing the dysfunctional epithelial barrier, and controlling inflammation. Thus, the standard of care focuses on avoiding skin irritants and triggers along with the use of moisturizers and topical corticosteroids (TCs). In patients with recurring severe disease, topical calcineurin inhibitors, phototherapy, and systemic agents also may be utilized.14

Avoiding Irritants and Triggers

Atopic dermatitis is worsened by skin contact with physical and chemical irritants. Exacerbating factors in AD include exposure to food allergens, dust, emotional stress, detergents, fragranced soaps, textiles, and ingredients in cosmetic products. Patients should be advised to use mild detergents and fragrance-free soaps and to avoid harsh materials such as wool. However, avoidance of specific ingredients in cosmetic products is not as straightforward because manufacturers are not required to disclose certain ingredients. In general, fragrances such as balsam of Peru and cinnamaldehyde, as well as preservatives such as parabens, isothiazolinones, and formaldehyde, should be avoided when selecting cosmetic products. Patients with AD should purchase fragrance-free products that are specifically formulated for sensitive skin. Additionally, patients should not apply makeup if their skin is irritated or oozing, as the flare may worsen.15


Due to the impaired skin barrier function in patients with AD, regular application of fragrance-free moisturizers is essential to maintain hydration and to reduce xerosis. Various classes of moisturizers may be prescribed (eg, lotions, creams, gels, ointments) based on disease severity and patient preference. Light preparations such as lotions, creams, and gels have a high water content and generally are more appealing from a cosmetic standpoint because they do not create any residue on the skin. However, these options may require more frequent application because they are absorbed quickly. Heavy preparations such as ointments have longer-lasting effects due to their high oil content but tend to be less cosmetically appealing because of their greasiness.16

Although the amount and frequency of application of moisturizers has not been defined, liberal application several times daily is generally advised to minimize xerosis.17 Most physicians recommend applying moisturizer to the skin immediately after bathing to seal in moisture. Some patients prefer to use lotions and creams during the day because these products make the skin feel smooth and reserve the greasier ointments for nighttime application.

Topical Corticosteroids

Prescribed in conjunction with moisturizers, TCs are the mainstay of anti-inflammatory therapy in AD. Topical corticosteroids are classified into 7 groups based on potency, ranging from superpotent (class 1) to least potent (class 7). For acute AD flares, TCs should be applied daily for up to several weeks. Once the inflammation has resolved, it is recommended to apply TCs once to twice weekly to reduce the rate of relapse.18 Despite their effectiveness in the treatment of acute AD flares, TCs have a considerable side-effect profile. Potential adverse effects include skin atrophy, striae, telangiectasia, hypopigmentation, increased hair growth, steroid acne, growth retardation, and Cushing syndrome. Skin atrophy, which is the most common complication associated with TCs, results in shiny transparent skin, allowing for visualization of veins.19,20 Although many of these side effects will resolve after discontinuing the TCs, they are aesthetically displeasing during treatment, making it crucial for physicians to educate their patients on the proper usage of TCs to prevent negative outcomes.


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