Eyelid Dermatitis Could Be Causing Your Dry, Itchy Eyes

Dermatologists explain.

woman rubbing eyes on a bed

Stocksy / Design by Cristina Cianci

If you have dry, itchy skin around your eyes, you could have a condition called eyelid dermatitis. Because the eye area is so sensitive, anything from genetics to seasonal allergies, even dry air caused by air conditioners, can cause eyelid dermatitis to flare up. They key to treating the condition is to keep the eye area clean and moisturized. If you can make a couple of lifestyle adjustments, like adding a humidifier to your digs or tweaking your eye makeup routine, you'll be able to treat eyelid dermatitis on your own.

Ahead, three expert dermatologists explain everything you need to know about treating eyelid dermatitis.

Eyelid dermatitis is an inflammatory condition in which the skin on the eyelid becomes itchy, red, scaly, and swollen. Sometimes eyelid dermatitis presents with bumps and pain.

Meet the Expert

  • Michele Green, MD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist in New York City specializing in laser resurfacing as well as other cosmetic treatments.
  • Dendy Engelman, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at The Shafer Clinic in New York City.
  • Marina I. Peredo, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skinfluence NYC.

What Causes Dry, Flaky Eyelids?

There are many causes for dry, flaky eyelids resulting from eyelid dermatitis. "Eyelid dermatitis is when the skin of the eyelid and around the eyelid becomes dry, itchy, irritated, red, and swollen," says Peredo. She notes that a skin condition, "such as eczema or environmental factors," might be to blame. "Additionally, dry air in the winter, temperature change, or humidity can also cause dry, flaky eyelids."

According to Green, people "who have asthma, or hay fever, or eczema, have a propensity to develop eyelid dermatitis. If eyelid dermatitis continues, patch testing may be needed to see what specifically may be causing or exacerbating this—specifically if it is being triggered by an allergen."

There are different types of eyelid dermatitis. The distinguishing factors are, as Green notes, distinct types of triggers. "The most common form of eyelid dermatitis is contact dermatitis which includes allergic contact dermatitis and irritant dermatitis," explains Peredo. She says some of the most common allergens that can cause eyelid dermatitis when they come in contact with the eyelids are fragrances, nail polish, metals found in jewelry or eyeshadows, or other cosmetic products. Seasonal allergies, explains Engelman, are also a common cause.

Irritant eyelid dermatitis, according to Peredo, is a "non-allergic reaction to the eyelid skin. Common culprits are soaps, detergents, and eye creams that may contain retinol."

Atopic dermatitis, which is a form of eczema, can affect the eyelids as well. "Those with atopic dermatitis may experience random flare-ups throughout their life," notes Engelman, "which are exacerbated by temperature, humidity level, and other triggers."

Finally, seborrheic dermatitis, also known as dandruff, can affect the eyelid skin around the eyelashes. 

Home Remedies to Treat Dry Eyelids

Compresses are a quick and easy way to feel relief from eyelid dermatitis. "You can gently apply a cold or warm compress to soothe the skin," advises Engelman. "If you have aloe vera or shea butter on hand, those ingredients can also be soothing to irritated skin."

Green favors "whole milk compresses, three times a day," to relieve symptoms of dry eyelids. You can create a whole milk compress by soaking a washcloth in a bowl of cold cow's milk and then pressing it to your eyelid for several minutes. Make sure to choose a whole milk variety, as the high fat content provides natural emollients that are soothing to skin.

In addition to compresses, Engelman suggests the use of over-the-counter moisturizers to "help reduce the need to rub the eye area." Her picks include Cetaphil Restoring Lotion, which she says is a "great drugstore moisturizer that’s fragrance and paraben-free, making it ideal for sensitive skin. This lotion will help to restore moisture around the eyes and be extra gentle on the compromised area." She also loves "La Roche-Posay’s Toleriane Ultra Eye Cream, which is formulated specifically for those with allergy-prone and sensitive skin." Use for a more targeted treatment.

Peredo recommends using a "moisturizer several times a day, such as "Skinfluence’s Intense Moisture Balm. It is a heavier moisturizer to help soften the skin." She also likes an occlusive like Aquaphor for treating the gentle eye area, while Green likes Vaseline for a similar effect.

Additionally, to help bring moisture retention to dry, flaky eyelids, Peredo advises use of a humidifier. Engelman agrees, noting that dry air—whether caused by a drop in temperature from winter temperatures or from use of an air conditioner—can contribute to dry, flaky eyelids. "I love the Canopy Humidifier because its smart, evaporative (no-mist) technology releases clean moisture and prevents mold from growing within the device, making it the cleanest humidifier on the market," she says.

You should also avoid long baths or showers. "It is important when bathing or showering to not have the water too hot, as it can dry out your skin," Peredo says.

Finally, Green recommends the use of oral antihistamines like Zyrtec or Benadryl. These work by blocking histamine, which could be a cause of watery, itchy eyes.

Dermatologist-Approved Eye Makeup Recommendations

In addition to home remedies, it's best to avoid eye makeup when you're experiencing any eye discomfort, but if that's not possible, you should definitely use products that are gentle on eyes. "Using makeup around the eyes can irritate this sensitive area," notes Engelman. "I recommend using less makeup—for example, use an eyeliner pencil instead of eyeshadow."

Peredo advises you choose eye makeup that "does not contain a fragrance or substance known to irritate. I recommend using mineral-type makeup products, as most are hypoallergenic and fragrance-free. My favorite brand is Trinny London. For a drugstore brand, I like Neutrogena because it mainly uses gentle ingredients and is great for sensitive skin."

"I recommend Almay makeup since it is hypoallergenic," says Green.

Finally, Engelman's clean and hypoallergenic picks include "Glo Skin Beauty’s line of clean, ethical products. Its Precision Eye Pencil is made with antioxidants and was designed with sensitive skin in mind. For mascara, two of my favorites are Essence Lash Princess False Lash Mascara and L’Oreal Voluminous Mascara as clean options for sensitive eyes. These products will protect the skin, while still giving the lashes maximum volume."

For people who have an allergic tendency, Peredo recommends against using eyeshadows that contain metal, like metallic glitter eyeshadow.

When to See a Doctor

If home remedies prove ineffective or your eyelid dermatitis seems to begetting worse, then it is time to see your dermatologist to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. "If eyelid dermatitis persists for a few days even after care is taken to remove potential allergens and soothe the affected area, it may be a good idea to see your dermatologist," advises Engelman.

Your dermatologist can prescribe a mild topical corticosteroid or a calcineurin inhibitor, according to Peredo.

Green adds that if you are concerned you might have an infection, consult with your physician immediately. And if you are having a possible allergic reaction, it is time to consult with a dermatologist about getting a patch test, where your dermatologist can test for the most common allergens and see what is causing this condition.

The Takeaway

Some factors, like genetics or seasonal changes, make managing eyelid dermatitis a little trickier for some. But if you take care to keep the sensitive eye area clean and safely moisturized, you can expect to resolve the condition on your own.

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