On the online answers platform Quora, over 552,000 people are followers of the dermatology subtopic, with over 8,000 for eczema and 3,600 for psoriasis.
Recent questions include ‘How do you cure atopic dermatitis (eczema) permanently?’ and ‘Does atopic dermatitis/eczema regress by itself with/without treatment?’ which seem fairly innocuous in themselves. After all, haven’t most of us looked to Dr. Google at some point or another?
The misinformation in the answers, however, is troubling.
‘None of these crazy creams and crap that don’t work anyway,’ come the replies, along with classics such as ‘bleach in the bath can improve eczema symptoms’ and ‘drink raw potato juice’.
While funny to read, these tips – largely from untrained individuals – can be seen as legitimate from the desperate people living with skin conditions that affect their day-to-day lives extensively. If you’ve been struggling with a severe, itchy flare-up that simply won’t go away, you may actually start considering using industrial toilet cleaner in your bath – despite common sense telling you otherwise.
It’s not just on answers websites, as even celebrities have to find out the hard way. When Kim Kardashian asked for recommendations for her psoriasis earlier this year, her replies were flooded with people telling her they’d ‘cured’ theirs by cutting out dairy or having oils injected into their skin.
Given how personal and misunderstood skin conditions from acne to contact dermatitis can be, the advice people are giving – even if it worked for them – may not work for you, and could actually be harmful.
Dr Sarah Shah, a dermatologist who also founded London’s Artistry Clinic, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Not everything you read online can be reliable, which is why it is good to visit a doctor or dermatologist to discuss your skin concerns. This way an expert can see you face to face and advise you the best care and products based on this.’
Another concern, raised by Dr Max Malik, dermatologist and owner of The Cosmetics Clinic, is the link between social media and advertising: ‘We’re often following advice that is shared as part of an advertising deal or to promote a certain brand’s treatments, rather than medically-based advice that is bespoke to that particular patient’s concerns.
‘There is a big difference between cosmetic claims and actual medical treatments. They are not the same thing, even over the counter ‘treatments’, for example, for acne are not the same as prescription medicine from a specialist.’
#SponCon may be all fun and games when it comes to yoga pants and eyeshadow, but not so much when you need help from a medical professional rather than a blogger. We now know that influencers are required to label any sponsored content as such, but the rules are murky about what they can then say about products.
For example, the ASA forbids ads that make claims that aren’t backed up or that are exaggerated. If those claims are about personal use and how a product worked for them, though, there isn’t technically any misleading information, even if it might not be correct for everyone.
Looking specifically at corticosteroids – creams and ointments commonly prescribed by doctors for conditions like eczema – and their online reputation, Dr Shah states: ‘People do tend to avoid using steroids purely because of the negative reputation surrounding them, such as the side-effects if not used correctly.
‘However, with extreme skin conditions such as eczema, steroids can help alleviate the itching and inflammation of the skin.’
Reports on Topical Steroid Withdrawal, which is a condition that occurs when steroids are used improperly and stopped improperly, include people’s stories of ‘curing’ their conditions through eschewing medical (or non ‘natural’) remedies.
Despite the fact normal topical steroid use shouldn’t cause adverse affects, blame is placed on the drug rather than a lack of understanding of how they’re used.
Steroids – along with other medication such as Isotretinoin for acne – are only to be prescribed by doctors and dermatologists. Not only are they not to be taken lightly, discontinuing use should be treated exactly as you do with other medication, rather than done on a whim because of what someone said online.
Dr Malik says: ‘Steroids should always be discussed with a pharmacist if they are bought in a chemist (these will only be mild) or a doctor if they are prescription. I would advise anyone not to buy any kind of medicine on the internet, no matter how cheap it seems.’
On the flip side, just because you see something is natural, homeopathic, or simple, this isn’t always synonymous with effective.
‘In this digital age I see more and more patients coming in to my clinic, having previously looked to the internet for skincare advice,’ says Dr Malik.
‘On one hand, it is admirable to see patients taking an interest in their skin and making informed decisions regarding their skin health.’
However, he claims that ‘by looking to the internet for skincare advice we’re often inadvertently putting our health at risk and worsening existing symptoms rather than treating them.’
Some of the odd ‘life hacks’ Dr Malik and Dr Shah’s patients have taken on board include the old toothpaste-on-a-spot trick, and people believing they only need SPF when the sun is out.
Both mentioned, too, that people are overly keen to exfoliate, which can be counterproductive.
Dr Shah says: ‘While some might think the more you exfoliate the quicker you get rid of dead skin cells, in actual fact exfoliating on a daily basis strips your skin of its natural oils. This can cause irritation to the top layer of the skin.’
Dr Malik has even seen people who believe they can ‘scrub acne away’, but advises those suffering with it or other skin conditions: ‘There are so many factors that are important and it is essential to see a specialist who can suitable advise on the correct course to take.’
As your parents likely asked you when you were a child, ‘if your friends jumped off of a cliff, would you follow them?’, it’s important not to blindly follow anything you see friends or influencers post, particularly when that advice could damage the biggest organ you have; your skin.
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