I have a lot of medical words in my brain, but few have been on my mind as consistently over the last several years as perioral dermatitis. Having suffered with it myself, I have done extensive research, both didactic and practical, often with myself as the guinea pig, and I am happy to share what I have learned.
Perioral dermatitis (PD) is a very common condition of the facial skin (perioral = around the mouth), especially in women of menstruating age. It is frequently undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and acts like a cross between acne and eczema. The fact that these two diseases behave very differently may, in part, explain why it is so poorly understood, and so troublesome to treat. With continued research, and after talking to many people who suffer with the condition, I actually believe that PD is an endpoint that arises from a unique, fluctuating set of circumstances and predispositions in each patient. As with a mathematical equation, different numerical combinations can add up to the same sum. This is true of PD as well. In some cases, it is clear cut, and directly linked to to a particular cause. But in most patients, the causes are multiple, uniquely combined, and ever-changing (making it even more difficult to treat!).
It varies in severity. In mild cases, it consists of patches of slightly bumpy, red or irritated looking skin, often with some mild flaking of the skin around the mouth, chin, and nose. (Some women experience symptoms near the outer corners of the eyes as well, though this is a less common location.) In more severe cases, the skin becomes very inflamed and angry looking in those areas, with flakes or scabs that can bleed or become infected.
There are many theories about the cause of perioral dermatitis, none of which are definitive. The most commonly proposed cause is the use of steroid facial creams, which are prescribed ubiquitously by western dermatologists. Other possible causes include fluoride toothpaste and sodium laureth sulfate. Exacerbating factors may include heavy creams or oils, cinnamon flavor/scent, and exposure to cold and sun. I think we will probably learn in the future that there is a large hormonal component to the condition, as well. It tends to resolve on its own as we age; it is fairly rare to see it over age 50, when our hormones simmer down and even out a bit.
I began having trouble with PD at age 36, a fairly typical age for women to have symptoms (generally age 20 to 45). My symptoms were also typical, and included redness, small bumps, and flaking of the skin around the chin, mouth, and nose.
When I first started studying natural skincare, especially with regard to this issue, I experimented a LOT on my own face. From yogurt masks to apple cider vinegar to nourishing oils to heavy creams, I explored options. None seemed to help consistently, and some (oils and heavy creams) made things worse. Hormone fluctuation definitely affected my symptoms, which were unfailingly worse in the days before my period.
I went to a local dermatologist after about 4 months. I told her I had perioral dermatitis. She looked at my face under a light, and said “Yes, you do.” (Right. Yes. That's why I made the appointment.) As she wrote a prescription for an antibiotic lotion, I asked her if she had any experience with natural remedies, such as green tea extract, probiotics, and apple cider vinegar. She said, “Oh, I don’t know much about homeopathics.” Whoa.
(This, by the way, is an extraordinary demonstration of the limited perspective of many western physicians. The fact that she could even refer to those remedies as homeopathics took my breath away.)
I tried the antibiotic lotion for four days, and my symptoms got so much worse that I decided to be a bad patient and stop the medication. That’s when I got serious about figuring out a plan. Granted, this was not a randomized, controlled experiment. I made a bunch of changes at once, and could not tell you which one made the difference in my skin.
But here are the things I changed:
While I make no claims about whether these steps will work for a person with PD, these minimally invasive changes have improved my symptoms dramatically. It took about 6 months (less invasive measures often require more patience), and I occasionally have symptoms around my cycle, when the dermatitis is visible up close in a mirror. Most of the time, people squint and stare when I tell them I have the condition, which tells me it is not usually noticeable. Wearing makeup (even a dab of powder, as I don’t wear any foundation) will make the dermatitis more visible, as well.
With any of the lifestyle changes or products mentioned above, results may not be visible for 3-6 weeks - it is a condition that takes a long time to change, and requires patience and committment on your part.
Dermatologists will treat this condition with topical or systemic (oral) antibiotics, over a course of 6-12 weeks. There is a moderate success rate with this course, as well as a relatively high relapse rate. Avoid steroid creams at all cost, as they are suspected of having a causative relationship to PD. I have found, whether antibiotics are involved or not, that relapse is very likely without lifestyle modifications.
The first two changes I suggest are eliminating fluoride in toothpaste, and sodium laureth sulfate (SLS) in oral, facial, and hair care products. A healthy, plant-based diet, with appropriate supplements, such as evening primrose oil, and attention to beneficial fats and grain or legume-based proteins will make a positive change in almost any skin type. And, sufficient water intake (spring water is the best) will help maintain intracellular water levels in the skin, as well.
As for skin care, I choose my products because I love my products, and I know who made them and with what ingredients. But, the point is that you need to RESIST the urge to scrub your face and heap products on it. Perioral dermatitis wants to be left ALONE. It does not like heavy creams or oil-based serums. It wants water-based, simple products, and some peace and quiet.
Remember, above all – do less. And, for your own sanity, keep track of the things you do, and try to think of them as pieces of a management strategy for PD, rather than looking for one "miracle cure". It will likely be a condition that does not fully go away until it is good and ready, so it can feel more frustrating than it needs to if you are out to CURE it, rather than decrease the symptoms and render them manageable. Make sense?