One in five children develops eczema because of the increasing use of soaps and detergents, and because homes have become warmer and less well-ventilated, a study suggests today.

One in five children develops eczema because of the increasing use of soaps and detergents, and because homes have become warmer and less well-ventilated, a study suggests today.

Less than 5 per cent of British children developed the skin complaint in the 1950s but now up to 20 per cent of youngsters are affected at some time, the research says.

Dr Michael Cork, a consultant dermatologist at Sheffield University, links the drastic rise to more frequent washing with soaps, shower gels and bubble baths, as well as the use of baby wipes containing perfumes and alcohol.

These break down the skin's protective barrier, making it less waterproof and allowing cracks to develop. Irritants can then penetrate, causing red, inflamed and often intensely itchy lesions.

Homes that are centrally heated, carpeted and shared with pets have also become a haven for dust mites and allergens that trigger eczema, according to the study published in the journal Dermatology in Practice.

Children develop eczema if they inherit genes that make the skin barrier more vulnerable to environmental factors, such as exposure to soap, detergents and dust mites. In the past only a minority of children with the genetic predisposition developed the disease. But Dr Cork says more children are now showing symptoms because of increased exposure to environmental triggers.

"There has been a substantial increase in the prevalence of atopic eczema over the past 50 years, suggesting that environmental factors must be crucial in the expression of the disease," he said.

"Soaps and detergents break down the skin barrier and this effect is more pronounced in those with atopic eczema. Proteins in the faeces of dust mites may also break down the skin barrier in addition to being allergenic. If we do not change the increasing exposure to these environmental agents, the prevalence of atopic eczema is going to increase further."

Families with a history of eczema should use emollient skin-care products, which are milder and labelled for sensitive skin, Dr Cork says.

Simple steps to deter dust mites include wet-dusting, vacuuming mattresses, turning the heat down in bedrooms, and putting soft toys in a plastic bag in the freezer for 24 hours every now and again.

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