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How to deal with itchy, painful eyes during the summer

June 22nd 2018 / Ali Hunter / 0 comment


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From eczema to hayfever to air-con induced dryness, here’s your summer eye survival guide

Ahh summer, the endless hazy months of sunshine and fruit salads: juicy oranges, crunchy apples, lychees... I’ve never liked lychees, they’ve always reminded me of eyeballs with their pearly, squishy orbs. Lately I’ve found their spiky, red exterior bears a much greater resemblance to my eyes. That unique summer blend of hayfever, sun, sweat and dry eyes thanks to flights across Europe and office air con can provoke a Molotov cocktail of symptoms including eczema flare-ups, redness and stinging. But fear not! If flaky reptile eye isn’t really your summer style, there are some easy steps you can take to make it through unscathed and un-scaled.

Whatever your seasonal eye-sore, we're here to help.


Dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams sums up this seasonal bug bear very well: “hayfever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, is caused by a so-called type 1 allergic reaction to airborne pollens such as grass or tree pollens. Apart from sneezing and a runny nose, itchy, red, watery eyes are also a typical symptom. This is caused by release of histamine (histamine is an inflammatory mediator in type-1 reactions)."

Dr Stefanie’s key advice is that “simple over-the-counter antihistamines such as loratadine or cetirizine usually manage to control hayfever symptoms fairly well. If this is not enough, you can get prescription medication such as a steroid nasal spray and steroid eye drops from your doctor.” According to my GP, antihistamines are only fully effective if you start taking them a couple of months before symptoms start. It might be too late to reap the full benefits this year but make sure to plan ahead next time the frost starts to thaw.

Eczema sufferers, who are likely to also suffer from hay fever, should be wary of other over-the counter hayfever eye drops as they often contain preservatives that can irritate the skin around the eyes and even inside the eyelid, replacing pollen itch with gritty, inflamed or flaky skin. Take it from a reptile who’s been there (TMI alert): I’ve once had an eye drop-induced cyst surgically removed from my tear-duct. Nasal sprays are a better option as they clear the sinuses, helping to protect the eyes from allergic reactions without drying out the eyelids. When my eyes get to Sahara levels of dryness, I use Blink single sachet eye drops, £6.49 for 20. They are preservative free and sterile, so there’ll be no unexpected reactions. Popping them in the fridge for a few minutes gives added relief for itching eyes.


Eyelergy, £9.90 for 20 doses, is another brand to look out for- the eye drops are refreshing, gentle and soothe all manner of irritations. They've rinsed out a piece of tree that once got stuck in mine, relieved literal red-eye after flights and can be used as often as you need, which is actually quite unusual where eye drops are concerned- often the addition of preservatives precludes multiple applications. They're not brilliant from a single-use plastic point of view, but they are very hygienic and suitable for contact lens wearers.


As with all health issues, prevention is better than cure. Stop pollen from entering your system by using Vaseline or a plain lip balm under your nostrils and wearing wrap-round sunglasses (helmets are also extremely effective and may complement your summer wardrobe). It’s a good idea to shower and change into clean clothes as soon as possible after being outside and to avoid drying clothes outside when the pollen count is high. You can check the five day pollen forecast on the MET Office website to help you to decide between the Raybans and the hermetically sealed diving mask.

According to leading Aesthetic Doctor and Oculoplastic Surgeon Dr Maryam Zamani “those with an atopic disease such as eczema and seasonal allergies can suffer from periorbital (around the eyes) symptoms like itchy, red, dry, scaling skin”. If it all gets a bit too gritty for your pollinated peepers, Dr Zamani has some expert advice. “As the periorbital skin is sensitive and thin, treatment must be gentle and the focus is to reduce inflammation and avoid exposure to irritants while keeping the skin moist. Often emollients and mild topical steroids like hydrocortisone can be used. I prefer creams during the day and thicker ointments at night. Topical calcineurin inhibitors such as Elidel or Protopic can also be used for long-term maintenance treatment. Avoidance of products with soap or perfume is paramount. I also recommend daily use of antihistamines to reduce itchy flare-ups.” You can talk to your GP or dermatologist about the use of steroids and finding the right antihistamine plan to fend off reactions.

So now you’ve hayfever-proofed your eyes, it’s time to enjoy some of the more pleasant aspects of summer: sunshine and holidays.

Sun protection

The great vitamin D radiating globe in the sky is a tricksy one for eczema sufferers the world over, as summed up by Dr Zamani: “some forms of eczema improve with sun while others worsen.“ Either way it’s vital to protect the delicate skin around your eyes from UV rays. Both Dr Zamani and Dr Sam Bunting recommend mineral based sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as they are less irritating than chemical protection. For adventurous holidays involving sea, sand and sweat (always guaranteed to bring the scales to the surface) Dr Sam swears by the “awesome sweat-resistant, fragrance free Elta MD UV Pure and sweat-resistant tinted Jan Marini UV Protectant SPF 30, £53. For less active days I’m a big fan of Clinique City Block SPF40, £18.50, and I find that the silky tinted formula eliminates the need for under-eye concealer and allows my skin to breathe on humid summer afternoons.”


When basking is simply not an option, my seasonal accessory of choice is a fetching sweatband or climbing headband to stop perspiration from stinging my eyes and making my skin feel like it’s melting in the heat. Buff Fastwick Headband, £14.75, has silver technology, making it odour-free and breathable.

Swimming goggles are also a holiday lifesaver for the aquatically inclined to stop salt and chlorine stinging your eyes. Wash your goggles thoroughly after each use so that mould and bacteria don’t build up and cause irritation. Make sure you wash your face with a gentle cleanser and reapply sunscreen after your swim or exercise.

Planes, trains and…offices

What do jetting off to the Caribbean, heading to a business meeting in Edinburgh (what I’m currently up to) and pulling your standard 9-5 in August have in common? That wonderful sense of adventure and self-discovery? The jury’s still out on the office safari, but I can confirm that aggressive air conditioning is the mortal enemy of the dry eyed. Dr Sam explains the damage done by air conditioning:

Skin barrier function is challenged in low-humidity conditions such as air-conditioned offices. Many of my Middle Eastern clientele complain about how big a challenge this is when you suffer from dry skin. I think it’s vital to use a non-drying cleanser (so absolutely no foam), an occlusive moisturiser (such as Avène Skin Recovery Cream, £16.50) and to supplement skincare with niacinamide, to improve barrier function.”


I also keep a face mist by my desk if I’m working in an office for a long period of time. Avène Thermal Spring Water Spray, £8.50 for 150ml, is soothing and preservative free to help stave of the tightness that creeps up on you in an air-conditioned room. To really zoom in on the eye area, try Optase Preservative Free Eye Spray, £14.39 for 17ml, misted over closed eyelids. It contains moisturising sodium hyaluronate and omega 3 fatty acids to prevent your lids and eye areas from becoming crepey and uncomfortable, and it helps to depuff on hot days too.


Dr Sam also has a great video guide to keeping skin in top condition on long-haul flights. Her hand-luggage essentials include Bioderma Sensibio Micellar Water, from £5.19, to cleanse skin and lids without the use of preservative packed wet wipes or splashing all over the doll-sized plane bathroom, and Obagi Hydrate, £40.99 for 48ml. “I diligently reapply moisturiser to ensure skin stays plump and literally monitor it every hour to check it doesn’t dry out during the flight”.


My own hand-luggage essential is a little off the beaten track. On a recent 14-hour flight I bought psychedelic cat eye masks for all of my travelling companions. The novelty mask stopped my eyes drying out and also scared off any competition for limited headrest real estate, helping me to get some much-needed beauty sleep. Now if only I could get away with one in the office…


So there’s your seasonal guide to keeping the sore summer eyes healthy and bright. Combine these tips with a simple, gentle skincare regime and you’ll be perky eyed all summer long.

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