Eczema (pronounced EK-suh-muh) is hard to spell and even harder to live with. The National Eczema Association describes it as “an inflammatory skin condition that causes itchiness, dry skin, rashes, scaly patches, blisters and skin infections.” There are seven different types according to the American Academy of Dermatology: atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis.
More than 31 million Americans have eczema to some degree or in some form. It can start at any age (including infants!) with adult eczema showing up when someone is in their 20s or over the age of 50.
The most common form is Atopic Dermatitis, which causes extremely sensitive and dry skin. No one wants to itch! And certainly, if you’re a parent you don’t want your infant or child to be miserable.
When flare-ups derail your day, what can you quickly grab at home or on the go to relieve the itching? And what does “everyone say” will work, that will only make it worse?
Natural Eczema Remedies: Embrace or Avoid?
Because eczema is linked to your immune system, it’s highly variable. A natural remedy that works for one person may not work for another, so let’s add a third category of “it depends.”
Natural Remedies That Might Work
- Coconut oil falls into this category. While it does have some recent research behind it, just like anything else, it can trigger an allergic reaction in some people.
“When your skin is dry and itchy, you reach for something to moisturize it,” says Emily McKenzie, MD of Golden State Dermatology in Alamo, CA. “Coconut oil does have more data behind its efficacy than some other oils, and it’s true that it has antimicrobial agents as well as antioxidants. But as with any product you’re putting on your skin – from nature or from the lab – it won’t react with each person’s body in the same way.”
- Manuka honey. Also an antimicrobial, honey has been used to heal wounds for centuries, and some studies suggest it can also help with eczema.
- Tea tree oil. Another ancient source of fighting bacteria, some studies say it can work and some sources say “avoid” this and any other botanical, like evening primrose oil.
Better Baths for Eczema Relief
These three ingredients, when added to lukewarm (not hot!) bathwater, have been proven effective.
- Colloidal oatmeal. Most sources agree that this type of grain (made from finely-ground oats) can help calm the skin. Just add some of the powder to a lukewarm bath and soak for 10-15 minutes.
- Bleach. This might sound like the opposite of soothing! But bleach does kill bacteria. Try adding ½ cup of regular bleach (it should say 6% on the bottle) to a full bathtub. (If you want to try this for a child or baby, talk to your dermatologist first.)
- Apple cider vinegar. If bleach sounds too extreme, try adding apple cider vinegar to your bath. It also has antibacterial properties, and even if it doesn’t provide relief, it isn’t likely to cause irritation.
With this as with any kind of bath or shower, pat the skin dry (instead of rubbing it) and then apply a hypoallergenic moisturizer with a high oil content.
Get More Relief from the Right Moisturizer
If you don’t want to try a natural oil like the ones listed above, good old-fashioned petroleum jelly can work. And in a pinch, you might already have it sitting at home.
Aloe vera is another good moisturizer and again, because of its anti-bacterial components, can be helpful for inflamed skin.
If that seems a bit too basic for you, or it hasn’t helped, you can explore a range of products vetted by the National Eczema Association.
Manage Eczema from the Inside Out
Since eczema is linked to the immune system, you can imagine that many factors play a role: your environment (irritants like pollen or pollution), stress, and your diet.
“Again, just like the products to treat the symptoms of eczema, we find a range of different opinions on factors like stress and nutrition,” says Dr. McKenzie. “Research has only recently started to examine those factors, but we certainly know that foods high in antioxidants are helpful overall, and lowering stress benefits all aspects of health. What will trigger a flare-up is different to each unique person, but the building blocks of good health also apply to healthy skin.”
While eczema can’t be cured, it can be improved. If natural remedies aren’t enough, a board-certified dermatologist can prescribe topical steroid creams and ointments, as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory creams and ointments. They can also advise on oral antihistamines to decrease itchiness.
“We embrace some of the natural remedies,” says Dr. McKenzie, “and we can escalate beyond those to medical treatments for our patients who need them. Bottom line: don’t continue to suffer through the itching! Come talk to us and we’ll find options that fit your symptoms and lifestyle.”