People with eczema who prefer to use natural remedies over clinical treatments for relief have a few options to choose from, including meditation and acupuncture, as well as soaking in baths infused with oatmeal or apple cider vinegar.
This article offers a comprehensive look at several natural remedies for eczema. We’ve obtained input from top experts on this subject, including Board Certified Dermatologists, and the president and CEO of the National Eczema Association. We’ve also included findings from studies on natural methods, including natural oils, cryotherapy, acupuncture and meditation.
It’s important to keep in mind that this article is not intended as medical advice, and some people with eczema might be allergic to natural remedies such as coconut oil. So before you try any of the natural methods, it’s important to talk to your medical provider or dermatologist, first.
Eczema is an itchy rash that is characterized by redness, small bumps, thickened skin from excessive scratching, and scratch marks, explained Dr. Paul Yamauchi, PhD, a dermatologist in private practice at the Dermatology Institute and Skin Care Center in Santa Monica, California.
“Eczema can occur anywhere on the body, but common locations are in front of the elbows and behind the knees as well as the face,” said Dr. Yamauchi, who also directs the Clinical Science Institute, which offers cutting-edge technology in the research and treatment of various skin diseases including psoriasis, acne, rosacea, eczema, skin cancer, and other medical skin conditions.
According to Dr. Jeremy Green, a Board Certified Dermatologist at Skin Associates of South Florida, eczema is a condition where the skin’s barrier is not working properly that can result in itchiness, discomfort, and even infection.
Dr. Green tells patients that eczema is like asthma for the skin.
“Just like you need an inhaler with an asthma flare, you should have an anti-inflammatory topical product like a steroid (for short term use); or a non-steroid immunomodulator like elidel; or protopic that can be used safely long term for maintenance,” Dr. Green said.
Eczema is due to a hyperactive immune system, according to Dr. Yamauchi.
“Normally, our immune system is important to fight off infections,” noted Dr. Yamauchi, who is the Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “However, an overactive immune system causes inflammation in the body and skin that results in eczema. As a result, the skin barrier starts to break down causing itching and redness.”
Dr. Green said that eczema is likely a genetic condition, “but it also appears to be more prevalent in colder climates.”
According to Dr. Yamauchi, symptoms of eczema include the following:
- Lack of sleep
- Difficulty with concentration
- Skin infections due to excessive scratch marks
- Social isolation
“People have described eczema as having a thousand mosquito bites on their skin,” said Dr. Yamauchi, adding that many clinical trials are being conducted currently to find better treatment options.
One of the greatest myths about eczema is that it’s contagious – “and it’s not,” said Julie Block, President and CEO of the National Eczema Association.
“Another myth is that it is simply a little rash, and if you put X, Y or Z on it, it will go away,” Block noted. “For many it can be that simple to care for it; but others experience the disease in life-altering ways.”
Another potential myth about eczema is that it’s related to diet, said Dr. Green, noting that “there is no data that foods or diet causes eczema.”
“Children with food allergies may experience worsening symptoms when exposed to those foods, but diet itself is not known to cause atopic dermatitis (the most common type of eczema),” Dr. Green said.
Eczema frequently starts early in the first few years in life, according to Dr. Yamauchi, who noted in the United States, the prevalence of eczema among children 5 to 9 years old is estimated at 17.2%.
“Of the affected children, 45% of them had the condition during the first 6 months of life, 60% during the first year of life and up to 85% suffered eczema before 5 years of age,” Dr. Yamauchi said. “Less than half of the patients with eczema have complete resolution by 7 years of age and only 60% of them have resolution by adulthood; eczema can also start in adulthood as well.”
As far as natural remedies for eczema are concerned, Dr. Yamauchi offers the following tips that can be followed by both children and adults.
- Keep your skin moisturized all the time with a good emollient
- Minimize bath times
- Reduce stress
- Supplements such as turmeric/cucurmin can reduce inflammation in the body
“If the eczema is flaring due to skin infections from excessive scratching, bleach baths can very helpful,” Dr. Yamauchi advised, noting that a half cup of bleach in the bathtub is a good amount.
“Also wet towel wraps can be beneficial by moisturizing your skin, wrapping a wet towel for several minutes, can reduce the rash,” Dr. Yamauchi said. “Use hypoallergenic soaps and laundry detergent that do not contain scents and dyes – scents and dyes can aggravate eczema.”
Dr. Matthew J. Elias, a Board Certified Dermatologist, noted that other natural treatments may include:
- Coconut oil
- Sunflower oil
- Topical vitamin B12
“Studies show that virgin coconut oil may reduce the amount of staph bacteria on the skin, and we know secondary infection by bacteria like staph is one of the leading causes of morbidity with Atopic Dermatitis (eczema),” Dr. Elias noted.
Using coconut oil is akin to the tried and true treatment of bleach baths for Atopic Dermatitis, he said; and sunflower oil helps repair the skins barrier, which is essentially dysfunctional when someone has eczema.
“By moisturizing vigorously with sunflower oil the skin will maintain moisture,” Dr. Elias explained. “Topical B12 has been shown to be effective for eczema symptoms and it can be compounded by a pharmacist. It is well known that stress can induce eczema too, so acupressure and massage can lead to altered mood and improve the symptoms of itch.”
The following natural ingredients added to bath water can help people with eczema find some relief, according to Dr. Sonal R. Patel, a specialist in the field of allergy and immunology with Huntington Asthma & Allergy Center, and Adventist Health Physician Health Network in Southern California.
These natural ingredients include:
- Coconut oil
- Apple cider
Of course, with ingredients like apple cider and bleach, “you have to be careful not to get it in the eyes or swallow it; and if you have open lesions, you may not want to do it,” Dr. Patel advised. “It depends on the severity of eczema they have.”
For specifics on how to use these ingredients in a bath, Dr. Patel said the steps can be found online for free at The Eczema Relief Store.
In other advice, she said guava leaf can help.
“There’s some scientific evidence and research studies that have looked at it,” Dr. Patel said. “The guava leaves are dried and after boiled, they’re soaked and strained. You use that solution either as you soak, or apply that solution after it’s cooled down. You can also spritz yourself with guava leaf water.”
When it comes to using natural oils for eczema, Dr. Yamauchi said “if people with eczema use natural oils and like it without making it worse, then it’s perfectly fine to use…any type of oil such as baby oil is fine to use.”
He pointed out a recent peer reviewed abstract from Columbia University on the topic: Use of natural oils for moisturization: Review of olive, coconut, and sunflower seed oil.
The abstract indicated that despite the availability of effective medications for the management of atopic dermatitis (eczema) and xerosis (the medical name for dry skin), patients may use nonconventional therapies, such as topical oils.
“Patients choose these treatments because of the perceived lower risk of natural products and the fear of potential adverse effects of topical steroids,” according to the abstract, which reviewed the use of topical olive, coconut, and sunflower seed oil in the treatment of atopic dermatitis and xerosis with a focus on children.
“Currently available evidence suggests that olive oil may exacerbate xerosis and atopic dermatitis,” it indicated. “Further studies are needed to make definitive recommendations regarding the use of coconut and sunflower seed oil.”
According to Dr. Green, coconut oil is a reasonable natural option for very mild eczema.
“It can have nourishing emollient effects as well as being anti-microbial,” said Dr. Green, who further advised to look for virgin/raw/unrefined coconut oil.
Coconut oil is “a fantastic moisturizer” that contains natural anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidants, “as long as they’re not allergic to coconut,” Dr. Patel said. “There have been small studies that show it reduces some of the bad bacteria – oftentimes these people get skin infections.”
She advises people with eczema to use coconut oil that’s 100% and cold-pressed.
“The only downside is it gets sorta sticky and messy and some people don’t like that, so do it at night when you’re in your old pajamas and sheets,” Dr. Patel said.
She noted that she personally uses CapriClear fractionated coconut oil that can be purchased on Amazon.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money,” said Dr. Patel, adding that grocery store versions are fine. “I would say it would be nice if you can get organic, but if cost is an issue, just make sure there’s no junk in it.”
Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) is more for musculoskeletal issues, according to Dr. Yamauchi, adding that there is no reputable clinical data that's not junk science for treating skin issues.
He noted that according to the American Academy of Dermatology, WBC benefits remain unproven, and that WBC is unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“While you may see links to studies on websites of businesses that offer WBC, these studies raise doubts among scientists,” Dr. Yamauchi noted.
When scientists from the FDA reviewed the studies, they stated: “we found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted.”
As a result, the FDA has not cleared or approved WBC as safe or effective to treat any medical condition. In fact, the FDA is concerned that people using WBC may injure themselves, have no improvement (or worsening) of their medical conditions; or develop a new medical problem.
The National Eczema Association funded a research grant to study the power of meditation to help calm and improve eczema symptoms.
In this study, subjects were enrolled in an eight-week meditation course taught by the Emory Tibet Partnership; the class met for two hours once a week, and subjects were also required to practice independently when they weren’t attending class.
The conclusions of the study showed that participants were able to finish a two-hour session without the severity of their eczema, or the sensation of itch interfering with their experience. While they were meditating, the subjects indicated that their skin bothered them less than at baseline, and they subsequently did not need to scratch during class.
Additionally, the participants noticed an improvement in their quality of sleep, their ability to cope with stress and relationships, their ability to better recognize stressful triggers, and use quiet time to prevent the sensation of itching from becoming overwhelming.
In general, participants indicated that while meditation didn’t cure their skin disease, they felt more in control of their skin by the end of the course. Statistically, meditation led to “a significant improvement” in the quality of life of participants that completed the course.
The following findings were published by the National Eczema Association in regards to using acupuncture:
Acupuncture and Eczema
A research group based out of Northwestern University’s Department of Dermatology conducted a small study of 15 adults with moderate-to-severe eczema at baseline.
Approximately half of the subjects were randomized into the experimental group, and the other half into the control group. Experimental group participants were instructed to apply pressure at the large intestine 11 acupuncture point using a small titanium pellet resembling a tiny BB.
This acupuncture point is located approximately at the end of the elbow crease, and is a point that is frequently used in red, itchy skin conditions. Subjects in the control group were instructed not to use acupressure or acupuncture during this time. Both groups were encouraged to continue their normal regimen of eczema treatments: baths, soaps, moisturizers and all their topical and oral medications.
After four weeks, participants in this study were asked to return for follow-up examination. Individuals in the acupressure group reported significantly decreased sensation of itch, as well as improvement in skin findings of their eczema. In contrast, control subjects who did not use acupressure had no change in their symptoms or disease severity. No adverse side effects were noted by any participant during the trial.
Support for Acupressure and Eczema
Because of the small size of this study, further research needs to be conducted before any definitive conclusions can be drawn on the effectiveness of acupressure in reducing itch.
However, this study shows promise for the use of acupressure as an additional or adjuvant therapy to conventional medications. According to findings, acupressure does not require puncturing the skin with needles, does not require visits to an acupuncturist, and also appears very safe and inexpensive.
“By using a tiny metal pellet that can easily be applied at home by the patient, many of the barriers to receiving treatment are removed,” the study indicated.
Because this study only examined the use of acupressure in adults, no conclusions can be drawn regarding use of this therapy in children with eczema.
Similar to the study on acupressure, other studies on acupuncture have also supported a role for this therapy in treatment of eczema and related symptoms.
For instance, one pilot trial of 10 individuals found physiological changes in the way the immune system responds to itch-inducing allergens after receiving acupuncture.
In a larger study, researchers found that acupuncture at the LI11 point decreased itch sensation in a population of participants with eczema. In contrast, those who received acupuncture at “sham” points away from the meridian lines did not demonstrate any improvement in itch. Similarly, those that did not receive any acupuncture showed no improvement in itch.
As far as natural methods versus clinical methods for eczema are concerned, the most important thing is for the eczema patient or the caregiver to be fully informed and educated about whatever treatment they choose to use, according to Block.
“The suggestion we have – go to the evidence and find out what it is now,” said Block, noting that the latest findings can be found on the National Eczema Association’s website.
“We do a lot of sharing of information about the evidence of various alternative or complementary methods like coconut oil, pro-biotics, sunflower oil and the like,” Block said.
“The challenge is we don’t have a lot of evidence so I think when people find something that works for them, fantastic,” Block advised. “That is part of the challenge of having eczema – you have to continue to try different things to find out what does work for you, and oftentimes what works for you will work for awhile and it will stop working and you go on to the next thing.”
If you’re itching 24-7, you’re not getting a lot of sleep – and this impacts sleep not only for the person with eczema, but oftentimes for the entire household and family, Block said.
Additionally, “it affects the ability to be present and engaged if you’re an adult in the workplace and it affects career choices,” Block noted. “For young adults, it affects their choice of school and college depending on what services are available and how far from home.”
Children with eczema are also affected by making them vulnerable to bullying, according to an article on “Bullying and Self-Esteem in Kids with Eczema” published by the National Eczema Association.
The article indicated that eczema is typically very visible and those with eczema may be identified as being “different” before one even gets to know them.
Many studies have looked at how teasing and bullying based on appearance affects people physically and mentally. Some show that bullying/teasing negatively impacts one’s level of self-consciousness, self-image, and self-esteem; as well as reduced quality of life and more frequent depression.
Others showed increased anxiety levels and social phobias, feelings of loneliness, and decreased contact with friends. The article also noted that one study assessed bullying in the workplace and found a “substantial impact” on quality of life and productivity independent of the individual’s underlying medical condition.
For those with eczema who believe there’s no relief in sight, Block emphasized: “Never give up. There is new hope.”
“Stay with the National Eczema Association and learn as we are about new scientific discoveries and new treatments coming to market,” Block advised.
As the CEO of the National Eczema Association, “I know in my head and my heart that kids are not going to suffer the way they have for many decades – for their lifetime,” Block said.
“We are in a new era. I realize for many people it’s not here today, but it’s coming,” she said. “Join this community so you don’t feel alone; you get inspired, and get the support you need to manage and cope with this chronic condition.”
Eczema is hard on the person who has it, as well as their loved ones, and “can feel hopeless,” Block noted. “The National Eczema Association provides a community that understands and can help you try the next best thing for you and your family.”
» For Further Reading: Expert Buying Guide: Best Clinical and OTC Remedies for People with Eczema