Eczema, or Atopic Dermatitis, is an allergic skin condition resulting in redness, itching and scaling of the skin.  It usually begins before the age of the 2 years, but can happen at any age, and may accompany other atopic conditions such as hayfever and asthma.  Eczema can cause severe discomfort and can have a serious impact upon quality of life. The skin is highly prone to infection and can become seriously inflamed and so eczema should be managed under the care of a healthcare professional.

The cause of eczema appears to be highly complex with a number of factors being involved. There is usually a family history of atopic eczema or other allergy.  Abnormalities in immune response and essential fatty acid metabolism, and disruptions in bacterial populations in the gut and on the skin have all been implicated.

For some eczema suffers removing certain foods from the diet can result in dramatic improvement.  Foods that are commonly found to be a problem are dairy products (especially cow’s dairy products), eggs, wheat, and citrus fruit. Other foods to consider include tomatoes, peanuts, chocolate, sugar, blackcurrant, food additives, nightshade family vegetables (such as tomatoes and potatoes), pork, beef, and other nuts. Seek professional advice on removing foods from the diet to ensure that no nutritional deficiencies develop, especially in children.

The normal barrier function of the skin is not working properly in eczema and the skin is more susceptible to irritation.  A number of topical irritants have been found; including washing powders and detergents, soaps, body washes and shampoos, wool and synthetic fibres, creams and perfumes, animal fur, and dust-mites. Try to select gentle products for cleaning the home, use non-biological washing powders, and select natural and fragrance free toiletries. Generally natural, eco-friendly products are less problematic.

Hemp seed oil contains a balance of omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids.

Hemp seed oil contains a balance of omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids.

A number of supplements may be useful in managing eczema. Essential fatty acids, as whole oils such as hemp seed or flax seed oil, or as supplements to provide omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids can be helpful, especially where the skin is dry. A good quality probiotic can be useful, especially where foods are causing a problem. A number of vitamins and minerals can be useful, including vitamins A, C, D and E and the B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and calcium. Therefore it may help to use a good multi-vitamin and mineral supplement.

When it comes to topical management of eczema it can be useful to consider whether the skin is dry or hot. Dry skin will feel obviously dry and the eczema is likely to become worse in winter. Hot skin will feel hot with a tendency for the person to overheat, and is likely to be worse in summer.

A dry skin will respond well to oils or oily creams. Useful oils include sesame oil, apricot kernel and almond kernel oil.  Creams containing oils with essential fatty acids, such as hemp and borage oil, are particularly helpful. Hot skins need light, water-based creams, floral waters or herb teas as compresses.

Take care in applying topical treatments because the skin may be worsened if traumatised. Some skin is so sensitive that compressing herbal teas or spritzing on floral waters may be less irritating than applying creams.  Stroke, rather then rub, creams onto the skin.  Although many people wish to avoid the use of steroid creams suddenly stopping them can cause the skin to flare.  Seek advice should you wish to stop using a steroid cream.

Herbalists often use the herb cleavers for eczema. It is cooling and cleansing.

A number of herbs are commonly used to treat eczema.   Chickweed is an emollient and helps to reduce itching.  Chamomile is highly anti-inflammatory and can also help relieve itching.  Calendula is anti-inflammatory and is particularly useful where the skin is broken or weeping. Elderflowers are moisturising and cooling.

Herbalists often use dandelion in eczema to gently assist digestive function.   Image by Rosendhal

Herbalists often use dandelion in eczema to gently assist digestive function.
Image by Rosendhal

Herbalists use a variety of herbs internally to help with atopic eczema.   At Brighton Apothecary we are able to offer expert advice to help you manage your eczema, and we carry a range of high quality probiotics and essential fatty acids. We carry an impressive range of creams and topical products. You can also see our Medical Herbalists for a consultation at their private practices, where they can offer ongoing support and a personal treatment plan.

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McIntyre, A. (2005) ‘Herbal Treatment of Children’ Elsevier: London

Santich, R. & Bone, K. (2008) ‘Healthy Children: Optimising Children’s Health with Herbs’ Phytotherapy Press: Queensland

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