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Are There Helpful Home Remedies for Eczema?

Readers have recommended home remedies for eczema. Which ones have you tried for treating atopic dermatitis?

Eczema is a common skin problem, sometimes referred to as “the itch that rashes.” Doctors call this condition atopic dermatitis. They don’t know precisely what causes it, although some individuals have genes that make them more susceptible to this problem. Physicians prescribe a range of treatments, both topical (applied to the skin) and oral (taken by mouth). Patients inject some of the newest prescriptions. How do all these compare to home remedies for eczema?

What Do We Know About Eczema?

When atopic dermatitis strikes, the skin on places such as hands, neck, ankles, elbows or knees begins to itch. Babies are especially likely to develop eczema on their faces and scalps.

Scratching often results in red bumps that may ultimately begin to weep or bleed when they are scratched. If the inflammation persists, the itchy spots may ultimately become thickened or scaly.

People with asthma or hay fever are more likely to experience eczema. Presumably, this is due to an immune system overreacting to some allergen in the environment.

Environmental differences may help explain why rates of atopic dermatitis vary widely from place to place. In the US, Australia and parts of Europe, for example, around 20 percent of the population suffers from this condition. By contrast, in Tunisia or Iran, fewer than one-tenth as many people are affected (Life, Sep. 2021).

How Doctors Treat Eczema:

For centuries, physicians have treated people with eczema by sending them to special healing clinics (climatotherapy). Although patients are often advised to avoid unnecessary exposure to soap and water, soaking in mineral springs or the Dead Sea, possibly combined with some sun exposure, often improves symptoms (Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, July 15, 2015).

Moisturizing Is Primary:

Many episodes of eczema begin with dry skin. Not only does it itch, but the barrier function of the skin is reduced when it is dry. Consequently, anyone with this condition. must pay attention to proper moisturizing. If you have consulted a healthcare professional about itchy atopic dermatitis, you may be using a recommended moisturizer, such as Aquaphor (Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, May 2011). A really good moisturizer, such as one containing urea, improves the barrier function of the skin (Dermatologic Therapy, Nov. 2018). The doctor or nurse practitioner may have recommended something like petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or a lighter moisturizer such as CeraVe or Cetaphil. However, you probably didn’t hear about home remedies for eczema.

Proprietary creams such as Noxzema have long been popular. And by long, we mean for more than a hundred years. Pharmacist George Bunting introduced his emollient cream in 1914 as a sunburn remedy. It contained menthol, camphor and oil of cloves in a moisturizing base. After a customer told him that it had knocked his eczema, Bunting renamed it Noxzema.

Many readers have reported that applying Noxzema to their itchy eczema offers real relief. We suspect that the herbal extracts as well as the moisturizing properties both help.

Dandruff Shampoo:

Our readers have also found that other unorthodox approaches can be helpful. Some use a dandruff shampoo containing selenium sulfide, such as Selsun Blue, to ease itching. Others use a pine-tar based product. And a few are enthusiastic about drinking oolong tea. Japanese dermatologists published a single study with good results (Archives of Dermatology, Jan. 2001).

Prescription Products to Treat Eczema:

Dermatologists generally start treatment with powerful corticosteroid creams to control rash and itch. With so many people suffering, pharmaceutical firms are advertising new products against atopic dermatitis. You may have seen commercials for Rinvoq (upadacitinib) or Cibinqo (abrocitinib). These potent medications, known as JAK inhibitors, dampen the immune response. While that can be helpful in controlling a bad flare-up of eczema, it leaves patients vulnerable to serious side effects.

Hobbling the immune system can open the door to infections, including tuberculosis and hepatitis. In addition, the body is less able to detect and fight off certain cancers.
People taking Rinvoq are more likely to suffer lymphoma, serious blood clots and major cardiovascular complications like heart attacks and strokes. Those on Cibinqo run similar risks. Be sure to evaluate whether these side effects are worth the relief you might get.

What Are Good Home Remedies for Eczema?

Not long ago, we heard from a reader who recommended a home remedy that was unfamiliar to us. Over the years, we have found it usually makes sense to pay attention when nurses give advice.

Q. I started following The People’s Pharmacy about 30 years ago. As a nurse, I am familiar with most drugs, so the home remedies section is my favorite. I helped my husband stop his nighttime leg cramps with tonic water.

A friend recently asked me if I had any ideas about her eczema. I suggested cider vinegar topically. She is thrilled with the result—no more itching and her spots are going away.

Cider Vinegar for Eczema:

A. Apple cider vinegar as a soak for eczema is new to us. In response, we checked the medical literature. A research team at the University of Virginia tested this treatment to see if it improves skin barrier function like urea does (Pediatric Dermatology, Sep. 2019). Sadly, the pilot study did not show benefit. However, the investigators are considering whether some other type of acidic ointment might help. Studies on mice suggests acidic creams might be helpful (Annals of Dermatology, Dec. 2016).

Two Australian scientists suggest that pine tar applications can break the itch-scratch cycle (Medicines, July 18, 2019). However, both work for a firm that makes pine tar products. Consequently, we want to see independent studies to confirm these home remedies for eczema. Likewise, dermatologists in Hong Kong have recently published their research demonstrating that pine tar baths ease childhood eczema (Journal of Dermatological Treatment, April 16, 2020).

Other Home Remedies for Eczema:

Over the years, other readers have offered their favorite treatments. Here are a few of them.

Listerine and Turmeric:

“Turmeric and amber Listerine helps keep my atopic dermatitis under control. I take a capsule of tumeric a day. And I rub brown Listerine over the affected areas immediately after getting out of the shower. I have not needed steroid creams for over three years.”

Coconut Oil:

“My great-nephew has suffered from it…coconut oil is fantastic applied topically for this…it soaks in really well.”

Gluten-Free Diet:

“I would recommend trying a gluten-free diet. Three of my friends who have suffered from psoriasis or eczema for years went on gluten-free diets and their skin cleared up within a few days. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself!”

Apple Cider Vinegar:

“I dealt with eczema for several years and finally cleared it up with apple cider vinegar (I used the cheapest store brand). I just dabbed some apple cider vinegar onto the area with a cotton ball a couple of times a day. Within days, the eczema disappeared and has never returned in over two years.”

Neem Oil:

“I have eczema and tried Neem oil. Within three days the problem was better.”

Learn More:

We discuss several other simple approaches in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. You’ll find discussions of borage oil, ceramide-containing moisturizer, nonirritating clothing, oolong tea, probiotics, a low-carb diet, Pycnogenol and Noxzema. If you have tried a remedy that helped, please tell us about it in the comment section.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Hadi HA et al, "The epidemiology and global burden of atopic dermatitis: A narrative review." Life, Sep. 2021. doi: 10.3390/life11090936
  • Goddard AL & Lio PA, "Alternative, complementary, and forgotten remedies for atopic dermatitis." Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, July 15, 2015. doi: 10.1155/2015/676897
  • Uehara M et al, "A trial of oolong tea in the management of recalcitrant atopic dermatitis."
  • Miller DW et al, "An over-the-counter moisturizer is as clinically effective as, and more cost-effective than, prescription barrier creams in the treatment of children with mild-to-moderate atopic dermatitis: A randomized, controlled trial." Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, May 2011.
  • Celleno L, "Topical urea in skincare: A review." Dermatologic Therapy, Nov. 2018. DOI: 10.1111/dth.12690
  • Luu LA et al, "Apple cider vinegar soaks [0.5%] as a treatment for atopic dermatitis do not improve skin barrier integrity." Pediatric Dermatology, Sep. 2019. DOI: 10.1111/pde.13888
  • Lee NR et al, " Application of topical acids improves atopic dermatitis in murine model by enhancement of skin barrier functions regardless of the origin of acids." Annals of Dermatology, Dec. 2016. DOI: 10.5021/ad.2016.28.6.690
  • Harrison IP & Spada F, "Breaking the itch-scratch cycle: Topical options for the management of chronic cutaneous itch in atopic dermatitis." Medicines, July 18, 2019. DOI: 10.3390/medicines6030076
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