Derived from an ancient Greek word which literally means “to boil out”, eczema is a term generally used for any type of skin inflammation. It can express itself in a number of ways and its symptoms are different from person to person. There are several types of skin diseases that are eczemas, but anyone who suffers from dry, sensitive, and itchy skin is said to have eczema. It can also include symptoms of red and warm skin, dark discoloration, rashes, swelling, blistering, peeling, and oozing.
What Causes Eczema?
It is estimated that up to 30 million Americans are living with eczema. The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but there is some evidence that it could have genetic origins. It has been closely associated with the development of asthma and/or hay fever, called the atopic triad: if one or both parents have eczema, hay fever, or asthma, it’s likely their children will develop one or more of the conditions.
While there is no known cure, people who have eczema may experience periods of remission when the skin is clear. A return of symptoms – or flare-ups – can be induced by environmental triggers. These include:
- Chemical irritants found in soaps, detergents, shampoos, disinfectants, and household cleansers
- Allergens from pet dander, pollens, molds, and dandruff
- Micro-organisms like viruses, bacteria, and fungi
- Swings in temperature from hot weather, sweating during physical activity, and high and low humidity
- Food allergies from eating dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, nuts, and seeds
- Clothing made of wool or synthetic fibers
You can reduce the symptoms of eczema by identifying your individual triggers and avoiding them whenever possible. Wearing soft and natural fibers like cotton, eliminating certain foods from your diet, and washing with mild cleansers are some of the easier lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent eczema.
In addition to environmental factors, there are also physiological and emotional triggers that can elicit eczema flare-ups. Hormone imbalance and natural hormonal changes that occur during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause can cause eczema symptoms to worsen. There is also a significant mind-body connection with all kinds of skin ailments and emotional distress is considered both a trigger for, and a symptom of, eczema. This can be a difficult cycle to break since feelings of anxiety and depression can prompt a flare-up which only compounds negative emotions and leads to an exacerbation of eczema symptoms.
Alternative Treatments for Eczema
Although there are plenty of remedies available to those who suffer from eczema – from topical steroids, phototherapy, immunosuppressants, and over-the-counter creams – a clinical survey found that more than 40% of those polled were dissatisfied with the current state of medical treatments for eczema, reporting that medications are ineffective, expensive, or cause adverse side effects.
The good news here is that natural therapies are gaining ground as individuals look to alternatives and researchers are learning more about the healing properties of plants and herbs. Botanical oils, applied topically, have shown much potential when it comes to reducing skin inflammation while increasing the skin’s moisture barrier. Holistically, essential oils can be used to treat some of the underlying issues at play during eczema flare-ups by combating anxiety and treating hormone imbalance.
12 Anti-Inflammatory Essential Oils To Heal Eczema
Inflammation is broadly defined as redness, swelling, pain, and tenderness in body tissue. Normally, it is a protective response against injury, infection, or chemical irritants. When the body experiences a harmful event, a fleet of immune cells are dispatched to the affected area, causing blood vessels to expand so that more blood can enter the injured site. Defensive cells are carried within the blood to aid in the healing process while certain hormones signal pain to the brain.
In most cases, inflammation is a wondrous healing mechanism. However, during eczema flare-ups as well as other inflammatory disorders, the immune system attacks otherwise healthy tissues in error. Several proteins and enzymes have been identified as pro-inflammatory, but the enzyme COX-2 specifically is found at elevated levels during inflammation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin were developed with the purpose of targeting and inhibiting the production of COX-2, thereby reducing pain, swelling, and fever.
Using NSAIDs to treat eczema isn’t a viable long-term approach because this class of drugs can create other serious health issues and can sometimes make the symptoms of eczema worse. Fortunately, research published in 2009 examined 21 essential oils and identified six plants that were effective in supressing COX-2:
Warm and spicy, thyme essential oil contains carvacrol, an organic compound that functions as a natural defense against pain, swelling, infection, and inflammation. As the most impressive of all the essential oils tested, thyme oil was found to reduce COX-2 expression by 65%.
Clove is composed of between 80-95% eugenol, a substance commonly used by dentists as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory to relieve pain and swelling from dental surgeries. Smelling woody, warm, and slightly fruity, clove oil suppressed COX-2 by 40%.
The aroma of the Rosa damascena is flowery, sweet, and uplifting and has long been cherished for its anti-depressant and aphrodisiac properties. As an anti-inflammatory, it also contains eugenol and was effective in lowering COX-2 by 30%.
Eucalyptus oil has many amazing benefits. Fresh and earthy, its main ingredient is eucalyptol which is used commercially in mouthwashes, cough suppressants, and insecticides. In addition to beating back COX-2 by 25%, yet another study revealed that eucalyptus oil is an effective treatment for pain relief and inflammation.
With the fragrance of licorice, fennel oil contains anethole which has powerful anti-inflammatory qualities. In the COX-2 study, it was able to impede the production of this enzyme by 22%.
Derived from an orange native to Italy, bergamot oil smells fresh and citrusy and is well-known for its energizing and mood boosting effects. Lowering COX-2 by 21%, additional research has demonstrated that bergamot oil reduced inflammation by 63% when applied at a concentration of 0.10 mL/kg.
Beyond the six essential oils identified in the COX-2 study, others have been shown to reduce inflammation. Namely:
7. Rose Geranium
More geranium in appearance and scent than rose, Pelargonium graveolens is an African flower. Rose geranium oil has been used historically for its soothing effects on the skin, and a 2013 study showed it also is a potent anti-inflammatory. Researchers applied a miniscule amount of oil to inflamed skin and found it reduced swelling by more than 70%.
With calming and sedative effects, chamomile oil is rich, fruity, and sweet. Both Roman and German chamomile oils have similar anti-inflammatory properties. Tested specifically for eczema, topical application with chamomile decreased inflammation, and as a maintenance therapy, it was superior to over-the-counter NSAIDs and steroid creams.
9. Tea Tree
Distilled from the foliage of Melaleuca alternifolia, tea tree leaves were first used by the Bundjalung people of Australia to treat infections, cold symptoms, and skin ailments. While tea tree oil has a myriad of extraordinary uses, it is especially good for promoting healthy skin by allaying acne, sores, itchiness, and inflammation.
Part of the ginger family, turmeric is chiefly composed of curcumin which gives it its yellow color and earthy, spicy aroma. Evidence of curcumin’s anti-inflammatory effects has been well-documented in a number of studies by inhibiting many of the molecules (COX-2 included!) that cause inflammation.
11. Black Pepper
Unlike ground peppercorns that can make you sneeze, black pepper oil is easier on the senses with crisp and piquant notes. Peperine gives black pepper its spicy profile and this compound has also been shown to inhibit the molecules responsible for pain and inflammation.
As one of the most versatile essential oils, lavender is an all-in-one remedy for depression, sleeplessness, pain, poor digestion, and so much more. Lavender oil has also been found to substantially reduce inflammation.
Where To Buy These Essential Oils
When using essential oils for eczema, it is imperative to use 100% pure essential oils free of additives and adulterants. On Natural Living Ideas, we recommend Plant Therapy Essential Oils.
Plant Therapy supply virtually every essential oil under the sun (including all mentioned in this article) from this page on their official website. They also offer a range of organic essential oils here.
They offer free delivery and free returns for up to 90 days, their essential oils are of the highest quality and their prices are affordable. You can shop Plant Therapy here.
Recommended Carrier Oils for Sensitive Skin
Since essential oils are volatile, highly concentrated plant extracts, they must be diluted in a carrier oil in order to be safely applied to the skin. Named because they “carry” the oil to the skin, carrier oils are made from the seeds, nuts, kernels, and other fatty portions of the plant. Like essentials, carriers have their own unique therapeutic qualities.
- Sunflower Seed Oil – High in vitamin E, sunflower seed oil can improve the skin barrier, reduce inflammation, and soothe itchy skin.
- Coconut Oil – The fatty acids in coconut oil have anti-bacterial properties and are excellent for moisturizing and healing damaged skin.
- Borage Seed Oil – A non-irritating oil, borage is gentle enough for extremely dry and sensitive skin.
- Evening Primrose Oil – Treating many eczema symptoms, evening primrose oil can help reduce swelling, itching, redness, and crusting.
- Sweet Almond Oil – Mild and hypoallergenic, sweet almond oil is incredibly hydrating and can help alleviate itchiness.
- Jojoba Oil – Technically a liquid plant wax, jojoba oil is similar to the type of oils the skin naturally produces, making it easier for flesh to absorb and retain moisture.
- Rosehip Seed Oil – A panacea for many skin ailments, rosehip seed oil is particularly beneficial for moisturizing skin, reducing itch, and creating a protective skin barrier.
- Baobab Oil – Rich in vitamins A, D, and E, baobab oil is non-greasy and fast absorbing. It also encourages healing and improves skin elasticity.
To make a roughly 2% essential oil dilution, mix 12 drops of essential oil with one ounce of carrier oil. Before applying this solution to the skin, perform a skin patch test. Although everyone should take this step, it is especially crucial for those with eczema or sensitive skin.
You can purchase most of these carrier oils from this page on Plant Therapy.
Hydrating Recipes that Help Heal Eczema
Keeping the skin hydrated is essential to coping with eczema flare-ups as well as preventing symptoms in the first place. The National Eczema Association recommends taking a lukewarm bath or shower every day and applying moisturizer immediately after bathing to trap water in the skin.
Here are four recipes that will get you started on incorporating the healing powers of essential oils into your skin moisturizing regimen:
- Deep Soak – Add six drops of your favorite essential oil to a warm (not hot) bath. Try two drops each of chamomile, lavender, and geranium. You should also combine essential oils with a carrier before adding it to the bathwater for extra hydration.
- Hydrating Lotion – Add 20 drops of essential oil to eight ounces of shea butter.
- Massage Oil – Mix four drops of essential oil to each tablespoon of carrier oil. Try a blend of eucalyptus and thyme essential oils diluted with rosehip seed oil.
- Anti–Itch Spray – Mix 12 drops each of lavender, tea tree, clove, and rosemary with four ounces of a carrier oil like jojoba and transfer to a spray bottle.