Dry, red, itchy skin? Chances are you have eczema. Or rather, chances are you have one of the many skin conditions that doctors lump together under the term “eczema.” It’s extremely common, affecting up to 20 percent of children and 5 percent of adults (and considerably more in some parts of the world).1 And it’s also incredibly frustrating when you’re trying to find solutions.
People of any age can develop eczema, but it’s more common in babies and children. I’ve frequently had readers write to me over the years expressing their frustration and dismay over their inability to solve their children’s—or their own—eczema puzzle. Unfortunately, treating eczema is tricky for several reasons. The underlying causes aren’t well understood. People have idiosyncratic triggers that can be hard to identify. Sometimes, recommended treatments actually make symptoms worse.
As with other common skin issues like psoriasis, the onus often falls on patients or their parents to experiment on their own to find the combination of remedies that works for them. Today we’ll cover some natural therapies that can help stop the itch and calm down inflamed, angry eczema rashes.
What Causes Eczema?
Doctors don’t necessarily have to understand the root cause of a particular affliction to treat it effectively, but it sure does help. In the case of eczema, the root cause(s) remain elusive. We know that the skin’s barrier becomes disrupted and skin cells aren’t able to hold moisture. There’s certainly a genetic component. But eczema is also triggered by environmental exposures to things like mold and secondhand smoke, and some women develop eczema for the first time when they become pregnant.2
It has something to do with the immune system, and folks with eczema are more likely than the average person to have one or more autoimmune diseases. But it’s not an autoimmune issue like psoriasis. People with food or environmental allergies are more likely to have eczema, and allergic reactions can cause eczema to flare up. But it is not itself an allergic condition.
I came across this great quote from one Dr. E. D. Chipman writing in the California State Journal of Medicine in 1914:
“Eczema was defined by Bateman 100 years ago as ‘a non-contagious eruption, generally the effect of an irritant, whether externally or internally applied, but occasionally produced by a great variety of irritants in persons whose skin is constitutionally very irritable.’ It has been said that this definition cannot be improved upon today.”
Another hundred years on, and that still seems to sum it up. People with eczema are especially sensitive to things happening sometimes inside and sometimes outside their bodies for reasons that aren’t always clear.
8 Alternative and Natural Eczema Treatments
As common as eczema is, there isn’t all that much research into treatment options, particularly not natural or alternative (read: non-prescription) treatments. Many proposed remedies are based on anecdotal evidence, often from parents-turned-citizen-scientists desperate to help their children.
Nevertheless, start by talking to a doctor and getting a proper diagnosis if you can. The most common type of eczema is atopic dermatitis, but there’s also contact dermatitis, nummular eczema, dyshidrotic eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis. You and your doc may decide that topical steroidal creams or a drug option are right for you. Still, you’ll probably want to employ one or more additional strategies like the ones below.
1. Avoid eczema triggers
When it comes to eczema, prevention is the best medicine. Eczema triggers are diverse and highly individual, so it can be a long road to finding your unique triggers. But a good place to start is by eliminating the big ones:
Clothes made from wool or scratchy fabrics and clothes that rub uncomfortably against rash-prone areas
Consider keeping a symptoms journal. Notice if flare-ups are more likely when the weather is hot or cold, when you sweat more, or when you’re especially stressed, for example.
2. Moisturize with good fats
There is no shortage of creams and lotions marketed to eczema sufferers. The problem is, because their skin is so sensitive, even the ingredients found in eczema-specific products can make rashes and itching worse. Many conventional products also contain petrolatum, which Primal folks generally choose to avoid.
You’ll have the best luck looking for options that contain the fewest ingredients possible and no added fragrances (except perhaps as provided by essential oils like lavender or tea tree that you know work for your skin). Aloe, coconut oil, jojoba oil, and shea butter are all good options that work for a lot of people.
Another one worth trying is tallow. Tallow contains fatty acids like stearic acid and vitamins like vitamin E that are highly beneficial for healthy skin. Many people use tallow-based moisturizers on eczema rashes with great success, but it doesn’t seem to get much attention in the dermatologic community. You can render beef tallow (preferably from grass-fed, grass-finished cows) if you’re so inclined, or it’s pretty easy to find tallow products online. Just check the other ingredients.
3. Try not to scratch
This one isn’t really a remedy, but it’s an important practice nonetheless. Scratching breaks the skin’s barrier and opens you up (literally) to infection, scarring, and more intense itching than you started with, a phenomenon known as the “itch-scratch cycle.”
As you know if you have eczema, though, the drive to scratch can feel overwhelming. Some tried and true ways to deal with itching other than scratching are:
Try cold compresses on the itchy areas
Use compression sleeves designed for eczema to apply light pressure
Tap around the rash with your fingers rather than scratching.
Wet wraps are another dermatologist-recommended option. Apply moisturizer or topical creams over the rash, then cover them with a damp bandage or sleeve, followed with a dry layer. Leave it on for several hours or overnight. Ask your doctor what protocol is best for you.
4. Manage stress
One of the reasons the urge to scratch can become so overwhelming is that eczema itch may be both neurogenic and psychogenic. In other words, some of the itchiness originates in the skin like you’d expect, but at least for some patients—and it’s unclear how many or how often—there is also a psychological origin.3
Stress and anxiety are well-known eczema triggers. This often leads to a downward spiral where a stressful event causes your eczema to flare, then the added stress that accompanies the flare leads to more itching, which leads to more stress (and often, sleep disruption), and on and on. Interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy to manage negative thoughts around your symptoms can help a lot.4
5. Get an air purifier
There is evidence that children5 and adults6 who live in areas with more traffic-related air pollution are more prone to eczema outbreaks. Dust mites, pet dander, mold spores, and pollen can also lead to flares in susceptible individuals.
An air purifier with a HEPA filter helps to remove those substances from your home environment. It’s potentially a good investment, especially if you know you are sensitive to airborne allergens.
6. Take a bath
But not just any bath. Soaking for too long or in water that’s too hot makes matters worse, but 10 to 15 minutes in a warm bath with two cups of apple cider vinegar or a scoop of colloidal oatmeal can bring welcome relief. Rinse off thoroughly afterward and apply moisturizer while you’re still damp.
Your doctor may use phototherapy treatments, but you can also reap the benefits of ultraviolet light simply by getting out in the sun.7 Ultraviolet radiation triggers the release of nitric oxide, which activates T cells that modulate the overactive immune response.8Low vitamin D status is also associated with increased risk of eczema and symptom severity.9
Dermatologists caution that sun exposure is not recommended for severe cases, and it exacerbates symptoms for some people. Be careful not to overdo it. Besides the risk of burning, getting too hot and sweaty leads to itching and discomfort.
8. Acupressure, acupuncture, and massage
A few small studies have found that acupressure10, acupuncture11, and massage12 may provide some relief. In addition to physiologic benefits, they reduce stress, which is never a bad thing.
Is There An “Eczema Diet”?
There isn’t one “eczema diet” in the same way the autoimmune protocol (AIP) is designed for folks with autoimmune issues or a gluten-free diet is mandatory for those with celiac disease. However, many people experiment with some form of elimination diet to treat eczema.
There’s no question that eczema is related to food allergies, and probably intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), for some patients. More generally, eczema is an inflammatory condition. Diet is one of the major levers anyone can pull to modulate inflammation.
In studies, however, responses to various elimination diets have been mixed, some positive, some underwhelming. That’s not surprising considering people aren’t equally sensitive to the same things. Kids with egg allergies have fewer eczema symptoms when they avoid eggs, for example.13 (Who would’ve guessed?) But not everyone needs to eliminate eggs. Same with dairy.
Anecdotally, I’ve gotten many success stories over the years from people whose eczema significantly improved after going Primal. Primal isn’t going to be the solution for everyone, but cutting out ultra-processed, high-sugar, high-industrialized-fat, grain-based foods certainly can’t hurt. Plus, the Primal Blueprint encourages consumption of small, oily fish and, if it’s your thing, lots of vegetables and seasonal fruit, which deliver skin-supporting omega-3s and flavonoids.14
Furthermore, an under appreciated feature of going Primal, or attempting any kind of elimination diet, is that it forces you to be mindful about the connection between what you’re eating and how you feel. Even if it’s not the solution to your eczema woes, I guarantee you’ll learn something.
I’d love to hear from you if you have an eczema success story or other alternative approaches that worked for you. Drop it in the comments below!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.