Alternative and Complementary Therapies for Atopic Dermatitis

While many children will outgrow atopic dermatitis, there is no cure for the chronic (long-lasting) disorder. (2) Treatment focuses on managing symptoms, reducing inflammation, healing injured skin and preventing further damage, and preventing and controlling flare-ups. (1)

"People with atopic dermatitis have to make many extra efforts in their day- to-day lives to take care of their skin," explains Kanwaljit K. Brar, MD, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone in New York City. "People joke about their prolonged skin care routines, but for people with atopic dermatitis it is the difference between a comfortable night or a night of scratching and sleep loss."

In additional to strict skin-care routines, conventional treatments may include: (1,2)

  • Topical steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Oral or injectable immunosuppressants
  • Antibiotics for skin infections
  • Phototherapy

In recent years, however, complementary and alternative therapies have grown in popularity for numerous conditions. In fact, about one-half of patients with atopic dermatitis have reportedly used alternative and complementary treatments, per the NEA. (3)

While some of these therapies appear promising, it's important to note that most are understudied and require more research.

Healing Baths for Atopic Dermatitis: Guidelines

Atopic dermatitis causes defects in the skin barrier — the outermost layer of skin that both protects the skin from invading microorganisms and allergens and helps retain moisture. Because of this issue, the skin becomes very dry, notes the NEA. (4)

One way to combat this dryness and put moisture back into the skin is through proper bathing or showering treatments. The NEA recommends:

  • Bathing or showering in lukewarm (not hot) water for no longer than 10 to 15 minutes
  • Washing with a gentle cleanser
  • Patting the skin dry with a towel and applying prescription topical medication to the skin as necessary
  • Liberally applying moisturizer within three minutes
  • Dressing only after a few minutes when the moisturizer has had time to absorb into the skin

In addition to these general guidelines, some complementary bath treatments might help ease eczema symptoms and assist the skin with moisture retention. According to the NEA, these include adding (not at the same time):

  • Gentle bath oils (specifically those with no fragrances or bubble bath solutions) to the bathwater to keep you moisturized
  • One-quarter cup of baking soda to bathwater relieve itching
  • One-quarter cup of household bleach to a full tub of bathwater to decrease inflammation and bacteria on the skin
  • One cup of table salt to bathwater to reduce the sting of the lukewarm water if you have a severe flare
  • One cup of vinegar to bathwater help kill bacteria
What Do Atopic Dermatitis and Other Eczema Types Look Like?

The NEA also suggests adding oatmeal to bathwater (or directly to skin) to relieve itching, but Dr. Brar stresses this could be dangerous for some people. "The use of food products on the skin, such as oatmeal baths, is not recommended as this may increase the risk for food allergy, or may cause skin irritation," she says.

Natural Topical Ointments for Atopic Dermatitis

Doctors recommend prescription topical ointments to treat atopic dermatitis, but some alternative topical treatments may also help if they are used in tandem with prescription medication, or as complementary treatments.

Research suggests coconut oil (virgin or cold-pressed) has various properties that may make it an effective eczema treatment for some people.

Sunflower oil may also be beneficial in treating atopic dermatitis (unless you are allergic to it), according to a few small studies. (8) One study found that 92269' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >sunflower seed oil can help restore the skin barrier and improve skin hydration. (9)

Acupuncture and Acupressure to Relieve Itching

Acupuncture, in which needles are inserted into specific points on the body depending on the underlying issue being treated, is frequently applied to allergy- and itch-related conditions. It has not been studied extensively for atopic dermatitis treatment.

Single studies, however, have found that acupuncture can significantly reduce allergen-induced itch and itch related to kidney issues (uremic pruritus). (10) And a pilot study found that acupressure (in which small titanium beads are used to apply pressure instead of needles) can help reduce eczema-related itch, though the study lacked a placebo and had few patients.

The Mind-Body Approach to Atopic Dermatitis Treatment

Some complementary and alternative treatments for atopic dermatitis focus on helping patients get a handle on their stress. This mind-body approach is predicated on the fact that stress is a common trigger for eczema flares, likely because it produces inflammation, an underlying cause of atopic dermatitis symptoms. (11)

A small study involving children found that massage significantly reduced atopic dermatitis symptoms, including itch, scaling, and redness, as well as anxiety. (10) Adding essential oils to massage had no additional benefit (and may even sensitize the skin to the oils), according to another study.

Patients should be careful with essential oils (not to be confused with common bath oils), Brar notes. "Families will often try homemade concoctions of multiple essential oils that I recommend against," she says. "Essential oils may cause contact dermatitis and the fragrance may irritate the skin."

Other studies have found a potential benefit to hypnotherapy and biofeedback (a relaxation or awareness technique that involves a physiological feedback device combined with directed thoughts). These two treatments appear to reduce skin damage through relaxation.

Probiotics and Vitamin D Supplements for Atopic Dermatitis

Researchers have investigated numerous oral supplements to treat atopic dermatitis, but most have been shown to be unhelpful. However, some evidence suggests probiotics and vitamin D might be helpful. "A diet rich in omega-3s, vitamin D, and probiotic-containing foods can have benefits to the skin," Brar says.

The bottom line: Complementary therapies work best in tandem with traditional treatments. Before trying one, be sure to have a discussion with your dermatologist.

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