Can Essential Oils Help Eczema or Atopic Dermatitis?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Essential oils are natural oils extracted from plants, and they give plants their unique scent. As such, manufacturers commonly use essential oils in perfumes, flavorings, and aromatherapy, Merriam-Webster notes.

Thanks to these potential benefits, essential oils are an appealing treatment option for people with inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema or atopic dermatitis.

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Eczema is a group of skin conditions that include atopic dermatitis, and though there are many different forms of eczema, each shares the characteristic red, itchy, inflamed skin, according to the National Eczema Foundation. Atopic dermatitis is a chronic type of eczema, and those who have it need to manage their symptoms daily to avoid uncomfortable — and sometimes painful — flare-ups. Some people turn to essential oils to calm inflammation and in hopes of staving off infection.

The Importance of Diluting Essential Oils

According to the essential oils brand Doterra, you may be able to apply an essential oil directly to your skin without a carrier oil. Those oils, which are categorized as neat and do not need a carrier oil, include lavender and sandalwood. Yet others, such as cinnamon, thyme, and oregano, must be diluted with a carrier oil such as almond, coconut, or jojoba. The website also advises diluting oils such as peppermint, ginger, and black pepper before using them on sensitive skin, which is a common concern for people who are managing eczema.

The Potential Health Benefits of Essential Oils for Eczema

Before you try essential oils for any type of eczema, it’s important to know the risks and potential benefits.

“Some [essential oils] can be helpful for their moisturizing and anti- inflammatory properties for those suffering with atopic dermatitis,” says board- certified dermatologist Samer Jaber, MD, a member of the American Academy of Dermatology and founder of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City.

Tea Tree Oil
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Topical tea tree oil may also be beneficial for people with eczema, though the research isn’t conclusive. A past study found that topical tea tree oil reduced allergic contact dermatitis, a type of eczema that results when the skin comes in contact with an allergen, by 40.5 percent. That said, whether these effects would apply to atopic dermatitis remains to be seen.

Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, tea tree oil may also help prevent the growth of skin bacteria or fungi, according to a past review. This may be especially helpful for people with eczema and atopic dermatitis, as excessive scratching during flare-ups can cause the skin to break, making it more prone to damage.

Chamomile Oil

A past study found that topical application of German chamomile oil lowered histamine levels (a chemical released following allergen exposure) and frequency of scratching in mice with atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is often associated with allergies, so any treatment that calms allergic skin reactions may help ease the characteristic itchiness of atopic dermatitis. But these findings may not translate to human health. Researchers need to conduct more studies in humans to confirm these benefits.

The Potential Health Risks of Essential Oils for People With Eczema

In spite of the promising research, essential oils may be risky for people with eczema and atopic dermatitis. “It’s important to be careful which essential oil is used, as some can irritate the skin and have the potential to make atopic dermatitis worse,” Dr. Jaber warns.

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It’s tough to say which essential oils to avoid, as the manufacturing process itself may cause the essential oil to irritate the skin. According to the National Eczema Foundation, heat and chemicals added during the essential oil extraction process can create skin-irritating compounds, which may make essential oils a bad choice for people with eczema and atopic dermatitis.

Hormone Disruption

Hormone disruptors, known as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), are natural or manufactured substances that mimic or oppose hormones made in the body, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Repeated use of essential oils containing EDCs may lead to unwanted hormonal changes.

To help lower the risk for exposure to EDCs, be sure to dilute your essential oil before using it on your skin. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences notes that as dilution increases, the risk for EDC exposure decreases.

Why It’s Critical to Talk to Your Dermatologist Before Using Essential Oils for Eczema

At the end of the day, some studies suggest essential oils like borage oil and tea tree oil may help ease inflammation and lower the risk of skin infection, but we don’t know how well they work for this skin condition.

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What’s more, some essential oils may irritate the skin and make eczema and atopic dermatitis symptoms worse.

Contact eczema or dermatitis, unlike an irritation eczema, stems from an allergy to a specific ingredient or chemical, according to the National Eczema Foundation. This can cause itchy blistering rashes on the skin. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about developing contact eczema from essential oils. They may recommend performing a patch test on a normal area of skin first to see if you develop a reaction.

Dr. Ploch advises people with eczema and atopic dermatitis to avoid essential oils, as they have a weakened skin barrier, which allows substances like essential oils (and their potential hormone disruptors) to be absorbed more easily. “There are [no essential oils] that I would deem safe in this at-risk patient population,” she adds.

Your best move is to chat with your dermatologist, allergist, or other healthcare provider to find out if essential oils are right for you. For more information on eczema and atopic dermatitis, visit the American Academy of Dermatology.

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