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Are Eczema and Essential Oils a Smart Mix?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on April 14, 2021

If you have eczema and the dry, sensitive, itchy, reddened skin it can cause, you may wonder whether essential oils can help ease your symptoms. These oils are a mix of compounds taken from fragrant flowers, bark, leaves, or fruit of different plants.

Essential oil makers often market them for a range of health benefits from stress relief to clearer skin. There’s no solid scientific evidence, however, that they can improve symptoms of eczema.

What’s more, essential oils can irritate skin and trigger allergic reactions. This can happen to anyone who uses them, but people with eczema are particularly prone to these problems.

Why Eczema and Essential Oils Are a Poor Mix

There are several reasons people with eczema should skip essential oils:

  • Ingredients may vary. They’re usually made through a steam distillation process that uses heat and chemicals to extract their scent and other properties. The result is a highly concentrated liquid mix of chemicals that can include terpenes, aldehydes, alcohols, esters, ethers, ketones, and more.
  • They’re unregulated. In addition, the FDA places most of these products in the same category as cosmetics, which means they don’t regulate quality or advertising claims. There’s no way to tell, for example, if the oils you buy were made from plants treated with pesticides or contain only the ingredients listed on the label.
  • They raise your risk of skin irritation. Your skin is even more likely to react when you have eczema. That’s because the inflammation it causes disturbs and can leave tiny breaks in your skin barrier. This makes it easier for your skin to absorb the irritants and allergens in essential oils.

If you have eczema you shouldn’t use essential oils in any form. They can cause skin reactions even when you mix small amounts with a milder oil, add a few drops to your bath water, or use products that list them as ingredients.

You should also avoid diffusers that release their scent -- and other compounds -- into the air you breathe. The airborne particles can cause skin reactions and other symptoms in people who are sensitive to them.

There are plant oils that are safer -- and potentially beneficial -- for people with eczema, however.

Plants Oils to Try When You Have Eczema

Some plant oils are high in beneficial fatty acids, such as linoleic acid, that can help your skin repair its natural barrier. To avoid skin irritation, you need to choose cold-pressed, unrefined oils. This means they’re made without the addition of heat or chemicals.

Along with skin barrier repair, two cold-pressed plant oils may have extra benefits for people with eczema.

You can try:

  • Cold-pressed coconut oil: This oil contains a fatty acid called monolaurin that may help control Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that lives on everyone’s skin. People with eczema often have more staph on their skin than those without the condition. If these bacteria multiply out of control, they can cause serious infections. A study of coconut oil in people with eczema showed it reduced staph on the skin by 50%.
  • Cold-pressed sunflower seed oil: This oil may calm skin inflammation in people with eczema. It also may encourage your skin to make more ceramides, fats that help keep it smooth and soft.

How to use coconut and sunflower seed oil

To get skin benefits from coconut or sunflower seed oil, apply a cold-pressed product to your skin after you bathe. Then layer your favorite moisturizer on top. This helps seal in the oil as well as the moisture from your bath or shower.

Coconut oil may be in solid form at room temperature. If so, warm it in your hands so it softens before you apply it to your skin. If you’re acne-prone, you probably shouldn’t use coconut oil on your breakout areas. It can clog pores and cause acne flares.

Not all natural plant oils are good for your skin. Some have high levels of fatty acids that can irritate your skin, such as the oleic acids found in olive oil. It’s best to check with your dermatologist before you apply any plant oil to your skin.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Peter Lio, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Northwestern University and co-director of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Center in Chicago.

Raja Sivamani, MD, MS, AP, adjunct associate professor of clinical dermatology and director of clinical research at the University of California, Davis; associate professor of dermatology at California Northstate University College of Medicine in Elk Grove; and a dermatologist in private practice at the Pacific Skin Institute in Sacramento, CA.

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?”

National Eczema Association: “What is Eczema?” “Alternative eczema treatments from natural oils to elimination diets,” “A Potential Lead for Stopping Staph Infections.” 

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “The effects of essential oils and terpenes in relation to their routes of intake and application.”

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Antimicrobial properties of plant essential oils against human pathogens and their mode of action: an updated review.”

Mayo Clinic: “What are the benefits of aromatherapy?”

University of Minnesota: “How Do I Determine the Quality of Essential Oils?”

American Journal of Clinical Dermatology: “Natural oils for skin-barrier repair: ancient compounds now backed by modern science.”

Current Dermatology Reports: “Alternative medicine in pediatric dermatology: what is the evidence?” 

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