Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is an increasingly prevalent skin condition in children. It is a chronic condition that causes irritated, inflamed, scaly rashes that can be severely itchy. Medical treatments include topical steroids to decrease inflammation, antibiotics to fight superimposed skin infections, and moisturizers to provide hydration and protection. However, when conventional therapies show little success in treating eczema, many seek out alternative solutions. One example is the use of oils as an alternative treatment.
Cultures across the globe have used natural oils to maintain skin health and vitality for thousands of years.[3,4] With dozens of different varieties with unique chemical properties, oils are generally inexpensive, safe, and readily available. Natural oils are usually liquid at room temperature (coconut oil is an exception), derived from plant sources, and are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is important to be aware of the different types of commercially available oils because the way they are processed can affect their properties. Fragranced oils are artificially produced to carry a specific scent. Essential oils are produced through a process involving heat and chemicals, while cold pressed oils are produced by pressing the entire kernel or seed at room temperature. Oils can be classified as “fixed oils” or “volatile oils.” Fixed oils do not evaporate at room temperature and include both unrefined (cold-pressed oils such as virgin olive oil and virgin coconut oil) and refined oils (nonvirgin olive oil, refined coconut oil). On the other hand, essential oils are “volatile oils” that can evaporate at room temperature and require steam distillation or extraction with added chemicals such as ethyl alcohol. Many factors, including oil production methods, likely contribute to their role in repairing and maintaining a healthy skin barrier and overall skin health. Oils that include fragrances or essential oils can have a higher chance of irritating the skin. Refined oils may utilize other chemicals to assist in oil extractions and can be irritating to the skin.
Does Oil Massage Improve Eczema?
Although oil massage has been used across the world for centuries to improve dry skin and eczema, clinical evidence from well-designed studies is scarce. One study compared the use of olive oil and sunflower seed oil for four weeks in 19 people with eczema. It turns out, those who used the sunflower oil had significant improvement in skin hydration, while those who used olive oil actually had a weakened skin barrier after four weeks. In a separate study of 117 children with eczema, the efficacy of coconut oil to improve eczema symptoms was compared with mineral oil. The group that received coconut oil had a statistically significant improvement in clinical symptoms (over 68% improvement) of eczema compared to the mineral oil group. Researchers have hypothesized that particular ratios of fatty acids determine the beneficial effects they have when massaged onto the skin. Based on clinical studies, oils that contains higher levels of linoleic acids, such as sunflower oil, seem to provide better skin barrier restoring properties than oils that contain high oleic acid, such as olive oil. Another important consideration when using oils for the skin is to be aware of their shelf lives. For instance, saturated oils such as coconut oil are generally solid at room temperature and have a longer shelf-life, up to five years. Oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids tend to be more susceptible to oxidation and have shorter shelf-lives. One exception is jojoba oil, which is actually a wax and has a longer shelf life than other plant oils.
The Bottom Line
Many health savvy consumers seek safe, gentle, and readily available natural ingredients, such as oils and botanicals to treat skin conditions. Natural oils, such as sunflower seed oil, have demonstrated beneficial effects on skin barrier function and improving symptoms of eczema. However, some oils such as olive oil may actually be detrimental to the integrity of the skin barrier when massaged onto eczema-prone skin. Currently, more scientific investigation is needed to establish which oils can be best used on skin affected by eczema.