Vitamins that may be helpful
Researchers have reported that people with eczema do not have the normal ability to process
fatty acids, which can result in a deficiency of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).7 GLA
is found in evening primrose oil (EPO), borage oil, and black currant seed oil.
Some,8 9 10 but not all,11 12
13 14 double-blind trials have shown that EPO is useful in the treatment of
eczema. An analysis of nine trials reported that the effects for reduced itching were most
striking.15 Much of the research uses 12 pills per day; each pill contains 500 mg
of EPO, of which 45 mg is GLA. Smaller amounts have been shown to lack
Supplementation with borage oil, another
source of GLA, has led to reductions in skin inflammation, dryness, scaliness, and itch in
eczema patients in some,17 but not all, preliminary18 or double-blind
Many years ago, use of large amounts of vegetable oil (containing precursors to GLA) was
reported to help treat people with eczema,20 21 but these studies were
not controlled and do not meet modern standards of research.
Ten grams of fish oil providing 1.8 grams
of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) per day were given to a group of eczema sufferers in a
double-blind trial. After 12 weeks, those using the fish oil experienced significant
improvement.22 23 According to the researchers, fish oil may be
effective because it reduces levels of leukotriene B4, a substance that has been linked to
eczema.24 The eczema-relieving effects of fish oil may require taking ten pills per
day for at least 12 weeks. Smaller amounts of fish oil have been shown to lack
One trial using vegetable oil as the placebo reported that fish oil was barely more
effective than the placebo (30% vs. 24% improvement).26 As vegetable oil had
previously been reported to have potential therapeutic activity, the apparent negative outcome
of this trial should not dissuade people with eczema from considering fish oil.
In a double-blind trial, the addition of a mixture of 90% galacto-oligosaccharides and 10%
fructo-oligosaccharides to infant formula
prevented the development of eczema in infants who were at high risk of developing eczema. The
incidence of eczema in the first six months of life was 9.8% in the group receiving
oligosaccharides, compared with 23.1% in the placebo group, a statistically significant
difference. The product used in this study was designed to mimic the oligosaccharide content
of human milk, and was added at a concentration of 0.8 grams per 100 ml.27
Although supplementation with 400 IU of vitamin
E per day has been reported in anecdotal accounts to alleviate eczema,28
research has not supported this effect.29 Moreover, rare cases of topical vitamin E
potentially causing eczema have appeared.30 People with eczema should not
expect vitamin E to be helpful with their condition.
A double-blind trial reported that use of a hypoallergenic infant formula plus probiotics (500 million organisms of
Lactobacillus GG bacteria per gram of formula, taken for one month) initially led to
improvement in eczema symptoms in infants with suspected allergy to cow's milk.31 However, by the end of two
months, both the group receiving Lactobacillus GG and the placebo group had improved
approximately the same amount. In the same report, a preliminary trial giving 20 billion
lactobacilli twice per day to breast-feeding
mothers led to significant improvement of their allergic infants’ eczema after one
month. However, another double-blind trial found that Lactobacillus GG was no more effective
than a placebo in infants with mild to moderate eczema.32 In another double-blind
trial, a different probiotic preparation (1 billion organisms of Lactobacillus
fermentum VRI-033 PCC taken twice a day) reduced the severity of eczema in a group of
young children with moderate or severe eczema.33 Probiotics may reduce allergic reactions by improving digestion, by helping
the intestinal tract control the absorption of food allergens, and/or by changing immune
In 1989, Medical World News reported that researchers from the University of Texas
found that vitamin C, at 50–75 mg per
2.2 pounds of body weight, reduced symptoms of eczema in a double-blind trial.34 In
theory, vitamin C might be beneficial in treating eczema by affecting the immune system, but further research has yet to
investigate any role for this vitamin in people with eczema.
Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.
Herbs that may be helpful
The table below summarizes the three categories of herbs used for people with eczema:
anti-inflammatories and herbs that affect the immune system (immunomodulators), astringents
(herbs that bind fluids and exudates), and herbs that affect the liver (also called
alteratives). Alterative herbs are poorly researched. Astringents are only helpful if applied
topically when weeping eczema is present; they will not help people with dry eczema.
|Mechanism of Action
|Anti-inflammatory and/or immunomodulator
||Allium cepa, Calendula, chamomile, chickweed, licorice,
onion, Zemaphyte® Chinese herbal formula
|Astringent (helps dry up weeping lesions)
||Oak, witch hazel (also anti-inflammatory)
||Burdock, red clover, sarsaparilla, wild oats
Zemaphyte®, a traditional Chinese herbal preparation that includes licorice as well as nine other herbs, has been
successful in treating childhood and adult eczema in double-blind trials.35
36 37 One or two packets of the combination is mixed in hot water and taken
once per day. Because one study included the same amount of licorice in both the placebo and
the active medicine, it is unlikely that licorice is the main active component of
Several Chinese herbal creams for eczema have been found to be adulterated with steroids.
The authors of one study found that 8 of 11 Chinese herbal creams purchased without
prescription in England contained a powerful steroid drug used to treat inflammatory skin
A cream prepared with witch hazel and phosphatidylcholine has been reported to be as
effective as 1% hydrocortisone in the topical management of eczema, according to one
Topical applications of chamomile have been
shown to be moderately effective in the treatment of eczema.41 42 One
trial found it to be about 60% as effective as 0.25% hydrocortisone cream.43
In a double-blind trial, people with eczema applied a cream containing an extract of St. John’s wort to the affected areas on
one side of the body, and a placebo (the same cream without the St. John’s wort) to the
other side. The treatment was administered twice a day for four weeks. The severity of the
eczema improved to a significantly greater extent on the side treated with St. John’s
wort than on the side treated with placebo.44 Although the mechanism by which St.
John’s wort relieves eczema is not known, it might be due to the anti-inflammatory and
antibacterial effects of hyperforin, one of its constituents. The cream used in this study
contained 5% of an extract of St. John’s wort (standardized to 1.5% hyperforin). As
topical application of St. John’s wort can cause sensitivity to the sun, care should be
taken to avoid excessive sun exposure when using this treatment.
Onion injections into the skin and topical
onion applications have been shown to inhibit skin inflammation in people with eczema,
according to one double-blind trial.45 The quantity or form of onion that might be
most effective is unknown.
A Japanese topical ointment called Shiunko has been reported to help improve symptoms of
eczema, according to preliminary research.46 The ointment contains sesame oil and
four herbs (Lithospermum radix, Angelica radix, Cera alba and
Adeps suillus) and was applied twice daily along with petrolatum and 3.5% salt water for
three weeks. Clinical improvement was seen in four of the seven people using Shiunko.
Topical preparations containing calendula,
chickweed, or oak bark47 have been used traditionally to
treat people with eczema but none of these has been studied in scientific research focusing on
people with eczema.
Radiation therapy for breast cancer frequently causes painful dermatitis at the radiation
site. In a study of women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer, those who topically
applied Calendula officinalis had
significantly fewer cases of severe dermatitis, compared with those who used a standard
medication.48 Calendula treatment was begun after the first radiation session and
was applied twice a day or more, depending on whether dermatitis or pain occurred.
Burdock, sarsaparilla, red clover, and wild oats have been used historically to treat people
with eczema, but without scientific investigation.
Though it has not been studied, theoretically
shelled hemp seed or its oil may be useful for people with eczema due to its content of
essential fatty acids.49
Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.
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