Itching to learn about eczema?
“Do you have an herbal formula for eczema? Commercial prescription creams are steroids and actually thin the skin.”
Eczema is a skin disorder that afflicts approximately 10% of the United States population (National Eczema Foundation). Steroids are a common medical treatment that can relieve pain and inflammation for acute cases, but they do not address the underlying problem.
There are, indeed, herbs that are indicated – topically and internally – for eczema. Before we dive into these, however, it is useful to understand eczema’s causes. (Side note: I often get asked ‘What’s the difference between eczema and psoriasis?’ Visit my latest Green Haven Living blog post to learn how the two have different causes and thus need to be addressed with different strategies.)
Eczema manifests itself as a red, edematous (fluid-filled) rash, sometimes with oozing plaque in advanced cases. It is often itchy and uncomfortable, the scratching of which can exacerbate the problem. Eczema is thought to be caused by an allergic reaction, which could be to something ingested (as in a food or drug), or something directly coming in contact with the skin (hence the alternate name ‘contact dermatitis’).
Additionally, it is now believed that some forms of contact dermatitis can be caused by a defect in the skin barrier system that prevents invaders. In these cases where the ‘keratinocyte barrier function’ is compromised, the disorder is known as atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is thought to be genetic.
For long-term management, eczema can be mitigated by identifying the offending trigger and avoiding it. Unfortunately, however, this is easier said than done as there are endless possibilities in today’s modern, toxin-filled world. Even so, for those with atopic dermatitis, these individuals are susceptible to contact allergic reactions due to the compromised skin barrier.
As herbalists, we employ herbs with specific actions that address the symptoms and causes of eczema. For topical use, herbs that are anti-inflammatory, vulnerary (wound/skin-healing), and demulcent (soothing on contact) are appropriate for application directly on the rash. Internally, anti-histamine herbs can alleviate some of the itch. A special class of herbs with the somewhat mysterious name of ‘alteratives’ (and equally mysterious mechanism of action!) are imperative in addressing skin challenges. Sometimes known as ‘blood purifiers’, alteratives aid in the detoxification processes that break down unwanted, foreign substances. At this point, lymphatic herbs step in to move the metabolic ‘garbage’ left over from these processes out of the body to clear the offending substance and reduce the allergic response.
Specifically, for internal use:
Anti-histamines: stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), Baical skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) – not to be confused with ‘common’ skullcap, which is Scutellaria lateriflora
Alteratives: burdock root (Arctium lappa), yellow dock (Rumex crispus), sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.)
Lymphatics: poke root (Phytolacca americana)*, calendula (Calendula officinalis), red root (Ceanothus spp.)
*poke root is a ‘low dose’, potentially toxic herb. Use sparingly, preferably under the care of a trained professional.
For topical use, I recently came across a commercial product that has just about all the herbs I would recommend for eczema. It’s called Eczacalm, from Moon Valley Organics. Here’s what’s in it, along with several carrier oils and beeswax:
Anti-inflammatories: St. John’s wort (Hypericum officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria officinalis), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Vulneraries: comfrey (Symphytum officinalis), calendula (Calendula officinalis), plantain (Plantago major)
Demulcents: colloidal oats (Avena sativa), aloe (Aloe vera)
Alterative: burdock root (Arctium lappa)
Supports regeneration of skin cells: horsetail (Equisitum arvense)
In summary, for best results I recommend both an internal and external approach. A tea with nettles, sarsaparilla, and calendula would be nice, for example, to pair up with a cream such as the one described above. Don’t forget to do a little investigative work to see if the trigger(s) can be identified as avoiding these can go a long way to healthier skin!
Donna Koczaja, M.S., RH(AHG) graduated from Maryland University of Integrative Health (formerly Tai Sophia Institute) with a Master of Science in Therapeutic Herbalism and a Post-Master's Certificate in Clinical Herbalism. She earned Registered Herbalist status from the American Herbalists’ Guild in 2018. Originally educated as a mechanical engineer, she combines the rigor of her original scientific training with the traditional healing art of herbal medicine to partner with her clients to uncover the root cause of their underlying health issues. Also a Master Gardener since 2008, her primary interest is in inspiring others to improve their health and sense of wellbeing through the joys of gardening and the power of natural medicine.
Donna currently practices as the professional herbalist at the MUIH Natural Care Center (410-888-9048x6614) in Laurel, Maryland, and can also do remote consultations from anywhere! Read more about her, what she does, and why she does it at www.greenhavenliving.com, or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 240-353-8754.