The Most Effective Way To Get Herbal Eczema Relief Right Where You Need It Most

By Kerry Bone

I know more than a few herbalists who would argue that most people aren't using herbs in the most effective way. And I don't just mean that the doses are too low or that the formulas aren't stand-ardized. These herbalists contend that often the most effective way to use herbal remedies is to apply them topically.

Of course, the modern focus of herbal supplements tends to be on ingesting them as teas, tinctures, tablets, or capsules. And there is good evidence to support using them this way as well. But a large part of the traditional use of herbs in any culture was to apply them locally. This topical use of herbs was used to support oral hygiene, relieve muscle and joint pain, promote the healing of wounds, and treat skin problems. In fact, the topical use of herbs is far more effective and far less problem-ridden than conventional treatments for eczema.

Mainstream physicians also typically treat this annoyingly persistent, itchy rash with a topical therapy. The difference is that they often use steroid creams, which have a laundry list of side effects, not the least of which is that the patient becomes dependent on the steroid after awhile.

But there are at least six herbs-some of them you wouldn't expect - that can alleviate the inflammation and itching of eczema without these risks, saving you a lot of grief in the long run.

Chamomile steps out of the teacup

One of my favorite herbs for eczema relief is German chamomile (Chamomilla recutita). In a survey conducted in the early 1980s of nearly 2,500 doctors who prescribed chamomile cream for eczema, 95 percent reported that their patients experienced good effects and tolerated the chamomile well. The treatment decreased inflammation and allowed for a reduction in the level of topical steroids used.1 2

In another study of 161 patients suffering from rashes on their hands, forearms, and lower legs, researchers compared the effects of chamomile cream vs. steroidal and non-steroidal skin products. Over the course of three to four weeks, the chamomile cream showed similar efficacy to hydrocortisone. And it actually worked better than the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent (5% bufexamac) and the steroid preparation (0.75% fluocortin butyl ester).3

Other studies have also found chamomile cream to be slightly better for eczema than hydrocortisone creams.4

The mood-booster that heals skin lesions

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is best known for its mood-boosting abilities, especially in cases of depression. But if you use it topically, it's also a very effective remedy for eczema. In one recent study, researchers compared a cream containing St. John's wort to a placebo cream in 21 patients with mild to moderate eczema.5 The subjects applied the herbal cream to lesions on one half of the body and the placebo cream to the other. While a placebo effect was noted, the benefits of the St. John's wort cream outstripped the placebo results.

Inflammation relief inside and out

Licorice is another surprise on the list of herbal eczema relievers. But lab studies have shown that licorice has marked anti-inflammatory activity, so it makes sense that researchers have tested it for skin conditions, like eczema, that involve inflammation. They compared two different licorice gels-one containing 2 percent licorice and the other containing 1 percent-to a placebo gel for two weeks.6 The stronger of the two licorice gels was found to be quite effective.

It may not be trendy, but it works

You've probably heard of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and may have even used a liquid preparation of it when you were a teenager as a facial toner or astringent. But over the years, the skin-care market has been flooded with hundreds of other products, and witch hazel has fallen out of common use in the U.S. But it's still relatively common in Europe, and most of the recent studies on its effects have been done there.

In one of these studies, 22 patients with eczema were treated with a standardized witch hazel salve on one arm and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory cream (containing bufexamac) on the other over the course of three weeks. While the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory cream worked, the witch hazel was just as effective for improving symptoms like redness, scaling, and itching.7

The natural solution for radiation pain and skin problems

Another of my favorite herbs for eczema and other forms of dermatitis is the Calendula marigold (Calendula officinalis). One of the skin conditions calendula is most effective for is dermatitis brought on by radiation therapy. Apart from the pain and inconvenience associated with the dermatitis itself, this condition can actually interfere with the radiation, so doctors and researchers are always searching for ways to prevent it. However, there is no standard treatment for preventing radiation-induced dermatitis.

But a survey conducted in 2001 in France indicated that 1/3 of radiation oncologists prescribed some sort of preventative topical agent for women undergoing irradiation for breast cancer, and the most popular choice was the drug trolamine. So when French researchers initiated a trial of topical Calendula in patients receiving radiotherapy for breast cancer, they decided to compare its efficacy with that of trolamine.8

Between July 1999 and June 2001, 254 patients who had undergone surgery for breast cancer and who were to receive postoperative radiation therapy were randomly allocated to receive either trolamine or Calendula ointment on the irradiated areas after each session. The occurrence of more serious cases of acute dermatitis was significantly lower (41 percent vs. 63 percent) in the patients using Calendula than those using trolamine. Patients receiving Calendula also had less frequent interruption of radiotherapy and experienced significantly reduced radiation-induced pain.

The one drawback of the calendula ointment was that the patients considered it a bit more difficult to apply. But despite the minor inconvenience, those using the Calendula reported being more satisfied with their treatment than those patients using trolamine.

Make this old-standby your starting point

The last herbal eczema reliever on the list is one you've likely heard of before: the old-fashioned, traditional oatmeal bath. While no clinical studies have been done on the use of oatmeal (Avena sativa), the clinical experience of generations of herbalists testifies to its soothing effect on the skin.

And since it's so simple to use, it's probably the best starting point for you if you're suffering from eczema. You can try it in the comfort of your own home and see if it works for you before moving on to the other herbal remedies on the list.

Simply wrap about 6 to 8 oz of oatmeal in a coarse cloth bag and hold it under the tap while running a bath. The bath water will take on a milky appearance. Once the tub is full, you can place the bag of oatmeal in the bath while you bathe. Soak in the water for around 15 to 20 minutes to relieve eczema or any other kind of chronic skin inflammation.

1 Patzelt-Wenczler R. Dtsch Apoth Ztg 1985; 125(43, Suppl 1): 12-13
2 Homberg Pharma Germany, Division of Degussa: Kamillosan Scientific Information, Frankfurt
3 Aertgeerts P, Albring M, Klaschka F et al. "Comparative testing of Kamillosan cream and steroidal (0.25% hydrocortisone, 0.75% fluocortin butyl ester) and non-steroidal (5% bufexamac) dermatologic agents in maintenance therapy of eczematous diseases." Z Hautkr 1985; 60(3): 270-277
4 Patzelt-Wenczler R, Ponce-Poschl E. Eur J Med Res 2000; 5(4): 171-174
5 Schempp CM, Windeck T, Hezel S et al. Phytomed 2003; 10(Suppl 4): 31-37
6 Saeedi M, Morteza-Semnani K, Ghoreishi MR. "The treatment of atopic dermatitis with licorice gel." J Dermatolog Treat 2003; 14(3): 153-157
7 Swoboda M, Meurer J. "Therapie von Neurodermitis mit Hamamelis-virginiana-Extract in Salbenform." Z Phytother 1991; 12: 114-117
8 Pommier P, Gomez F, Sunyach MP et al. "Phase III Randomized Trial of Calendula Officinalis Compared With Trolamine for the Prevention of Acute Dermatitis During Irradiation for Breast Cancer." J Clin Oncol 2004; 22(8): 1,447-1,453

This article was published in the November, 2007 issue of the Dr. Jonathan V. Wright's Clinical Nutrition & Healing newsletter, and is presented here with permission.