Eczema affects millions of people across America — according to the National Eczema Association, over 10 percent of the U.S. population (31.6 million) deal with a form of the condition. Every day, people with eczema experience red, itchy, oozing skin that is painfully sensitive. In addition to the redness and sensitivity, the skin can also become thickened, scaly, and cracked. Patients that receive the diagnosis are often embarrassed by their condition and do what they can to keep their skin covered up. The exact cause of eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is unknown but is thought to be related to a gene mutation. The Mayo Clinic states that flare ups can occur at any point throughout life, with some patients experiencing frequent flare ups and others going years without showing any symptoms.
According to a 2018 study from researchers at the University of Colorado, cannabis (and CBD in particular) has the potential to become a powerful new treatment for eczema. As Dr. Robert Delavelle, one of the study’s lead authors, told The Independent, “There’s a large segment of the population that doesn’t like using steroids, even if they are topical steroids on their skin. CBD could be an alternative, natural product for them to try.”
However, the continued stigma around the cannabis plant has prevented many with eczema from using the plant to find relief. To solve for this, education (both among doctors and patients) needs to be more widespread. As the movement to normalize cannabis continues — and CBD becomes more widely available worldwide — patients will be able to benefit from the anti-itch, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties found in cannabis. For those living with eczema, the plant may offer a largely side effect-free way to manage their condition.
Cannabis topicals may offer the most effective method to do this. Vaping or smoking cannabis (or the use of edibles) may not provide the desired effect because they do not generally make direct contact with the skin’s integumentary system, a network of receptors that help the skin achieve cutaneous homeostasis, or cellular balance. Cannabis topicals, on the other hand, are able to activate these receptors quickly and effectively, making them better-suited to providing swift relief from eczema symptoms.
Choosing the right cannabis topical for eczema is important, and taking a careful look at the list of ingredients is a good place to start. Ideally, the product should be all-natural and free of artificial fragrances. This is because eczema causes sensitivity due to the impaired skin barrier, and artificial ingredients are more likely to increase flare ups. Preservatives should also be avoided whenever possible. These are commonly found in skin and body care products because they increase the products’ shelf life — however, they can also irritate sensitive skin. Another ingredient to avoid is alcohol (in any form), since it dries out the skin and can cause severe irritation. According to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cetyl alcohol is particularly irritating for eczema-afflicted skin.
Patients should also seek a product that is free of artificial dyes. Dyes are problematic for several reasons, but they’re especially harmful for eczema patients. A 2017 study in the journal Contact Dermatitis found that artificial dyes could provoke major allergic reactions — and the goal of a cannabis topical should be the relief, not aggravation, of symptoms.
It’s also important to avoid sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), an ingredient we are hearing more and more about in recent years. In 2013, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) released an official warning regarding aqueous creams that contain the ingredient, stating that, “they may cause skin irritation, particularly in children with eczema, possibly due to sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which is a known skin irritant.”
But what should a good cannabis topical for treating eczema contain? Ideally, the product should be made with organic and natural ingredients. This minimizes the chances of unwanted side effects and lets the topical’s phytocannabinoids (plant-derived chemical compounds) interact with the skin’s endocannabinoid system without interference.
All-natural cannabis topicals are easy to use and safe for people of all ages. Upon application, patients with eczema often feel immediate relief from itching (though this is not a universal phenomenon). Still, generally over time the redness, scaliness, dryness, and thickness begin to subside and, in some cases, disappear entirely.
During a flare up, cannabis topicals can be applied several times per day without the risk of side effects — they can be used whenever symptoms become uncomfortable. Bedtime is also a great time to re-apply the topical, since eczema symptoms often worsen at night (researchers are not sure why this happens, but it could be due to the fact that the body’s temperature tends to drop while sleeping).
Another ideal time to apply cannabis topicals is after a shower or bath, because the pores are wide open and ready to absorb the medication. The “soak and seal” method is recommended by the National Eczema Association, which involves soaking the skin for 10 minutes and then sealing in the moisture with a topical moisturizer. Since eczema patients tend to have extremely dry skin, this is essential for preventing the aggravation of symptoms.