Corticosteroids ('steroids' for short) are anti-inflammatory medicines that combat various health conditions. Particularly within Western medicine, topical steroids form the cornerstone of conventional eczema treatment, working to reduce eczema inflammation and itchiness to encourage skin repair.
Despite the popularity of this anti-inflammatory therapy, however, the excessive or long-term use of corticosteroids can interrupt the skin's normal barrier function, resulting in problematic side effects.
With this in mind, formulating an eczema treatment plan can feel overwhelming. There are so many alternative pathways toward healthy skin, each with its unique benefits and concerns. To help you make a more informed decision about what's best for you, we're here to explore everything you need to know about using steroids, including:
How topical steroid creams are used to treat eczema flares
The potential side-effects associated with steroids
Alternative steroid-free methods for treating eczema
Keep reading to learn more about steroid-free solutions for dry and itchy skin.
How Do Steroids Treat Eczema?
Corticosteroids have been specially designed to resemble the body's natural hormone 'cortisol', released during infection and stress to help regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels. These medicines can be taken both orally or topically (applied directly to the skin's affected area). More than thirty types of corticosteroids are on the market today, ranging from low-potency to high-potency and ultra-high-potency.
In severe eczema (or atopic dermatitis), topical steroids calm the body's immune system activity and reduce eczema inflammation. While these medicines cannot address the underlying causes of the skin condition, they do help to ease its most troublesome symptom: severe itching.
In the short-term, therefore, a topical corticosteroid can help grant irritated skin the crucial time that it needs to properly heal.
Are Steroids Bad For The Skin?
While generally safe, it is important to recognize that steroids are not fit for overuse or suitable for all patients with atopic dermatitis. Indeed, topical corticosteroid phobia is on the rise, with increasing numbers of people harboring negative feelings and concerns about the potential side effects of using steroids to treat atopic eczema.
So, what are the dangers of using topical steroids?
Especially when used longer term, these medications may cause irreversible skin thinning.
Changes to your skin pigmentation
Strong topical steroids, when taken for long periods of time without breaks, can lead to topical steroid withdrawal syndrome. In these cases, applying steroids to dry skin causes burning, stinging, and skin discoloration, including swelling, skin blisters, and deep pimples and may lead to Red Skin Syndrome.
Topical medications work by being absorbed through the skin's barrier, meaning that traces of these medications may enter your bloodstream and body system.
Particularly with high-potency steroids, these medications may suppress your overall immune system function over time, making you more susceptible to infection or illness.
Treating Eczema Without Steroids: Is It Possible?
Despite the conventionality of topical steroid treatment for dry skin syndrome, there are many effective, steroid-free atopic eczema treatments to be considered as alternatives:
Topical Calcineurin Inhibitors
Topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs) are prescription medications that work by stopping the activity of specific immune system cells, relieving itching and skin discoloration.
While these creams benefit from being steroid-free, topical calcineurin inhibitors tend to be expensive. The American Food and Drug Administration has also raised concerns about the potential link between TCIs and an increased risk of developing blood cancers, although some research studies dispute this.
Because this otc eczema therapy works by actively suppressing immune system activity, it is important to note that TCIs are unsuitable for neonatal skin care, young children, or anyone immunosuppressed.
We would urge you to consult your dermatologist or doctor to discern whether topical calcineurin inhibitors suit you.
Plant-Based Treatment Alternatives
Not only do our diets benefit from embracing more plant-based goodness, but our skincare too. An impaired skin barrier is one of the main exasperating factors for eczema flares, so it is vital to moisturize itchy skin with ingredients like aloe vera.
Natural oils can provide a nourishing alternative to topical corticosteroids:
Topical Virgin Coconut Oil
Coconut oil may be used as a natural form of atopic dermatitis management to moisturize the skin deeply and to keep the skin's bacterial community in check.
Topical Sunflower Seed Oil
As well as helping to lock in the skin's moisture, sunflower seed oil demonstrates anti-inflammatory properties, helping to soothe itching and restore the skin's barrier while influencing skin smoothness. Try these remedies from Emily Skin Soothers that contain healing balms with a base of sunflower oil plus added Chinese herbs: Hot Skin Soother and Super Dry Skin Soother.
Our Coconut and Sunflower Oil Soap Bar is also a great option to smooth, comfort, and soften your skin.
Shea Butter Extract
Deriving from the nut of the African Karite tree, for hundreds of years, shea butter has been shown to possess potent skin protective characteristics, including botanical anti-inflammatory agents. This makes shea butter an effective tool for combating severe eczema and skin toning.
Topical Virgin Olive Oils
Topical olive oil again offers significant moisturizing properties and many people see great relief using it, especially when combined with other healing ingredients like Manuka honey. In fact, check out our best-selling Organic Manuka Skin Soothing Cream, which features olive oil as the base carrier oil.
Topical Borage Seed Oil
Although this natural oil contains fatty acids that are deficient in the skin of people with eczema, like virgin olive oil, topical and oral borage seed oil tends to be less effective than coconut oil, sunflower seed oil, and shea butter.
Do Plant-Based Treatments Still Cause Side Effects?
Unfortunately, despite being natural, even plant-based remedies are not totally without risks.
For example, natural oils may trigger allergic contact dermatitis, an itchy rash caused by direct contact with an allergen substance, such as certain fabrics, jewelry, or plant extracts.
This can cause the skin to itch, blister, and crack in severe cases.
To help avoid allergic contact dermatitis, we recommend you do a small patch test on unaffected skin before using natural oils as a topical treatment for eczema flares.
Moisturizers and Wet Wraps
Emollients, commonly called moisturizers, are fatty or oily creams used to treat dry skin by trapping moisture in the skin's top layer or epidermis and replenishing the skin's water content. This is especially vital for patients with atopic dermatitis, where skin barrier dysfunction causes the skin to lose water, weakening the skin's resiliency, smoothness, and stretchiness rapidly.
To nourish dry skin deeply and naturally, we'd again recommend using our Organic Manuka Skin Soothing Cream. This non-sticky, non-burning remedy harnesses the natural, antibacterial power of Manuka honey to soothe even the most irritated skin. This buttery-soft cream is dermatologist tested and produced with absolutely zero added preservatives or fragrances, making it effective for use anywhere on the body and safe even for babies.
To help your skin retain even more moisture after bathing or showering, we would also suggest switching your regular soap for herbal creams and gentle, natural alternatives such as the Chinese Herbal Eczema Bundle. Made with the highest quality Chinese herbs, these balms and soaps have been specially designed to gently soothe eczema, psoriasis, and sensitive and itchy skin.
In cases of severe eczema, emollient treatment may also be combined with the traditional hydrotherapy technique of wet wrapping.
Here, moisturizer is generously applied to wet skin after bathing, after which the body is then wrapped in slightly damp clothes, towels, or gentle fabrics, with a dry layer of clothes on top. This intensive therapy helps lock in the skin's moisture over several hours or overnight, relieving eczema symptoms.
Using one of the natural balms mentioned above, we suggest wet wrapping with these Remedywear™ Sleeves and Bandages. They are made from eco-friendly TENCEL and embedded with zinc oxide, which offers antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. They are perfect for spot-treating difficult areas like the elbows' creases and the knees' bends.
Embrace Steroid-Free Alternatives for Eczema Today
Use these tips, guidance, and information to help you discern the best way to treat your eczema today.