Have you ever seen a dermatologist for the treatment of eczema? Or psoriasis? Or a "mystery" rash? Sometimes it seems like no matter what skin condition you have, the doctor will simply send you home with a steroid cream or ointment.
Topical steroids are powerful medicines that can often provide immediate relief for itching and inflammation. There are certainly times when they are of great benefit. So, you may ask — why look for an alternative?
As a practitioner of holistic dermatology, my answer is twofold. First, topical steroids don't get to the root of the problem. They can often tame a red and angry flare-up, but relief is temporary. They don't address the underlying cause, prevention, or even a real cure. The most effective way to heal the skin is to create changes from within.
Second, topical steroids have serious side effects, especially when used long term or in too strong of a dose. Steroid atrophy is a condition I see often in my practice. Someone who has suffered with long-term eczema, for example, will have areas on their body where the skin has become paper thin. Blood vessels can be seen in detail, as the skin has become almost transparent. Other side effects include easy bruising, changes in pigmentation, and striae (stretch marks) that are permanent and irreversible.
Alternatives commonly used in holistic medicine include:
1. Borage seed oil
Borage seed oil can be taken internally (in capsules) or used topically. It has been shown to benefit seborrheic dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis, reducing both inflammation and redness. Used topically, it has anti-inflammatory effects, moisturizes the skin, and strengthens the skin barrier. This ability to lock in moisture helps stop itching.
A superstar remedy for the skin, camomile is effective for soothing bug bites, healing wounds and relieving skin infections and rashes. It helps alleviate pain from hemorrhoids and has powerful anti-itching properties. It is commonly used in the treatment of eczema, although needs to be introduced slowly as it can trigger allergies. Avoid camomile if you're allergic to ragweed — the two plants are in the same family.
Camomile creams and ointments are widely available, or just brew a very strong mug of camomile tea, pour onto a washcloth and use as a compress on affected areas of the skin. Drink a mug while you're at it — a cup before bed makes for wonderful night's sleep.
3. Tamanu nut oil
This rich oil is extracted from the seeds of a South Pacific evergreen tree. It reduces inflammation, alleviates pain, has antibacterial properties and encourages the growth of new skin cells. It is used in acne, eczema, psoriasis, shingles, scrapes and cuts, but should be avoided by anyone with a nut allergy.
Although this oil can be used at full strength, I find it to be a very "active" oil and can be irritating to some when used in its pure form. I always recommend diluting it at 50% with a carrier oil such as almond oil, olive oil or sunflower oil.
4. Sea buckthorn oil
Sea buckthorn oil is a deep-orange oil that comes from the berry of the sea buckthorn plant. The benefits to the skin are wide-ranging. It helps in the healing of chronic conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. It also benefits burns — including sunburns and radiation burns for those undergoing cancer treatment.
To use topically, dilute the pure oil with a carrier oil such as jojoba, avocado or almond. A small amount of sea buckthorn oil goes a long way. I recommend using it at a strength of 10% or less.
5. Black striped snake
When I have a patient with severe, chronic itching that's really driving her crazy, I ask them if they'd be OK including black striped snake (Zaocys dhumnades) as part of the internal herbal blend they're taking. Although it sounds like an ingredient reserved just for the hard-core holistic warriors out there, there are a lot of people who jump on board, willing to do anything to stop the itch. This nontoxic, dried snake has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, and is truly an outstanding ingredient to stop itching. It's always used as part of a blend (never on its own), and comes in powdered form, so it's really not as gross as it sounds. It's also sustainable — raised on government-regulated farms — and effective. Medical researchers publishing in the Shanghai Journal of Immunology found Zaocys dhumnades successful in treating some kinds of rheumatoid arthritis.
Although all these remedies are natural, that doesn't mean they are safe and effective for everyone. For those with sensitive skin, especially atopic eczema sufferers, make sure you test any new topical product. Use a small amount of the oil or herb wash on a test area before applying to skin lesions, rashes or sensitive areas.