Topical creams containing powerful steroids are considered de rigueur in the conventional treatment of eczema. As with many drug solutions, these ointments bring with them a host of side-effects. The US Food and Drug Administration recently issued a public health advisory (see www.fda.gov/cder/drug/advisory/elidel_protopic.htm) on the long-term safety of two leading brands of eczema creams, Elidel (pimecrolimus) and Protopic (tacrolimus), after animal studies revealed that the ointments led to the development of skin cancer and lymphomas.
However, there is herbal help in the search for safer, drug-free alternatives.
* Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is traditionally used as a liver tonic as it contains the powerful liver-protecting ingredient silymarin. It supports the liver's defences against tissue-damaging free radicals and inhibits the production of histamine, the protein involved in many allergic reactions, including eczema.
* Globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is another plant that protects and supports the liver. Like milk thistle - they share similar constituents - artichoke regulates the production of inflammatory substances that contribute to eczema.
* Aloe vera, chamomile and lavender, all known for their soothing properties, can help when applied as a herbal cream.
* Viola tricolor, or wild pansy, is a traditional folk remedy that is supposed to be effective for early childhood itchy-skin conditions such as cradlecap, milkcrust and infantile eczema (British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part 2, 1979: 227).
* Burdock (Arctium lappa) is another traditional medicine claimed to have cleansing and purifying qualities that can help relieve skin eruptions and tame inflammation.
* Lupin (Lupinus termis or albus) seeds are traditionally used in some African countries for treating eczema. One double-blind study compared an ointment containing extract of Lupinus termis with corticoid therapy and a placebo. The results showed that the herbal ointment was as effective for treating chronic eczema as was the drug (J Nat Prod, 1981; 44: 179-83).
* Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) benefits extend to also include helping eczema sufferers. When comparing the effectiveness of topical liquorice gel preparations (containing glycyrrhizinic acid standardised to about 20 per cent) for reducing the symptoms of atopic dermatitis, researchers found that the higher concentration (2 per cent) was more effective than the 1 per cent formulation (Dermatol Treat, 2003; 14: 153-7).