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5 alternatives to steroids for eczema

Steroids work well to treat eczema, but there are many side effects that can be concerning. Generally, steroids are safe to use but overuse can lead to side effects such as skin thinning.[1] Several studies show that many people are concerned about using topical steroids with estimates of “steroid worry” ranging from 38% to 81% of people.[2-4] When used appropriately, steroids are both safe and effective, but a growing number of people are seeking alternatives to steroids.

Here are five non-steroidal treatments for eczema to consider:

Alternative #1: Slightly Damp Clothes and Emollients

alternative to steroid - Alternative #1: Slightly Damp Clothes and Emollients

Credit: Daniel Mietchen at Wikimedia Common

Dry, itchy skin is a key characteristic of eczema. Emollients, commonly called moisturizers, are fatty or oily creams and ointments that help to retain moisture in the skin and reduce the amount of water loss. Wet wrapping is a type of hydrotherapy that has been used to treat dry skin for generations. After bathing, an emollient is applied over the wet skin and then wrapped in wet towels. Wet wrapping with emollients itself can reduce dry skin in eczema.[5]

In some cases, wet wrapping can be used with steroids to make it more effective when the eczema is flared. Wet wrapping allows for weaker steroids to be used because the wet wrapping can make the steroid work more effectively. Many physicians have used this method with topical steroids to reduce flares.[6] Chinese medical practitioners and naturopaths will also use this method in combination with herbal creams.

It is important to have the guidance of a qualified health provider when applying, as to avoid side effects of treatment.

Alternative #2: Use of Natural Oils for Eczema

The use of natural oils on the skin is becoming increasingly popular as a simple alternative to steroid cream to moisturize the skin. The good news is that several studies have been performed to look at how well natural oils work on those with eczema:

Seem to be helpful:

Topical coconut oil has been shown to improve eczema (superior to olive oil)[7,8] and have antibacterial effects.

Topical Sunflower Seed Oil was shown to be helpful when used in those with eczema.[9] This study compared it to olive oil and showed that sunflower seed oil was superior to olive oil. Sunflower seed oil is rich in linoleic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties and helps maintain the skin’s normal barrier function.[10]

Topical Borage Seed Oil has been shown to be beneficial when used with a coated undershirt. Those who wore a coated undershirt experienced reduced itching and redness of the skin.[11] Borage oil contains Gamma Linoleic Acid, a fatty acid in the skin that is deficient in those with eczema.

Do not seem to be helpful

Oral Borage Oil does not seem to improve eczema.[12-14]

Topical Olive Oil was not helpful when used on the skin and actually led the skin to worsen.[9] In head-to-head studies, it has been shown to be worse than either sunflower seed oil[9] or coconut oil.[7,8]

Use of Natural Oils for Eczema

Credit: Chiot

Alternative #3: Use of Shea Butter for Eczema

Alternative #3: Use of Shea Butter for Eczema

Credit: echoesofstars at

Shea butter comes from the nut of the African Karite tree. It has long been used as a traditional remedy for dry and itchy skin, skin toning, and anti-aging practices. Shea butter contains many fatty acids that help nourish dry skin, encourage skin repair, and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and skin protective characteristics.[16] Read more about the science of shea butter.

Shea butter containing creams have been shown to reduce eczema inflammation and irritation.[17-19] One small case report has shown that shea butter was better than petroleum jelly at reducing eczema and influencing skin smoothness.[20]

Alternative #4: Use of Calcineurin Inhibitor Medications

While steroids are the mainstay of anti-inflammatory therapy for the skin, the calcineurin inhibitor medications are an alternative anti-inflammatory that is also effective for treating eczema.[21-23] The two forms of topical calcineurin inhibitors are known as tacrolimus (brand name Protopic®) and pimecrolimus (brand name Elidel®). The calcineurin inhibitors are more potent than mild topical steroids but less potent than strong topical steroids.[21,22] A large meta-analysis review (where the authors look at multiple studies to put together the evidence) showed that tacrolimus may be more potent than pimecrolimus when used for eczema.[22]

Calcineurin inhibitor medications require a prescription and should be discussed with a physician. Dermatologists will use calcineurin inhibitors as an alternative to topical steroids so that steroid use can be reduced. 

se of Calcineurin Inhibitor Medications

Credit: Meiloorun at Wikimedia Commons

One of the drawbacks with topical calcineurin inhibitors is that they tend to be more expensive than steroids based on each patient’s insurance plan. One of the controversial concerns with topical calcineurin inhibitors is that they may be associated with a higher risk of developing cancers. However, studies have shown that there is no overall increase in the development of cancers with the use of topical calcineurin inhibitors.[24,25] 

Alternative #5: Regular Use of Dilute Bleach Baths

The skin has a natural community of bacteria on the skin known as the microbiome. People with healthy skin tend to have a diverse microbiome, meaning that they have many different bacteria that are present in a balanced way. However, the community of bacteria on the skin is constantly shifting in those with eczema. During eczema flares, the skin’s bacterial community becomes dominant in Staphylococcus aureus,[27,28] although it is not clear[29] if S. aureus is a direct cause for eczema to worsen. Nevertheless, bleach baths are touted as an effective way of keeping the skin’s bacteria in check to prevent any one bacteria from growing out of control.

Dilute bleach baths are similar to a swimming pool. To make a dilute bleach bath:

Mix ¼ cup of household bleach (typically contains 3-6% chlorine at the time of manufacture) into a full adult bathtub of water (40 gallons). Bleach baths should last approximately 10 minutes and should be done two to three times weekly. The skin should be thoroughly rinsed with plain water at the end of the soak. After gently patting the skin dry, apply a moisturizer within 2-3 minutes to retain moisture in the skin.

Are Steroids Bad for the Skin?

It depends. If steroids are overused, they can cause side effects. However, they are also effective at controlling eczema. Steroids should never be used as the only approach to treat eczema. They should be used along with other approaches, such as those described above. The approaches described here can be used as a way to reduce steroid usage. When an outbreak of eczema is bad, it is important to discuss steroids as an effective option in the treatment plan when seeing a healthcare professional.

Learn more about eczema in children from eczema expert and board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Vivian Shi or by joining the Integrative Dermatology Symposium.

* This blog is for general skin, beauty, wellness, and health information only. This post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.Integrative Dermatology Symposium.


1. Bower AJ, Arp Z, Zhao Y, et al. Longitudinal in vivo tracking of adverse effects following topical steroid treatment. Exp Dermatol.2016;25(5):362-367; PMID: 26739196.

2. Lee JY, Her Y, Kim CW, et al. Topical Corticosteroid Phobia among Parents of Children with Atopic Eczema in Korea. Ann Dermatol.2015;27(5):499-506; PMID: 26512163.

3. Kojima R, Fujiwara T, Matsuda A, et al. Factors associated with steroid phobia in caregivers of children with atopic dermatitis. Pediatr Dermatol.2013;30(1):29-35; PMID: 22747965.

4. Aubert-Wastiaux H, Moret L, Le Rhun A, et al. Topical corticosteroid phobia in atopic dermatitis: a study of its nature, origins and frequency. Br J Dermatol.2011;165(4):808-814; PMID: 21671892.

5. Lodén M, Maibach HI. Treatment of dry skin syndrome : the art and science of moisturizers. Heidelberg: Springer; 2012.

6. Nicol NH, Boguniewicz M. Successful strategies in atopic dermatitis management. Dermatol Nurs.2008;Suppl:3-18; quiz 19; PMID: 19102292.

7. Evangelista MT, Abad-Casintahan F, Lopez-Villafuerte L. The effect of topical virgin coconut oil on SCORAD index, transepidermal water loss, and skin capacitance in mild to moderate pediatric atopic dermatitis: a randomized, double-blind, clinical trial. Int J Dermatol.2014;53(1):100-108; PMID: 24320105.

8. Verallo-Rowell VM, Dillague KM, Syah-Tjundawan BS. Novel antibacterial and emollient effects of coconut and virgin olive oils in adult atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis.2008;19(6):308-315; PMID: 19134433.

9. Danby SG, AlEnezi T, Sultan A, et al. Effect of olive and sunflower seed oil on the adult skin barrier: implications for neonatal skin care. Pediatr Dermatol.2013;30(1):42-50; PMID: 22995032.

10. Ziboh VA, Miller CC, Cho Y. Metabolism of polyunsaturated fatty acids by skin epidermal enzymes: generation of antiinflammatory and antiproliferative metabolites. Am J Clin Nutr.2000;71(1 Suppl):361S-366S; PMID: 10617998.

11. Kanehara S, Ohtani T, Uede K, et al. Clinical effects of undershirts coated with borage oil on children with atopic dermatitis: a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. J Dermatol.2007;34(12):811-815; PMID: 18078406.

12. Bamford JT, Ray S, Musekiwa A, et al. Oral evening primrose oil and borage oil for eczema. Cochrane Database Syst Rev.2013;10.1002/14651858.CD004416.pub2(4):CD004416; PMID: 23633319.

13. Takwale A, Tan E, Agarwal S, et al. Efficacy and tolerability of borage oil in adults and children with atopic eczema: randomised, double blind, placebo controlled, parallel group trial. BMJ.2003;327(7428):1385; PMID: 14670885.

14. Henz BM, Jablonska S, van de Kerkhof PC, et al. Double-blind, multicentre analysis of the efficacy of borage oil in patients with atopic eczema. Br J Dermatol.1999;140(4):685-688; PMID: 10233322.

15. Lakshmi C. Allergic Contact Dermatitis (Type IV Hypersensitivity) and Type I Hypersensitivity Following Aromatherapy with Ayurvedic Oils (Dhanwantharam Thailam, Eladi Coconut Oil) Presenting as Generalized Erythema and Pruritus with Flexural Eczema. Indian J Dermatol.2014;59(3):283-286; PMID: 24891661.

16. Akihisa T, Kojima N, Kikuchi T, et al. Anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive effects of triterpene cinnamates and acetates from shea fat. J Oleo Sci.2010;59(6):273-280; PMID: 20484832.

17. Draelos ZD. A pilot study investigating the efficacy of botanical anti-inflammatory agents in an OTC eczema therapy. J Cosmet Dermatol.2016;15(2):117-119; PMID: 26596512.

18. Hon KL, Tsang YC, Pong NH, et al. Patient acceptability, efficacy, and skin biophysiology of a cream and cleanser containing lipid complex with shea butter extract versus a ceramide product for eczema. Hong Kong Med J.2015;21(5):417-425; PMID: 26314567.

19. Seite S, Flores GE, Henley JB, et al. Microbiome of affected and unaffected skin of patients with atopic dermatitis before and after emollient treatment. J Drugs Dermatol.2014;13(11):1365-1372; PMID: 25607704.

20. Essengue Belibi SS, D; Olson, N. J. The Use of Shea Butter as an Emollient for Eczema. ournal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, suppl. Supplement.123(2):S41; PMID.

21. Cury Martins J, Martins C, Aoki V, et al. Topical tacrolimus for atopic dermatitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev.2015;10.1002/14651858.CD009864.pub2(7):CD009864; PMID: 26132597.

22. Ashcroft DM, Chen LC, Garside R, et al. Topical pimecrolimus for eczema. Cochrane Database Syst Rev.2007;10.1002/14651858.CD005500.pub2(4):CD005500; PMID: 17943859.

23. Nankervis H, Thomas KS, Delamere FM, et al. What is the evidence-base for atopic eczema treatments? A summary of published randomised controlled trials. Br J Dermatol.2016;10.1111/bjd.14999PMID: 27547965.

24. Cai SC, Li W, Tian EA, et al. Topical calcineurin inhibitors in eczema and cancer association: A cohort study. J Dermatolog Treat.2016;27(6):531-537; PMID: 27049893.

25. Hui RL, Lide W, Chan J, et al. Association between exposure to topical tacrolimus or pimecrolimus and cancers. Ann Pharmacother.2009;43(12):1956-1963; PMID: 19903860.

26. Dybboe R, Bandier J, Skov L, et al. The Role of the Skin Microbiome in Atopic Dermatitis: A Systematic Review. Br J Dermatol.2017;10.1111/bjd.15390PMID: 28207943.

27. Salava A, Lauerma A. Role of the skin microbiome in atopic dermatitis. Clin Transl Allergy.2014;4:33; PMID: 25905004.

28. Kong HH, Oh J, Deming C, et al. Temporal shifts in the skin microbiome associated with disease flares and treatment in children with atopic dermatitis. Genome Res.2012;22(5):850-859; PMID: 22310478.

29. Marrs T, Flohr C. The role of skin and gut microbiota in the development of atopic eczema. Br J Dermatol.2016;175 Suppl 2:13-18; PMID: 27667310.

Learn more about eczema in children from eczema expert and board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Vivian Shi or by joining the Integrative Dermatology Symposium.

* This blog is for general skin, beauty, wellness, and health information only. This post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.Integrative Dermatology Symposium.