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Moisturizers are an important part of eczema management. Could African shea butter serve you better than your current choice of emollient?

The use of emollients — moisturizers — is a crucial part of any eczema management regimen, one without which other steps to manage this chronic skin disease would be an awful lot less effective. What moisturizer you use for your atopic dermatitis is, then, a pretty important decision! Is your current choice really the best at minimizing eczema symptoms, or could something else serve you better?

The benefits of shea butter are numerous, with people using this rich tree butter to manage anything from wrinkles to dry skin, from chapped lips to arthritis, and from small cuts and wounds to itching. Could shea butter help you out with eczema, too?

What Is Eczema? How Is It Typically Treated?

Eczema is an umbrella term for different inflammatory skin conditions that typically result in:

  • Dry skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Skin rashes
  • Skin swelling
  • Redness

The elbows, knees, face, hands, and feet are some of the areas most commonly affected by eczema. [1] One of the most frequently seen types of eczema is atopic dermatitis. This kind of eczema often gets worse upon contacts with certain chemicals, in response to irritating fabrics, when you're exposed to changes in temperature or other things that dry the skin out, and when you suffer from stress. While allergies don't cause atopic dermatitis, many people with this kind of eczema have allergies too, and allergy season may be associated with worsened symptoms. [2]

Children are the most common victims of eczema — and research reveals that as many as one in five kids have atopic dermatitis [3]. If you've made it to adulthood without any signs of eczema, that doesn't necessarily mean you're safe, however, as atopic dermatitis can appear at any age [4]. 

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic condition — patients can take many steps to keep it under control, but none to cure the condition once and for all. This is exactly why the treatment protocols patients with eczema follow are so very important. The right steps can do an awful lot to improve your quality of life, or that of your child. 

Eczema Self-Care: A Crucial Part Of Atopic Dermatitis Management

If you have been diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, you'll probably already be really quite familiar with the most common treatment recommendations. Medical treatment options include corticosteroids (steroids) and topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs), phototherapy (UV radiation), intravenous "biologics", and in severe cases, systemic treatments like azathioprine, mycophenolate mofetil and methotrexate. [5]

Still, it's clear that self-care steps have an enormous impact on the severity of patients' eczema, and these measures fall into four basic categories [6]:

  • Recognize and avoid (wherever possible) "triggers" that worsen your eczema, such as scratchy fabrics and artificially fragranced products. 
  • Avoid scratching. 
  • Since stress can make eczema worse, try to minimize it. 
  • Establish a skin care regimen that helps you stay moisturized, minimizing symptoms. This should involve gentle non-soap cleansers, baths, and moisturizers that really work for you. 
Moisturization plays a crucial role in the management of atopic dermatitis because eczema causes moisture to be lost from your skin more easily. This allows infectious and irritating substances to enter more easily, resulting in flare-ups. Proper moisturization helps keep moisture in your skin and forms a protective layer. [7]

Common moisturizers — or specifically emollients, which soothe, hydrate, and protect the skin [8] — suggested to people with atopic dermatitis include thick creams, fragrance-free creams such as those made by Eucerin, Cetaphil, and Nutraderm, and ointments like petroleum jelly (Vaseline) and Aquaphor. [9] All these have one thing in common, namely that they're commercially manufactured. You won't often find people recommend more natural products, but that could be a mistake. 

Why You Should Consider Using African Shea Butter For Atopic Dermatitis

African shea butter comes from the seeds of Vitellaria paradoxa (African shea tree) nuts [10]. Not only is it an excellent emollient rich in antioxidants and possessing anti-inflammatory properties [11], butter made from the shea tree, which grows in many parts of Africa but primarily western Africa [12] has another property many people with eczema are bound to already be wondering about. Shea butter is so unlikely to cause an allergic reaction that there is no scientific evidence that any cases of allergy to the shea nut's oil has ever been reported! [12]

Should you replace the commercial moisturizer you've been using for your atopical dermatitis with shea butter? One study notes that doing so produces no adverse effects. What's more, the paper determined that shea butter was much more effective at reducing eczema symptoms than Vaseline was — and that is, of course, what you ultimately want from your moisturizer. Shea butter was found to reduce:

  • Redness
  • The formation of papules
  • The roughness of skin [13]
While research into the benefits of shea butter as a moisturizer for eczema is still rather lacking, this sounds rather promising. Shea butter additionally has the benefit of reducing itching (pruritus), which is par for the course if you have atopic dermatitis [14].

You may further be interested in hearing that shea butter has traditionally been used to manage numerous skin conditions, including psoriasis, dry skin, and yes, eczema. People from cultures that have traditionally used shea butter as medicine (and shea nuts for food, too) continue to benefit from its properties, and so can you. [15]

If you're curious and would like to try shea butter, choose shea butter by itself rather than shea butter combined with other ingredients. If you like, you can apply shea butter on one side and your usual emollient on the other, so you can compare the results and see which one works better. 

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