It is a common scenario; an eczema sufferer, keen for relief, finds themselves searching for a cure to their condition. Today, one of the biggest trends capitalizing on this search for a silver bullet are so-called ‘natural’ remedies. From ‘organic’ oils to ‘clean’ creams, there are countless products being marketed as nontoxic cures to eczema, despite a lack of scientific evidence. These products are positioned as being greener, more holistic alternatives to synthetically-developed products. However, it is not because a product is ‘natural’ that it is inherently safe, particularly for those with eczema. While natural products can be useful additions to patients’ regimens, when we take a closer look at some of these products, we find that although their ingredients may be naturally-derived, they can irritate eczema-afflicted skin, or even trigger an eczema flare-up.  

While traditional and homeopathic remedies have been around for eons, the current crop of ‘natural’ products emerged largely in the last two decades. According to Health Canada, up to 71% of Canadians have used natural health products. We can understand this trend as a reaction to a loss in consumer confidence (often following in the wake of a scandal around a product’s safety), doubts (whether founded or unfounded) about the safety of certain ingredients commonly used in skincare, or frustration with the lack of a conventional cure to an ailment. This trend also capitalizes on our perception that natural health products are somehow automatically safer than their synthetic counterparts, despite lacking good evidence. Why is that? The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health posits that our “preference for natural things involves a range of ideas, including the belief that nature is pure and inherently superior to humans.” This assumption has been spun into a USD$34.12 billion industry by companies like Goop, whose founder Gwyneth Paltrow claimed in Vogue, “The idea that you’re exercising and trying to eat well and then slathering yourself with chemicals, parabens, and silicones — it’s not great.”  

One of the hurdles presented by this juggernaut of an industry is the regulation of claims like ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ At a base level, we can understand these claims to mean that the ingredients in these products are plant-based, but they confer nothing beyond that. Also unknown is what adverse effects may result, like allergic reactions, or, in the case of eczema, triggering or worsening a flare-up. Extracts from the extracts herbs and flowers, which contain organic chemicals, are a particular culprit for eczema flare-ups. 

In Canada, we do have natural health product regulations, which address a product’s “medicinal ingredients, source, dose, potency, non-medicinal ingredients and recommended usage.” Only products which meet these criteria are given a natural product number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM), so it is critical to check labels for this information. 

When looking to treat eczema, the most important criteria for any product are that it be irritant-free, fragrance-free, and dye-free. Always bear in mind that even if a product is marketed as ‘nontoxic’ or ‘organic’, it does not necessarily adhere to these criteria, so speak your physician before adding any products to your regime, and report any adverse effects to Health Canada.