Baby Eczema, Coconut Oil, and What The Research Has To Say
Treating baby eczema is much more of an art than a science and as eczema parents, we’ll try just about anything to give our little one some relief from itchy eczema flare ups. At some point, you’ve likely heard that coconut oil can work wonders for eczema—specifically atopic dermatitis (AD), the type of eczema that usually affects children (from here on out, when I say “eczema,” that’s what I mean). Some people think coconut oil can reduce eczema flare ups, soothe inflammation, and lower the risk of infection and when it comes to baby eczema, coconut oil has long been a favorite of parents—if I only had a dollar every time a well-meaning stranger suggested coconut oil for baby eczema, amiright? But really, why do so many people swear by it? If that many people consider coconut oil their go to for eczema, perhaps it has some credence. Let’s find out!
- Coconut Oil and The Skin
- Benefits of Coconut Oil for Dry Skin
- Baby Eczema, Coconut Oil, and the Research
- Does Coconut Oil Help Eczema?
- Is Coconut Oil Safe for Babies?
- What Type of Coconut Oil Should I Use?
- Other Natural Remedies for Eczema
Coconut Oil and The Skin
So what exactly is coconut oil and how can it help treat eczema? First, let’s talk skin. Healthy skin helps retain moisture and protect from bacteria, irritants and allergens. In people with eczema, there’s a gene variation that affects the skin's ability to stay hydrated and provide this protection, making it an easy target for these environmental irritants. In short, people with eczema have to work extra hard to replenish moisture in the skin and lock it in, while those without eczema often have soft, hydrated skin without trying too hard 🙄.
Eczema is a lifelong health condition connected to the immune system and its inflammatory response. Unfortunately, researchers don’t have quite enough info to develop a cure for this irritating problem, so for now we have to settle for alternative methods that treat the itchy red symptoms rather than the underlying condition. So, about that coconut oil for eczema…
Coconut oil is an edible oil made by pressing the fat from the white, meaty “kernel” of mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm. Over the last few years, it’s gained a cult-like following, being touted as a “superfood” that can help manage obesity, slow Alzheimer’s, improve metabolism and lower cholesterol, among many other things.
Although coconut is an exotic food in the Western world, it’s a dietary staple that people have thrived on for many generations, the best example being the Tokelauans, inhabitants of a dependent territory of New Zealand. They used to eat over 60% of their calories from coconuts and when studied, they were found to be in excellent health with very low rates of heart disease.
So coconut oil’s gotta be healthy, right?! With the rise in its popularity—and the many “benefits” it supposedly offers—it’s important to remember that coconut oil is processed from coconuts, so it doesn’t necessarily present with the same exact health benefits. It’s sorta like comparing apples to, well, coconuts. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that due to its high levels of saturated fat, many organizations advise that the consumption of coconut oil be limited.
But that’s for another day. Here, we’re just talking about a topical treatment for irritated, itchy skin and it turns out when it comes to baby eczema, coconut oil might provide some serious benefits.
Benefits of Coconut Oil for Dry Skin
Despite many claims, coconut oil does not cure eczema, but it may be able to help by providing certain benefits to the skin. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, a nutritious fatty acid—also found in breast milk—that is used to develop monolaurin (also known as glycerol monolaurate or glyceryl laurate). Although the studies on monolaurin are limited—it’s only been tested in tubes, not people or animals—preliminary research suggests that monolaurin might be antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal, making it a potentially useful and effective treatment for irritated, itchy skin (Fun fact: Monolaurin is used in the production of margarine, pasta, deodorant, cosmetics, detergents and insecticides).
Moreover, coconut oil has the natural ability to penetrate the skin quickly and efficiently and it’s oily composition makes it better for eczema-prone skin than water-based lotions (oil-based moisturizers are best for eczema (more on that here). This may help to boost hydration, improve skin elasticity, fight itch and reduce the chances of infection.
Seems that when battling baby eczema, coconut oil may have some merit. But what does the research say?
Baby Eczema, Coconut Oil, and The Research
Of all the natural ingredients used to treat eczema, coconut oil has perhaps the most research to back it up (although it’s still not extremely robust). Perhaps the most important evidence for eczema parents is a 2014 study that followed 117 children with mild to moderate AD. The children were treated with virgin coconut oil (VCO) or mineral oil over an eight week period. Of the children that were treated with virgin coconut oil, 47% showed moderate improvement while 46% showed excellent improvement (34% of patients in the mineral group showed moderate improvement and 19% showed excellent improvement). In short, there was some improvement in children who used VCO over an eight week period and the results were superior to those that used mineral oil.
Another study, published in the journal Dermatitis in 2008, analyzed 52 patients with eczema. Some of the participants used virgin coconut oil on their skin twice a day for four weeks while the others did the same with virgin olive oil. Overall, patients who used the virgin coconut oil experienced greater reduction in eczema severity.
But there was another interesting finding as well. Twenty people in the coconut oil group and 12 people in the olive oil group had Staphylococcus aureus on their skin—bacteria that can cause a painful and serious skin infection. At the end of the study, all but one of the people treated with coconut oil cleared the bacteria from their skin, while only six people in the olive oil group could say the same. This is significant because people with eczema-prone skin can be more vulnerable to skin infections than those with normal skin. Several years later, authors of a 2014 scientific review concluded that coconut oil can effectively reduce the presence of bacteria, viruses, and fungi—a big win for eczema sufferers.
According to the findings of a 2018 study, virgin coconut oil has anti-inflammatory properties and it helps protect the skin by enhancing skin barrier function. It was the first report on anti-inflammatory and skin protective benefits of VCO in vitro (test tube), and overall the results suggest that using VCO in skin care formulations may be beneficial. A previous study showed similar results in which VCO provided moderate anti-inflammatory effects on ear and paw edema in rats.
Does Coconut Oil Help Eczema?
So here’s the thing: eczema can be tricky and it’s often a game of trial and error to determine what works for each individual. Is coconut oil good for babies with eczema? The answer: possibly. There is certainly some research suggesting that coconut oil may provide a reduction is eczema severity while providing anti-inflammatory properties and skin protecting benefits. It’s even been shown that coconut oil can effectively reduce the presence of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Plus there is TONS of anecdotal evidence suggesting the same.
When dealing with baby eczema, coconut oil certainly seems like a viable option, so what’s the harm in trying it? If it works, great! If not, on to the next. Hopefully one day we’ll have more substantial answers—or perhaps a cure!—but for now, there’s no shortage of natural ways to treat baby eczema.
Is Coconut Oil Safe for Babies?
Although coconut oil is generally considered a safe topical treatment, it’s recommended that you first consult your child’s physician before starting any natural treatments. Coconut oil can generally be used just like any other moisturizer or lotion, but try it on a small patch of skin before applying it to the rest of the body to ensure your little one is not allergic. If the skin becomes irritated in that area, coconut oil may not be the way to go. And if your child is allergic to coconuts, it’s obviously wise to stay clear of coconut oil.
What Type of Coconut Oil Should I Use?
Coconut oil can be produced through dry processing or wet processing. Dry processing—when coconut “meat” is dried to create kernels that are then pressed to extract the oil—forms refined coconut oil, which has a more neutral scent and higher smoke point.
In wet processing, coconut oil is obtained from raw coconut meat that has not been dried. This process helps retain the coconut scent and results in a lower smoke point. Basically, wet processed “virgin” coconut oil (VCO)—sometimes referred to as “cold pressed”—is the purest form because it has been processed in a specific way that introduces as few contaminants as possible and retains as many of the oil’s natural properties as possible. Although refined coconut oil may be better for cooking at high temperatures, virgin coconut oil is a better choice for skin care and in fact, most of the scientific studies that have examined coconut oil and its potential benefits used this type of oil in their analyses.
- Look for high quality coconut oil that is labeled as “virgin” or “cold-pressed” which will ensure that the coconut oil you put on your little one’s face was extracted without the use of chemicals that could irritate the skin
- Coconut oil is solid at room temp so put a little bit on your hands and rub them together which will liquefy the oil and allow you to spread it liberally onto the skin
- Always apply coconut oil (or any other moisturizer) to slightly damp skin at least twice daily
- Use coconut oil on during eczema flare ups but also in between outbreaks, which will help lock moisture into the skin
- When using coconut oil for newborn skin, be sure to keep it away from the eyes and mouth
- The best time to apply coconut oil—or any other moisturizer—is immediately after a bath or shower. Liberally apply to damp skin within three minutes of bath time to lock in moisture. For more on proper bathing and moisturizing for eczema, check out A Complete Guide to Bathing Babies with Eczema
- When using coconut oil for baby skin, pay special attention to areas that are particularly prone to flare-ups including the elbows and knees which tend to become aggravated, especially once scooting and crawling begins
Other Natural Remedies for Eczema
If you’re looking for natural remedies for baby eczema, coconut oil is a good place to start. But if you’ve given that a shot and it didn’t work, don’t worry. Like I said, trial and error is the best way to determine what works for your baby’s skin! Here are a few things you can do to improve your child’s eczema symptoms:
- Bathe baby daily. A daily bath may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually a great way to lock in moisture and keep eczema flare ups at bay.
- Try a “soothing bath”. A breast milk bath, an oatmeal bath, or a sea salt bath can all help reduce the itchies during a flare up. For more, check out 8 Soothing Baths for Baby Eczema Relief
- Moisturize Often. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to moisturize your baby as often as possible. Seriously, you can’t overdo it here. And the greasier the better, so opt for ointments first, if possible. If not, your second best bet is a cream.
- Avoid sweat. Did you know sweat is one of the most common triggers of eczema? What you put on your baby’s skin is extremely important in allowing it to breathe and heal, so it’s important to seek out lightweight, breathable clothing, especially at night. Pajamas should be especially soft and, ideally, free of tags and itchy seams that can cause further irritation.
- Use Wet Wrap Therapy. For particularly nasty flare ups, try sealing moisture in with a cream and a wet gauze (or therapy garment), which will ensure that the skin remains hydrated throughout the night. The wet wraps act as a barrier making sure that all of the medicine and/or moisturizer is making its way into the skin and not rubbing off onto clothing or bedsheets.
For more on treating eczema naturally, check out Baby Eczema: 15 Natural Remedies.
When it comes to baby eczema, coconut oil has long been a fan favorite of parents and it turns out, there may be good reason. The limited research that’s been done on the use of coconut oil for eczema does show promising results—including a reduction in eczema symptoms in children who used it consistently—although more analysis needs to be done. Studies also show that coconut oil may provide anti-inflammatory properties and skin protecting benefits. It’s even been shown that coconut oil may effectively reduce the presence of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, a big win for eczema sufferers. So it seems like it’s worth a shot!
Coconut oil for babies is generally considered safe, and if you choose to give it a go, always be sure to look for products labeled “cold pressed” or “virgin” to ensure the oil is in its purest form and that it was extracted without the use of chemicals that could further irritate the skin. Always apply it to slightly damp skin at least twice daily.
Remember: what works for one child may not work for another. There is a laundry list of natural treatments you can try so if you don’t find coconut oil to be effective, cross it off and try something else. I promise, you’ll eventually find the perfect treatment, just be patient.
Please note: This article is informational only and is not intended to replace medical advice.
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About The Author
Tara Saltzburg founded Westyn Baby when her son was an infant battling severe eczema. She was always on the lookout for products that would minimize the irritation and ease his discomfort, but safe, non-irritating pajamas proved difficult to find. Tara started Westyn Baby in 2016 with a mission to create better, safer sleepwear for kids - sleepwear that's exceptionally soft, flame-retardant free, sensitivity-friendly, and durable. Read more about WB sleepwear.
Tara was born and raised at the NJ shore and attended Penn State University, where she played soccer and discovered her love of mountain life. She is a mom of one boy and hopes to eventually have enough kids to form some sort of athletic team. She and her family currently reside in Central Pennsylvania and spend the summers in Stone Harbor, NJ.