As with many conditions that are difficult to manage and need treatment, alternative treatments are available. These are often without the same scientific backing that conventional medicine has.
Essential oils are one of the alternatives to medical treatment that are available to people with psoriasis. Some oils have had some research done on them for psoriasis, but many have not.
What is psoriasis?
Psoriasis is a long-term skin condition.
Estimates for the United Kingdom and northern Europe suggest 1 percent or 2 percent of the population has psoriasis.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease. The immune system attacks the body's own cells in the skin in the same way that it would attack foreign bodies.
People with psoriasis have a rapid buildup of skin cells that form inflammatory papules and plaques with silver-colored "scales" on the surface of the skin. These lesions can also be:
Psoriasis varies greatly from person to person and is a relatively common condition
Psoriasis shows in various ways in different people. Some have psoriatic plaques in specific places - at skin folds, palms of the hands, or soles of the feet. Others have psoriasis that affects the whole body, and in particular:
- Lower back
Psoriasis comes and goes over time. It appears gradually, then goes away for a time before returning again. The flare-ups can come and go in relation to triggers.
Psoriasis is generally defined as mild, moderate, or severe. Each category depends on the amount of the body affected, and how badly quality of life is reduced.
Some doctors make a detailed evaluation such as provided by this online tool. It rates the area involved, the redness, thickness, and the amount of scale.
A small number of people with psoriasis have a condition called psoriatic arthritis. This inflammation affects the joints. It usually occurs along with the skin condition, although it can occur on its own, too.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are natural oils from plants obtained by distillation.
They are volatile oils. This means that they can be readily vaporized and then condensed in the process of distillation.
Essential oils carry the odor typical of the plant they are extracted from. Aromatherapy is a field of interest that uses the full range of essential oils.
There is a long list of essential oils. Common examples are chamomile, bergamot, lavender, lemon, peppermint, and rosemary.
Essential oils to treat psoriasis
Some standard medical treatments for psoriasis are derived from plants. Salicylic acid was originally drawn from white willow bark, for example.
Tea tree oil, chamomile, and bergamot oil are examples of essential oils from plants that have been used against psoriasis.
Tea tree oil is found widely in nonprescription commercial skin products. It is available in shampoos used for scalp psoriasis, for example. It is known to have antiseptic properties and has been used in acne treatments.
Some people are allergic to tea tree oil and should stop using it if it causes any reaction. There is no evidence from scientific studies to confirm if there is any benefit against psoriasis from tea tree oil.
There is also a long list of essential oils used by aromatherapists. One review of essential oils used in aromatherapy listed only chamomile for psoriasis. Other sources suggest using a blend of several oils.
Bitter apricot essential oil is another example that has had some scientific study. Researchers found that it had an effect on the growth of skin cells in psoriasis. It was not a clinical study though, so no testing was done on humans, but instead on cells in dishes.
Essential oils from the East Indian Globe Thistle have also received some study. Again, this research has been at a basic chemical level. The oil's effect against psoriasis is suggested but not proven.
There is limited scientific evidence for essential oils used against psoriasis at present. More and more studies are looking at how essential oils work. It is possible that some people may benefit from trying them.
Other natural remedies used for psoriasis
Some essential oils and natural remedies may help to alleviate psoriasis
Evening primrose oil has been used to treat psoriasis. Fish oil supplements are also taken orally, including supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are available in dietary supplements but can also be found naturally in some vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, soy foods, fatty fish, and algae. Several studies suggest that fish oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids are effective against psoriasis.
Aloe vera is a gel-like substance from the aloe plant and can be applied to skin affected by psoriasis. Creams containing aloe vera may have some effect on symptoms such as redness and itching. Oregon grape is another option, which is also used to treat acne.
One final option that has had some research is the key component of cayenne peppers - capsaicin. A small placebo-controlled trial found 0.025 percent capsaicin cream applied to the skin four times a day for 6 weeks reduced psoriasis itching compared with a placebo. The cream cannot be used on open skin or the face, and some people experience burning sensations.
Medical management of psoriasis
Doctors involved in the treatment of psoriasis include dermatologists, who are specialist skin doctors. Patients who also have the joint disease that can go with psoriasis may be treated by rheumatologists.
There are three broad forms of medical treatment for psoriasis:
- Topical treatments applied to the skin
- Ultraviolet light therapy, also called phototherapy
- Prescribed drugs for severe cases
Prescribed drugs include:
- Methotrexate, which suppresses the immune system
- Retinoids such as acitretin and isotretinoin
- Cyclosporine, which suppresses the immune system
- Biologics, including etanercept, adalimumab, and infliximab
Topical treatments are generally for mild psoriasis. Phototherapy is added for moderate problems, and drug treatments are given for severe psoriasis.
Vitamin D-based treatments also worked against psoriasis, but corticosteroids were better and gave fewer side-effects.
Other topical treatments include tar-based preparations, dithranol, salicylic acid, and vitamin A. Corticosteroids and vitamin D-based products are more commonly used. Two reasons for this are that they may look better and a lack of side effects.
All of these topical treatments can be prescribed by doctors.
Emollients are recommended for anyone with psoriasis and are available from the pharmacy without prescription. Emollients include creams, ointments, petrolatum, and paraffin. They reduce scaling in psoriasis and should be applied to the skin twice a day.
Phototherapy for psoriasis can be as simple as getting more exposure to sunshine. Controlled artificial exposure to UV light is also available through doctors.
Causes of psoriasis
Sunshine can help to treat psoriasis but too much may be a trigger
Psoriasis is not fully understood by doctors. Many factors have been linked as triggers of the rash, however:
- Damage to the skin
- Infections, including HIV
- Certain drugs, including beta-blockers and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- Too much sun exposure
- Too much alcohol intake
- Emotional stress
When to see a doctor
Anyone with a long-term skin rash should see a doctor. This should lead to an accurate diagnosis and medical management.
A skin specialist will usually diagnose psoriasis by appearance and clinical history alone.
Rarely, doctors will have a sample of skin analyzed in the lab after taking a biopsy. This may be to separate it from other possible skin conditions.