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Emollients can help prevent eczema in babies. mrs/Getty Images
  • Between 15% to 20% of children globally have eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis.
  • There is currently no cure for eczema.
  • Researchers from the Xinjiang Clinical Research Center for Dermatologic Diseases say that applying emollients to high-risk infants can help prevent eczema from forming.

Between 15% to 20% of children around the world have eczema — a chronic inflammatory skin disease clinically known as atopic dermatitis.

There is currently no cure for eczema.

Doctors treat the condition’s symptoms to heal the skin and prevent future flare-ups through medications and suggest people follow certain guidelines for bathing and moisturizing the skin.

Now, researchers from the Xinjiang Clinical Research Center for Dermatologic Diseases in Urumqi, China, say the early application of emollients can help prevent eczema in infants at high risk for developing the disease.

The study was recently published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology & Venereology.

Eczema symptoms can appear in a baby as early as 6 months.

Symptoms generally show up as red, scaly, and dry patches on a baby’s cheeks, chin, forehead, and/or scalp. The patches may also be itchy or may ooze.

Researchers do not know why atopic dermatitis occurs in some infants and not others. Some infant eczema triggers include:

Treatments for baby eczema include:

  • daily bathing and moisturizing
  • eliminating fragrances and other irritants
  • medicated creams or ointments, such as a topical corticosteroid

According to Dr. Latanya Benjamin, an associate professor of pediatric dermatology and founder of Young Skin, a private medical practice in South Florida, emollients are moistures or other preparations used to soften the skin.

“By moisturizing the skin, emollients can protect damaged skin by improving skin hydration and skin barrier function which ultimately benefits individuals with atopic dermatitis,” she explained to Medical News Today.

Emollients can also prevent water from evaporating off of the skin’s surface, added Dr. Angela J. Lamb, associate professor in the Department of Dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

“Atopic dermatitis is caused by many things, but a primary contributor is the skin’s lack of a fundamental protein that keeps water inside,” she told Medical News Today.

Different types of emollients include:

  • lotions
  • ointments
  • creams
  • sprays

They are applied directly to the skin by gently smoothing the product onto the skin.

For this study, researchers analyzed 11 clinical trials including almost 3,500 infants given emollients for atopic dermatitis.

Upon analysis of all the data, scientists reported that three specific types of emollients — creams, emulsions, and mixed types — all helped prevent eczema from developing in infants. However, after additional analysis, researchers said they found the emollient emulsion to be the best option for helping prevent eczema in high-risk infants.

“Emulsions push two states of fluid together that would not otherwise mix so they can contain a very high water content in a way that perhaps a cream cannot,” Lamb said. “Remember, water is the key to skin barrier repair and protection.”

“Emollient emulsions provide an occlusive barrier, offering the ability to obtain the best barrier protection and chance at retaining moisture and hydration,” Benjamin added.

Lamb stated the study confirms what doctors already know, which is that trapping in moisture is a key component of treating atopic dermatitis.

“The skin barrier needs protection and treatment when you have atopic dermatitis,” she explained. “Too often patients focus on a treatment/medication and not enough on the fundamentals of taking care of their skin.”

Benjamin added she found the study to offer “some encouragement as we begin to unravel the existing controversy as to whether the early application of emollients can indeed prevent the development of atopic dermatitis in at-risk infants.”

“I think the next steps for this research should be further exploration with direct comparisons of standardized prophylactic (early) interventions, including the age of start, emollients used, and time to follow-up,” she added

Lamb also said she would like to see researchers compare additives to these emollients “like ceramides, keratin, and other fatty acids, to see if they make a difference.”