Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, causes symptoms such as dry skin and itchiness. Some people may use milk thistle to help manage symptoms, though more research into the benefits of milk thistle for eczemas is necessary.

Milk thistle is a flowering plant native to Europe, but is now found throughout much of the United States. It is also known as “silymarin” after its primary extract, or Silybum marianum and Carduus marianus, its Latin names.

Milk thistle is spiky in appearance and has a pink-purple flower of varying hues that sits atop a bundle of long, slender leaves at the end of a long stem.

Finding relief from eczema can be just as individual as the symptoms themselves. This article looks at the effectiveness of using milk thistle in treating atopic dermatitis.

What is silymarin?

Silymarin is the main extract from milk thistle, a combination of multiple flavonolignans such as silybinin, silychristin, and silydianin.

Flavonolignans are bioactive compounds in plants that may have therapeutic benefits. They are made up partly of flavonoids, plant compounds known for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and health-promoting effects.

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Milk thistle’s use in the treatment of eczema is an area of current research.

While it appears to hold promise as a therapeutic option, much is currently unclear about universal dosage, safety, best routes of administration, and potential side effects.

A 2016 study looked into the effectiveness of a topical gel formulation of silymarin on atopic dermatitis in 15 people. Overall, the gel formulation had a high skin penetration ability and hydration effect. Participants experienced a significant improvement in their eczema symptoms.

2022 research looked at a cream formulation of silymarin, combined with extracts from another plant, common fumitory (Fumaria officinalis). In 35 participants, the cream preparation was found to be just as effective as the prescription medication mometasone 0.1%.

A 2018 review looked at the use of silymarin across multiple skin conditions. In relation to atopic dermatitis, authors noted studies were minimal and often animal-based.

Overall, researchers found silymarin’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and cell-stabilizing properties made it a promising candidate for dermatological conditions, but evidence for its use in humans is not yet very strong.

Learn more about milk thistle.

Research on milk thistle for eczema has focused on specific topical formulations.

A person can also take milk thistle orally, but there is no scientific evidence supporting this route of administration for eczema.

While commercial milk thistle products are available, how similar they may be to research models is unclear. Quality can also vary significantly when it comes to over-the-counter products. Before purchasing or using milk thistle, it may be a good idea to research the manufacturing company for quality standards or reviews.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers prescription topicals for treating eczema as drugs. However, most milk thistle products are sold as supplements, which are not regulated by the FDA.

It is important to look at product labels. Formulations can get around FDA regulations by avoiding the term “treatment,” or by using nonspecific language. This can impact the quality and quantity of ingredients.

Further resources

For more in-depth resources about vitamins, minerals, and supplements, visit our dedicated hub.

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At its recommended doses, milk thistle is generally safe. In rare cases, a person may experience side effects of oral milk thistle such as:

  • headache
  • diarrhea
  • gastroenteritis
  • allergic reactions

A person should use milk thistle with caution if there are existing allergies to plants in the same family, such as:

  • ragweed
  • marigold
  • daisy
  • chrysanthemum

Milk thistle may also not be suitable for children or pregnant people, due to the lack of research or testing in these populations.

It may also contribute to low blood sugar levels in people living with type 2 diabetes.

It is best for a person to contact their doctor for advice before taking milk thistle.

There is little research about the interactions between milk thistle and specific eczema medications.

A 2019 review into the safety and toxicity of silymarin found that, overall, silymarin has a low level of drug interactions, but its availability in the body may be affected by the use of other medications.

There is no “best” herb for eczema. Relief can vary significantly between people, and what is best for one might not be the same for others.

Herbs cited in research as traditional eczema treatments include:

  • St. John’s wort
  • evening primrose
  • licorice
  • sunflower
  • hemp
  • chamomile

A 2016 systematic review looked at 25 years’ worth of randomized controlled trials for topical herbal eczema remedies.

The authors concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the use of any of the herbs involved in the research.

Herbal remedies may still provide relief for some people, but large-scale evidence is lacking.

There is limited research into the benefits of supplements for treating eczema.

However, the National Eczema Association notes that some people use the following supplements for eczema:

  • CBD
  • fish oil
  • melatonin
  • prebiotics
  • primrose oil
  • probiotics
  • selenium
  • turmeric
  • vitamin D
  • zinc

More research into the benefits of various supplements for eczema is necessary. It is best for a person to contact their doctor before taking any supplements.

Milk thistle is growing in popularity as an herbal remedy for eczema.

While research suggests it holds promise for a number of dermatological conditions, not enough scientific evidence supports its use as a universal treatment for atopic dermatitis.

Milk thistle is generally safe to use, but it may not be suitable for everyone. Contact a doctor before using milk thistle products can help lower the risk of adverse effects.