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Creams used to treat eczema could make it worse

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18 October 2010

New BBSRC-funded research suggests that using emollient creams to relieve the symptoms of eczema could actually make the condition worse.

The project was worked on by postgraduate researcher Manda Tsang as part of her PhD CASE studentship funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) with York Pharma Plc.

Based at the University of Bath's Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology she and her fellow researchers have published a study in the British Journal of Dermatology showing that aqueous cream BP reduces the thickness of healthy skin over a period of four weeks, calling into question whether the cream should be used for treating eczema.

Originally used as a wash product, aqueous cream BP is currently the most widely prescribed emollient for the treatment of dry skin conditions. It is used to moisturise the skin, improving flexibility and preventing cracking in the protective outer layer, called the stratum corneum.

However, the cream contains a detergent, called sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), which can increase the permeability of the skin barrier and cause irritation.

A volunteer applies the cream to her arm. © University of Bath

A volunteer applies the cream to her arm.
© University of Bath

The study found that when healthy volunteers applied the cream to their forearms daily for a period of four weeks, the thickness of the stratum corneum was reduced by more than ten per cent.

The researchers anticipate that using this cream would have an even more dramatic effect on damaged skin such as that found in eczema.

Manda Tsang said: "Eczema affects around 30 per cent of the population, an increase from around five per cent a generation ago.

"This is due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as central heating and carpets that can encourage dust mites, and using more creams and cosmetics that can thin the skin if used too frequently.

"Our study suggests that it might be better for eczema patients to use oil-based ointments on damaged skin."

Richard Guy, Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University and Project Supervisor, explained: "The skin has a protective barrier layer of lipids, around one eighth the thickness of a sheet of paper, that stops chemicals from getting into the body and keeps moisture in.

"SLS is a detergent used to mix oils into water-based moisturisation creams to give a nice creamy texture. It's also used widely in shower gels and other cosmetics.

"Our study has found that rubbing aqueous cream containing SLS into the skin thins this protective barrier, making the skin more susceptible to irritation by chemicals.

"So to use this cream on eczemous skin, which is already thin and vulnerable to irritation, is likely to make the condition even worse."

ENDS

Notes to editors

For further information, please contact Vicky Just in the University of Bath Press Office on +44 (0)1225 386 883 or +44 (0)7966 341 357.

Tsang, M. & Guy, R. H. (2010) "Effect of Aqueous Cream BP on human stratum corneum in vivo" is published online in the British Journal of Dermatology DOI 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2010.09954.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2133.2010.09954.x/full

About the University of Bath

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About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.