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Published On: Jul 1, 2022
Last Updated On: Jul 20, 2022
With rates of eczema rising across the United States, complementary and alternative remedies for flaring skin are taking the internet by storm. Evening primrose oil is one such product that members of the NEA community have asked about as a potential topical treatment for eczema. But is there any scientific evidence to support the growing popularity of evening primrose oil? Let’s get the facts.
Evening primrose oil comes from the seeds of the evening primrose flower and contains Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA), which is an omega-6 essential fatty acid; GLA is also a building block for skin barrier lipids, so topical application can directly repair skin barrier structure and function and decrease inflammation. While many people consume large quantities of omega-6 in the form of processed corn oil or soybean oil, evening primrose oil is a much healthier version and doesn’t carry the same risks as the other artery-clogging oils.
Omega-6 fatty acids that have GLA, like evening primrose oil, are thought to help lower inflammation and improve the appearance of your skin. This is because when you ingest a beneficial omega-6 fatty acid like evening primrose oil that contains GLA, your body turns it into dihomo-γ-linolenic acid (DGLA). DGLA is the mechanism that can help lower inflammation in your body and potentially improve your skin barrier.
Over the past few years, interest in evening primrose oil has risen due to its supposed benefit of reducing itching, dry skin and irritation in people with eczema. And while interest may be currently rising in Western culture, the use of evening primrose oil finds its roots in early Native American societies. Evening primrose oil comes in two forms, either a capsule or liquid, and while most people take it by mouth some do apply it topically to affected areas of the skin. Though not as common as some of its fellow omega-6 oils, evening primrose oil is an attractive solution for people with eczema, especially for those looking to augment treatment as an alternative or addition to over-the-counter topical moisturizers. Whether it lives up to expectations, however, is another story.
Research studies on evening primrose oil aren’t as plentiful as others, such as for fish oil or coconut oil, and results range from promising to inconclusive.
“We found some compelling data for [evening primrose oil],” said Dr. Peter Lio, Assistant Professor of Clinical Dermatology and Pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Evening primrose oil has high levels of gamma-linolenic acid and omega-6 fatty acids, and both are thought to help with barrier repair and have some anti-inflammatory properties. Although some of the older studies did not quite reach statistical significance for the effect, there was a promising trend for something that seems very safe and gentle.”
Other studies are less conclusive about the use of evening primrose oil for eczema. In 2013, researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School compiled data from a variety of primary sources on evening primrose oil and eczema. From their analysis of 19 different research studies, they determined evening primrose oil in its various forms are “not effective treatments for eczema.” Yet, in direct contrast, a 2018 study by the Hallym University College of Medicine in Seoul found evening primrose oil “has […] shown significant improvement in skin dryness, pruritus and range of lesions” in patients with atopic dermatitis. What some researchers do agree on, however, is the need for more extended, in-depth research about the effectiveness of evening primrose oil for eczema, both as a topical salve and an oral supplement.
One of the risks associated with using evening primrose oil to relieve eczema symptoms doesn’t relate to the use of the oil itself. Since evening primrose oil falls into the category of a botanical, it is not regulated by the FDA. To help people find products that are safe to use, Dr. Lio shared the top four things to look for before purchasing unregulated products:
Medical professionals do recommend avoiding evening primrose oil if you are pregnant or have a diagnosed bleeding disorder or epilepsy. There are some reports that evening primrose oil can interact with blood thinner medication. Some people also report nausea and an upset stomach after taking evening primrose oil.
While taking evening primrose oil for eczema may not hurt, it most likely will not help. “There is some suggestion that topically applied [evening primrose oil] may have some beneficial effect on eczema, but the evidence was not very robust,” said Dr. Lio. “This suggests that it may only work on a subset of patients and/or the actual clinical effect may be very minimal.”
Instead, Dr. Lio recommends looking into other supplements that are more effective in treating eczema symptoms, such as hemp seed oil. In one study, participants who took hempseed as an oral supplement showed improvement in their atopic dermatitis symptoms. People who struggle to find ways to alleviate the itchiness and dry skin brought about by eczema or are more hesitant to take a prescription medication may find more relief with hemp seed over evening primrose oil. If you’re struggling to calm your eczema symptoms during a flare or are curious about trying alternative treatments, talk to your physician or dermatologist to determine what might work best for you.