Eczema has derailed my summer. In April, I started noticing an itchy rash on my wrists, backs of hands, forearms and neck. I thought it was either a rash related to too much sun or a reaction to a new sunscreen. April was busy with outdoor projects, and I received quite a lot of sun exposure and went through a lot of sunscreen. The rash would not go away in spite of treatment with various topical over the counter products. By early June, the rash was getting worse in severity and scope. One patch had become painful and infected. I broke down and went to the doctor fairly certain that I had leprosy or something equivalent. The doctor was not phased by my self diagnosis and told me I had a classic case of eczema and that I was having an “eczema flare.” I was prescribed a topical steroid and a topical antibiotic and told to take an over the counter allergy medicine daily. I was told to take only lukewarm showers, use mild soaps, and moisturize my skin frequently. I did all those things and after several weeks, the itching and burning were making me crazy. The rash was now covering major portions of my body making it difficult to sleep and concentrate. Heat and sweat made the rash significantly worse. The thought of getting into my bee jacket on a warm summer day was unbearable, so Doug had to tend to the hives without me.
In this desperate state, I began studying eczema (aka atopic dermatitis). It has no cure and its cause is unknown, although it is thought to have a genetic component. Patients are told to use self-care measures such as topical steroid creams and keeping the skin covered with lotions, ointments and salves. Some people even take baths in dilute solutions of bleach. Eczema can be triggered by any variety of environmental factors that are so ubiquitous that systematically determining what was triggering my flare seemed impossible. I leveraged my Facebook network to see what others were doing. I tried oatmeal soap and colloidal oatmeal lotions. They provided modest relief but made me smell like oatmeal causing my dog to follow me with the intent of licking all the lotion off my arms and hands. I tried topical steroids and antihistamine creams. I tried different oral allergy medications. Nothing helped. In my desperation, I picked up a can of Burt’s Bees Hand Salve. I’m not sure why I did this since the label does not claim that the product is useful for treating eczema. (The law requires that any product claiming to treat or cure a disease be considered a drug. Drug products must be manufactured, tested, and labeled in accordance with a series of regulations known as Good Manufacturing Practices.) I never used any of the Burt’s Bees products before, and mostly I associate them with the really high priced items found by the register in airport terminal convenience stores. After 2 days, I was amazed at the improvement in my skin rash. The eczema was still there, but regular application of the Burt’s Bees Hand Salve was taking away inflammation and giving me more relief than any of the other treatments I tried. The first three ingredients listed on the can are: almond oil, olive oil, and beeswax.
Nothing in my reading suggested that this specific product would help eczema. Nor did I find any claims that almond oil, olive oil, or beeswax would be beneficial in managing eczema symptoms. However, after doing some more internet searches, I found a number of people who claim that Burt’s Bees Hand Salve significantly helped their eczema symptoms. One person wrote he suffered with eczema for 10 years and this product finally gave him relief. Blogs by homesteaders and natural medicine proponents show recipes for homemade eczema treatments containing beeswax and other oils such as olive oil or almond oil.
Being a scientist, I decided to go to the scientific literature regarding therapeutic properties of beeswax, but I didn’t find much. In spite of the fact that beeswax has been used therapeutically for thousands of years, there is not much scientific data on the use of beeswax as a therapeutic. Pollen and honey receive most of the attention. Beeswax is complex and contains hundreds of different individual compounds. Perhaps it is the complexity of beeswax that causes scientists to shy away from studying it as a therapeutic. Drug products require characterization, and as an analytical chemist I can say that I wouldn’t want to be responsible for characterizing a substance composed of nearly 300 different compounds! I found a mini review on the antimicrobial properties of beeswax. (See Fratini, et al reference listed below.) Most of the studies center around the antimicrobial activity of beeswax, usually when used in combination with honey and other oils such as olive oil. Perhaps the antimicrobial properties of the beeswax salve in conjunction with its abilities to coat and lubricate the skin give rise to its ability to soothe eczema inflamed skin. I would love to know the mechanism of action that makes this salve work, but for now I will just be satisfied with that fact it that does work. I tried a similar beeswax containing hand salve produced by another manufacturer and received similar relief. While it wasn’t a carefully controlled study, I feel I have enough anecdotal evidence to say these beeswax salves help my eczema better than other products I tried. If you are one of the millions of people that have eczema, maybe a beeswax product will help you too. For now, things have improved enough that I can put on a bee jacket again and go and visit the hives. Do you have any comments on the therapeutic properties of beeswax? I would love to hear from you.
- Jones S., et al, Journal of ApiProduct & ApiMedical Science 3(3):105-116 (2011)
- Fratini, et al, Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine 9(9):839-843 (2016)