On the surface, eczema may seem like an ailment that is more annoying than debilitating. But for the more than 20 percent of kids who struggle with it, the effects can be more severe ― and costly (really costly) for their parents.
Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema, and tends to develop in infants. It can be either lifelong and chronic or go away on its own over time, and is linked to hay fever, asthma, allergies, sleep problems and weight problems. Data suggests families caring for a child with this type of eczema spend as much as 35 percent of their discretionary income on care each month. Estimates put the total cost of eczema care in the U.S. at up to $3.8 billion per year.
Now, new research suggests that a solution under $10 might be able to help prevent the condition from developing in the first place. The fix? Moisturizing newborns with petroleum jelly until they are six months old.
“We could really save a lot of newborns ― and save families ― a lot of suffering,” researcher Dr. Steve Xu, a resident physician in the department of dermatology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, told The Huffington Post.
“It’s also a pretty good deal in terms of cost,” he said.
Xu and his team built on a 2014 study of 124 babies, in which researchers from Oregon Health & Science University found that parents cut their newborns’ risk of atopic dermatitis in half when they moisturized them daily (or at least 5 times a week, everywhere but the scalp) for their first six months of life. The parents in the study used either an over-the-counter drugstore ointment, moisturizing cream or sunflower seed oil, all of which provided a similar benefit in terms of preventing eczema.
In a follow up analysis of the research, Xu and his colleagues looked at cost and determined that using a daily moisturizer for a baby’s first six months was cheap ― way cheaper than the costs of dealing with eczema if it develops later on.
A six-month supply of Vaseline petroleum jelly was just $7.30, the cheapest of all the moisturizers in the analysis. And the total cost for the most expensive moisturizer, Vaniply ointment, was $173.39 for a six-month supply.
“We added the economic argument why prophylactic moisturizing is a really really great idea,” Xu said.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about eczema
Moisturizers are a big part of the way eczema is treated, but until now they haven’t necessarily been used to prevent the problem. The evidence is still unclear as to how they actually help thwart the condition ― in a big part because the evidence is still unclear about what exactly causes atopic dermatitis in the first place ― and why individuals who have it are so likely to go on to develop allergies, hay fever and asthma.
The researchers suspect using moisturizers during infancy helps correct outer-layer skin defects in babies who will go on to develop eczema. Those defects are thought to play a role in how the condition actually develops, along with hereditary and environmental factors, too.
Whether or not preventing eczema would also prevent the allergies, hay fever and asthma that come along with it is yet another unsolved question. But there’s a growing body of data that suggests that atopic dermatitis does in fact makes individuals more susceptible these comorbidities, which some doctors refer to as the “atopic march.”
Vaseline petroleum jelly is one of the moisturizers recommended for the treatment of eczema by the National Eczema Association, though not as a prophylactic treatment. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends petroleum jelly as one of the top choice moisturizers for treating (not necessarily preventing) eczema, including atopic dermatitis, because it’s among the most moisturizing.
Plus, it’s safe, Xu said. Petroleum jelly is fragrance-free and doesn’t have preservatives or additives that could potentially cause irritation or other allergies, he added. That said, some people may still avoid it for political or environmental reasons: Petroleum jelly is actually a byproduct of the oil refining process.
Sunflower seed oil was the second cheapest moisturizer in the study, costing $18.25 for six months of using it daily on a newborn, and may be a solid choice for those who want to avoid petroleum jelly.
Not all infants need a daily moisturizer
Ready to slather your infant with Vaseline tonight? Not without talking to your pediatrician first, Xu said.
It’s important to note that the initial study only included babies who were already considered high-risk of developing atopic dermatitis: They each had a parent or sibling who had at some point been diagnosed with eczema, asthma or hay fever.
Larger studies with longer follow-up are still needed ― and are currently ongoing ― to confirm that the method continues to prevent atopic dermatitis in babies who were moisturized beyond the first six months of their lives. But at this point, the data is encouraging, since nearly half of all individuals who develop eczema do so in the first year of their lives, Xu said.
So far, the research only suggests that using a daily moisturizer on newborns could be a good idea for babies at high risk. The risk of trying this intervention is low, even if it ultimately doesn’t prevent atopic dermatitis.
“Gentle, bland moisturizers have very little to no risk of harm to newborns,” Xu said, adding it’s definitely reasonable for parents with infants who are at high risk of developing atopic dermatitis to ask their pediatricians about using a moisturizer as a preventative measure.
And at just more than $7 for the full six months of petroleum jelly, it’s not that expensive to do.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.