A new government study has found an association between diisocyanates, a class of widely used chemicals, and eczema, a chronic inflammatory skin disease.
People affected by eczema experience severe itching, skin redness, oozing from the skin, and scaly rashes, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). These symptoms can be painful, and can suddenly appear without any obvious trigger.
Eczema affects up to 20 percent of children and up to 10 percent of adults in industrialized countries. In the United States, the prevalence of eczema is three to six times higher than it was in the 1970s.
In a study published on Jan. 6 in Science Advances, a team of NIAID scientists tried to find out how certain environmental pollutants may be contributing to this increase. They focused on diisocyanates, which are used nationwide in polyurethane products such as foams, spray paints, and glues. The active portion of the diisocyanate molecule, the isocyanate side chain, is also a component known to trigger eczema.
For the study, the scientists conducted experiments on mice to explore exactly why diisocyanates exposure could directly induce eczema in mouse skin. The findings suggest that this has to do with how skin bacteria deal with isocyanate.
Specifically, scientists found that when bacteria living on healthy skin are exposed to isocyanate, they must adapt to survive the new environment. When they adapt, these bacteria shift their metabolism away from producing the lipids, or oils, that the skin needs to stay healthy.
This also means, according to the study, that it be may possible to treat eczema by replacing post-exposure skin bacteria with healthy ones that behave normally.
“To our knowledge, this is the first report demonstrating that pollution may promote disease by disrupting metabolism in commensal microbiota,” the scientists wrote.
With that said, scientists noted they need to further validate the association between environmental exposure to isocyanate or diisocyanates and eczema, and to determine whether this mechanism identified in mice works the same way in humans.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the best way to relieve itchy eczema is to get eczema under control, which takes time. However, the professional organization also says there are things parents can do to offer temporary relief from the itch on their kids’ skin, including:
- Soak a clean towel in cool water and apply a cool compress to itchy skin.
- Add colloidal oatmeal to bath water and let the child soak.
- Soak the child in a bath and smear on ointment.
- Distract the child by telling a story or playing with a toy.
- Calm the stressed child.
- Pinch skin near eczema to relieve itch.
To avoid making eczema itchier for children, the AAD advises parents to not tell their children to stop scratching. “This rarely works and can leave your child feeling stressed. Stress can cause eczema to flare,” the organization says.
The AAD also advises against anti-itch products unless the child’s dermatologist recommends one.