Cannabis and eczema - Five ways it can help

Cannabis and eczema - Five ways it can help


With 5 years of cannabis journalism behind her after graduating from De Montfort University and writing for cannabis publications such as The Cannavist, Lucy is a dedicated journalist passionate about cannabis education and culture.

Eczema can affect many areas of your life – you might cancel plans to go out because you feel self-conscious about the rash, or you could be up half the night because the constant itch is driving you mad. It is a common skin condition impacting one in five children and one in 10 adults, but sometimes eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis (AD), really can be unbearable.

From the constant cycle of itching and scratching to the red raw, cracked and bleeding skin that comes during a flare-up, it can have a real impact on people’s quality of life. Not only can it affect a person’s physical wellbeing, it can have a severe impact on their mental health too. One study into hand eczema showed most patients suffered significant impairment in their daily lives.

In recent years, there has been much interest in the dermatology community around medical cannabis and its potential as an alternative treatment for eczema. The cannabis sativa L. plant has been taken worldwide for therapeutic purposes for thousands of years, but its psychoactive effects have caused it to come under fire with many countries, including the UK, classifying it as illegal.

However, the law changed in 2018 to allow medical cannabis to be prescribed under certain, strictly defined circumstances. Products containing active cannabis compounds but without the associated high have also come onto the market, providing new hope for eczema sufferers.

Eczema and cannabis: the science

Cannabis has been cultivated for thousands of years and has been used for many practical and medicinal applications. Some of the earliest records dating back to ancient Greek and Roman times listed its use for everything from gout and constipation to mood improvement and pain relief. It is also a valuable source of fibres and has been used in textile, clothing, and shoe production as well as biofuel, paper, and ropes.

However, its euphoric effects have led to it being banned in many countries and it’s only in the last 50 years that research into its therapeutic effects has been carried out. It remains a controversial substance and research is in its infancy, but results so far suggest it has a promising role to play in the development of new drugs to help everything from rosacea and psoriasis to pain relief in cancer sufferers and of course, eczema.

So how does it work? Cannabis contains many active compounds called cannabinoids, and to date, scientists have found more than 100 of them. It also contains terpenes, compounds which are responsible for the smell of cannabis and are thought to aid or increase the effectiveness of the cannabinoid compounds, as well as potentially offer their own therapeutic benefits. 

The two most active cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Both potentially offer many positive health outcomes, but while THC offers the intoxicating effect relating to recreational cannabis usage, CBD is totally non-intoxicating.

It is CBD which is of particular interest in treating eczema because it possesses anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-itch properties. Moreover, it has a good safety profile, with relatively low levels of the compound needed to have an effect on the skin.

Dr Henry Granger Piffard, widely considered to be one of the founders of American Dermatology, even wrote about the benefits of cannabis on eczema long before the rest of the scientific community started researching it. He said: “A pill of cannabis indica at bedtime has at my hands sometimes afforded relief to the intolerable itching of eczema.”

The reason CBD is of interest is that it interacts well with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a vast and complex network of signaller cells and transmitters responsible for many critical functions in the body, in particular skin homeostasis, and the manipulation of this system by CBD can reduce inflammation, reduce scarring and promote skin healing.

Five ways that medical cannabis may help eczema sufferers

It reduces inflammation

Eczema is an inflammatory condition causing redness, swelling, cracked and bleeding skin. Cannabis possesses strong anti-inflammatory properties, which could help reduce the appearance of eczema. Researchers showed THC could suppress allergic contact dermatitis in mice when it is bound with CB1 receptors in the ECS.

It may decrease itching

A team at Johns Hopkin Medicine studied the effects of medical cannabis on treating chronic itching in one patient. The woman, an African American in her 60s, had a 10-year history of chronic itching. However, doctors found that after using medical cannabis, she had a near-instantaneous improvement.

It acts as a pain reliever

Eczema not only causes itching, but it can cause pain too, particularly if the skin becomes cracked and bleeds. Many studies have shown it can relieve pain because of THC’s interaction with receptors in the brain linked to pain relief and mood.

It offers antimicrobial potential

When eczema becomes severe and the skin cracks, there is an increased risk of infection. However, CBD has shown promising activity against several bacteria, including MRSA.

Topical CBD has fewer side effects than steroid creams

To date, topical application of CBD has been shown to be safe. It also doesn’t have the same side effects as traditional creams which can cause skin thinning, colour changes and a worsening of symptoms over a prolonged period of application.

How to take medical cannabis for eczema

To deal with eczema, sufferers need a robust daily skincare routine using hypoallergenic moisturisers and cleansers. They should also try to avoid common eczema triggers such as perfumed products, washing powders, hot or cold temperatures, low humidity and certain fibres.

Topical creams can be applied to the surface of the affected skin, and cannabis-based products could be beneficial. However, patients should exercise caution when choosing the right product for them:

  • Potency – CBD is typically measured in mg, but there are no specific dosages at this stage recommended for eczema sufferers. Start with a low dose, take a cautious approach and monitor its effects. If you choose a product containing THC beware that potency has been steadily increasing – in the 1990s the average THC in confiscated marijuana was 4%, by 2018 it was more than 15%.
  • Check ingredients – As well as cannabis-derived ingredients, have a look for other skin soothing compounds as part of the cream, which can aid overall healing.
  • Irritants – Some terpenes can make the itch worse. Similarly, different manufacturing processes and a lack of quality control can mean some products contain compounds which could irritate. Always buy from a reputable supplier.
  • Health claims – Very few cannabis products have been legally approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in the UK, but some makers will claim they cure all sorts of ills. Beware of claims it can treat serious conditions – research is still ongoing, and its full therapeutic benefits not fully known.

Safety tips and considerations

Recreational cannabis or marijuana is still illegal in the UK – possession carries the risk of a fine and imprisonment of up to five years, while cultivation and supply carries a sentence of up to 14 years. However, medical cannabis is legal under limited circumstances. Its use is strictly controlled and must be prescribed by a doctor.

Products which contain THC such as medical cannabis can cause euphoria or a sense of relaxation, increased appetite and an altered perception of time. However, some people also experience fear, anxiety, distrust, or panic. With cannabis use, there is a risk of substance abuse. One study found 30% of those who use cannabis may experience substance use disorder.

Products containing CBD oil are legal in the UK provided they contain less than 0.2% THC. Hemp seed oil products are also legal.

Aside from the legality, it’s important to only buy your cannabis products from reputable sources so you can be sure you’re getting the same potency each time and that no other products which could exacerbate your condition or cause other side effects have been added.

While topical cannabis medications are generally well-tolerated with few side effects, it’s essential to note that when ingested or inhaled, it can produce some unwanted side effects.

These include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Diarrhoea
  • Reduced appetite
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue

Is cannabis the answer for eczema sufferers?

It’s still early days and there needs to be more research, but the evidence does suggest that cannabis products could be beneficial to people with eczema. While it can reduce itching, improve skin and help people sleep better, its full effects around efficacy and long-term use are still unknown.

As with any medication, medical cannabis should only be used after a discussion with a doctor or healthcare professional.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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