Are Bleach Baths Safe for Eczema?
Putting bleach voluntarily into one’s bathwater immediately sets off alarm bells, and for good reason. But before we get too carried away with the notion that the product we use to strip the red wine stains from our white trousers after a spirited pub crawl shouldn’t be used on our delicate eczema covered skin, let’s first just look at the argument for why this is discussed as one of many forms of effective eczema treatments.
What does bleach do?
Not only does it remove the color from everything it touches, but it is also wonderful for killing off bacteria. It works by unfolding the proteins within the bacteria to effectively kill it, stone-cold-dead.
Many medical practitioners have been touting the benefits of bleach baths for people with eczema for many years, and their reasoning is this? The skin is open to infection and when bacteria enters the open skin, as it often does, it causes further irritation which is then scratched, sending the person into a vicious scratch-infection cycle. If a mild bleach bath is used, this will kill off the bacteria in the eczema and thus bring relief to the person.
Wow, that sounds all too good to be true. Just common household bleach huh? Yes, that’s what they recommend!
It is important to note that there are many reason the skin is itchy, with harmful bacteria as just one of them.
The instructions for a bleach bath recommend using fragrance free bleach, diluting the water close to that of a swimming pool and performing between 2-3 baths per week. Now, this method has certainly brought comfort to many people struggling with eczema and dermatitis, however there are a few obvious issues here that I would like to address.
The basis of common household bleach is chlorine and as you may already be aware, chlorine is a known irritant for skin as it strips the much needed oils from the upper layers. However, our natural oils are designed to protect the skin and the levels are already significantly lower in a person with eczema.
Yes it is used in swimming pools and yes it does kill germs but at what cost and is it being used in place of something better?
Most people will have no issue jumping into their local swimming pool for a summertime cool off but lucky for them, their skin is already sealed and plump with their own natural oils. But put that same person into the pool consistently 2-3 times per week and you will find that even their strong skin will eventually begin to become dry or flaky.
Now change that scenario from a healthy skinned individual to an eczema sufferer and you might initially see an improvement in their inflammation due to the bacterial die off. However, look a bit closer and you may eventually see a further degradation in their skin barrier due to the natural oils being further stripped away.
On the matter of bacteria
Our skin actually plays host to what is called Microbiota, which is kind of like the good bacteria which lives in our gut. The microbiota on our skin play important roles in protecting the skin and warding off pathogenic intruders, so when you start a war with this irritating bacteria, you are also going to kill off the good soldiers (bacteria) as well.
This practice could potentially cause further imbalance to the skin going forward, which is certainly not desirable.
Another issue with bleach baths as an eczema treatment
Bleach is very strongly alkaline whereas the skins natural state is actually slightly acidic. This acidity benefits the skin by killing off harmful bacteria and maintaining skin barrier repairing functions.
When a bleach bath is performed, the environment of the skin changes the pH to an alkaline state which disables the effectiveness of these protective properties.
Consider the natural pH level of the skin sits at about 5.5 and the pH level of bleach is around 12, before dilution. This can potentially cause serious burns so always exercise MUCH caution if using this method.
If the persons eczema is able to heal relatively fast and no more baths are required, then the skin should be able to restore its natural oils and pH with the right support and diet. However, if long term use of bleach baths are required, just understand that the skins barrier can easily become further compromised.
The concept of a bleach bath sounds scary, but for many people it's the only thing which has brought relief to either them or their child so if it’s a choice between this treatment and a course of oral antibiotics, the bath wins.
If you're considering this as a method of eczema treatment, educate yourself of all the other options first such as bentonite clay or dead sea salt baths for example. Ensure you use an oil or moisturizer afterwards, and be prepared for the possibility that this approach may further compromise the integrity of some already delicate skin.