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Is Oatmeal Really Good for Your Skin?

You may have noticed oatmeal listed as a principal ingredient in several skin cleansers and lotions, ostensibly because clinical studies expounding the merits of oatmeal would make it a beneficial, as well as natural, component.

After all, oatmeal, aka Avena sativa, grown in Russia, Europe, Asia, North and South America and Down Under, has been used for thousands of years as a topical lotion for aggravated skin from dryness or even insect bites, a study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology,1 sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, states.

Some may assume oatmeal used for this purpose is just another fad. After all, particularly in marketing terms, oatmeal is arguably as close to wholesome as mom and apple pie. But could oatmeal used therapeutically actually have merit?

The above study identified oatmeal as “a soothing agent to relieve itch and irritation,” made into a “colloidal” or homogenous mixture by grinding oatmeal and boiling it down to form skin cleansers, shaving gels and moisturizing creams. But here’s the kicker. The recipe for this grain, usually thought of as a breakfast food, is standardized by the United States Pharmacopeia2 and its use as a skin protectant is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medicinal purposes. 3

What Oatmeal Can Do for Skin and Why It’s So Important

Nearly everyone would say dry skin can be annoying, uncomfortable and even unsightly, but cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments have a particular need. Nutrition Facts notes:

“There’s a class of chemo drugs, like Cetuximab, that can cause an awful rash. Various treatments have been tried and failed. There was no clear preventive or curative treatment for this eruption …The researchers had heard about a study where human skin fragments from plastic surgery were subjected to an inflammatory chemical, and adding an oatmeal extract appeared to help.”4

When researchers learned from a Georgetown University study5 that an oatmeal extract had been used successfully to soothe these patients’ skin, their subsequent report caused a sensation in the medical world.   Of the 10 patients exhibiting chemotherapy drug-induced rashes who agreed to try the oatmeal extract lotion,6 six had a “complete response” and four had a “partial response,” which the scientists deemed to be a 100 percent rating for the oatmeal extract.

Here’s why: According to Journal of Drugs in Dermatology study, saponins in oatmeal give it the ability to cleanse, moisturize and soothe, basically providing a “buffer” to keep skin hydrated and protected. 

Further, phenols contribute “strong ultraviolet absorbers” and the starches and beta-glucans are recognized as humectant, or able to hold water, which furthers the product’s ability to act as an emollient. Those beta-glucans are something to pay attention to, as the next section explains. 

The Incredible Function of Beta-Glucans in Oatmeal

A Lithuanian study7 called beta-glucans naturally occurring polysaccharides; glucose polymers that are part of the cell wall of certain pathogenic bacteria and fungi. Beta-glucans, the study reported:

  • Increase host immune defense
  • Exhibit anticarcinogenic activity 
  • Confer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capability
  • Fight cancerous tumor formation and metastasis

The Georgetown University study noted that current treatment modalities for epidermal growth factor (EGFR)-positive cancers unfortunately cause the aforementioned side effects, for which there were no effective treatments. It also showed colloidal oatmeal to have “multiple anti-inflammatory properties with known effects on arachidonic acid,” which is important for skin health.8

Doctors from all over the world were intrigued enough by the study to try oatmeal extract on their own patients and got the same incredible results. DermNet New Zealand9 lists other skin conditions that may benefit from colloidal oatmeal:

  • Atopic and contact dermatitis (eczema)
  • Chickenpox
  • Insect bites
  • Poison ivy
  • Dry skin

Further, compounds in colloidal oatmeal exhibit ultraviolet light absorption to protect against sun damage and photoaging, as well as inhibiting prostaglandin production.

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