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Dr Baumann Skin Types
Cosmeceutical Critique: Oatmeal

Volume 35, Issue 11, Page 44 (November 2004)

Like many botanical products, the common or wild oat (Avena sativa) has a long history of traditional folk use, particularly in poultices or soaks.

The use of oats in skin care dates back to 2000 B.C. in Egypt and the Arabian peninsula.

Oats have been used internally and externally for conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, and skin conditions, and in forms ranging from tea to baths.

Oatmeal baths were frequently used in the 19th and early 20th centuries for various cutaneous conditions, particularly pruritic inflammatory outbreaks.

Although there is a dearth of information in the literature on the therapeutic benefits of oats and oat products (Cosmet. Toiletries 1995;110:63-70), recent research seems to bear out the anti-inflammatory properties that are ascribed to oats in folk medicine and clinical practice.

Avena sativa is also believed to promote the release of luteinizing hormone, which is integral in the production and release of sex hormones such as testosterone.

This might explain the traditional use of oats as an aphrodisiac and, in turn, shed light on the origin of the expression “sowing wild oats.”

In addition, oatmeal is one of the few natural products or ingredients acknowledged by the Food and Drug Administration to be an effective skin protectant.

The Science Behind Colloidal Oatmeal

As a component in the modern dermatologic armamentarium, colloidal oatmeal has replaced rolled oats and oatmeals.

For decades, colloidal grain suspensions have been used as adjuncts in the treatment of atopic dermatitis (Am. J. Contact Dermat. 1997;8:207-9).

Generally, better benefits are seen with the use of oat fractions rather than whole oatmeal (Phytother. Res. 2003;17:987-1000).

The composition of colloidal oatmeal is diverse, and includes polysaccharides (60%-64%), proteins (10%-18%), lipids (3%-9%), saponins, enzymes (such as the potent antioxidant superoxide dismutase), prostaglandin-synthesis inhibitors, flavonoids, and vitamins.

Colloidal oatmeal has been found to be safe, cosmetically stable, and nonirritating.

Evidence suggests that this modern version of the traditional elixir is effective in protecting and repairing skin and hair that has been damaged by environmental insults such as ultraviolet radiation, smoke, bacteria, and free radicals.

Colloidal oatmeal also eases cutaneous inflammation and discomfort (Phytother. Res. 2003;17:987-1000).

Evidence also shows that colloidal oatmeal repairs damage from other chemicals, such as alpha hydroxy acids, surfactants, and bleaches (Cosmet. Toiletries 1998;113:45-52).

The biologic activity of oat compounds appears to be quite dynamic.

Whole oat flour is believed to be cleansing and protective in nature, with antioxidant properties and the ability to inhibit prostaglandin synthesis.

Another oat compound, oat ?-glucan, is believed to be immunomodulatory.

Oat proteins exhibit various capacities and effects, including emulsifying activity, fat-binding activity, water-hydration capacity, low foaming potential, and antioxidant activity (courtesy of superoxide dismutase). Oat lipids may influence viscosity and pasting properties and may decrease transepidermal water loss.

In a double-blind, randomized patch study of two concentrations of colloidal oat and rice grains (0.007% and 0.7%), the products were applied topically to the backs of 65 Italian children (43 atopic, 22 normal) who were aged 6 months to 2 years old.

Both topical colloidal grains demonstrated efficacy as adjuncts in the treatment of mild atopic dermatitis, with no evidence of inducing sensitization (Am. J. Contact Dermat. 1997;8:207-9).

The Studies

Recent evidence points toward an expanding range of indications for colloidal oatmeal.

A clinical study compared the effectiveness of two shower and bath oils—one containing liquid paraffin, and the other containing liquid paraffin with 5% colloidal oatmeal—to alleviate pruritus that was experienced by 35 acute burn patients.

Analysis of patient assessments of pain (recorded twice daily) and the daily number of their antihistamine requests demonstrated that the colloidal oatmeal group reported significantly less pruritus and requested significantly less antihistamine (J. Burn Care Rehabil. 2001;22:76-81).

In an influential study on 12 healthy individuals, researchers evaluated the anti-inflammatory activity of two topically applied oatmeal extracts, Avena sativa and the trademarked Avena Rhealba.

Using the sodium lauryl sulfate irritation model, the researchers found that both extracts exhibited preventive effects on skin irritation (Skin Pharmacol. Appl. Skin Physiol. 2002;15:120-4).

Another study focused on the anti-inflammatory effect of oatmeal extract oligomer on skin fragments (from plastic surgery) that were stimulated by the inflammation-inducing neuromediator vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP).

In that study, researchers found that application of VIP resulted in significant increases in vasodilation, but subsequent application of oatmeal extract oligomer significantly reduced that vasodilation, along with edema (Int. J. Tissue React. 2003;25:41-6).

Results from the few available studies suggest that oatmeal compounds provide relief for several conditions.

Clinical indications for colloidal oatmeal include poison ivy, poison oak, sumac, insect bites, chicken pox, eczema, rashes, hives, diaper rash, prickly heat, sunburn, pruritic conditions, psoriasis, senile and pediatric dermatoses, xerosis, and epidermolysis bullosa.

Oatmeal extracts also confer modulating effects in the sodium lauryl sulfate skin irritancy model.

Oatmeal on the Shelf

New oatmeal-containing skin care products have recently become available at pharmacies and drug outlets in the wake of recent scientific evidence.

Most products come in the form of colloidal baths.

Aveeno, a division of Johnson & Johnson, derived its name from the Latin name for the oat plant (avena), and many of their products contain colloidal oatmeal. [Dr. Baumann has served on the Aveeno advisory board.]

Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Bath ($6.29 for an eight-packet box) is a colloidal oatmeal formulation indicated for most of the conditions discussed above.

Other brands also contain colloidal oatmeal, including Queen Helene's Batherapy 100% Natural Colloidal Oatmeal Bath ($6.99 for 7 ounces), manufactured by Para Laboratories Inc.

As part of a daily skin care regimen, colloidal oatmeal is suitable for cleansing (especially dry, sensitive, or atopic skin), moisturizing, and providing protection to the skin.

Tradition and Anecdotal Evidence

Given all the evidence, it looks as if oatmeal isn't just for breakfast anymore! In fact, oatmeal has a surprisingly long tradition in skin care.

Although there are few trials demonstrating the efficacy of oatmeal products in the clinical setting, anecdotal evidence is compelling regarding the therapeutic uses of oatmeal and its derivatives in dermatologic practice.

DR. LESLIE S. BAUMANN is director of cosmetic dermatology at the University of Miami. To respond to this column, or to suggest topics for future columns, write to Dr. Baumann at our editorial offices via e-mail at

© 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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