Oatmeal Baths


Oatmeal protects your skin and soothes itchy, irritated skin.
Oatmeal protects your skin and soothes itchy, irritated skin.
©iStockphoto.com/Monika Adamczyk

There are lots of reasons to love oatmeal. It makes a delicious breakfast, warming you up on cold winter mornings, and it can also be added to pancakes or bread for tasty, fiber-filled versions of some of your favorite foods. If that weren't enough to make you love oatmeal, research shows that it's one of the best foods for lowering cholesterol and helping prevent heart attacks [source: Mayo Clinic].

It turns out oatmeal is just as good for your outsides as it is for your insides. This cereal staple has as long a history in health and beauty treatments as it does on the breakfast table. This is because oatmeal functions as a skin protectant -- it protects the skin from irritants and helps soothe skin that's itchy, painful or irritated [source: Cosmetics Info].

In the health and beauty world, oatmeal goes by two names. When it's used as a skin protectant in over-the-counter treatments, such as oatmeal bath products used for treating chickenpox or other skin conditions, it's called colloidal oatmeal. When used in cosmetic products, such as lotions or facial masks, it's often referred to as Avena sativa (oat) kernel meal [source: Food and Drug Administration].

Although oatmeal has a variety of uses, one of its most popular applications is as a folk remedy in the treatment of poison ivy. In fact, it's so popular that you probably know someone who swears by it. Read on to learn how oatmeal tames the itch caused by poison ivy.

Oatmeal Baths for Poison Ivy

You may have heard the adage, "Leaves of three, let them be." It's a popular schoolyard rhyme that helps children recognize poison ivy, a shiny, three-leafed plant that can wreak havoc on a camping trip or nature hike.

If you've ever come in contact poison ivy, you know the price that's typically paid for disturbing it: a red, itchy rash that's often accompanied by blisters. This reaction occurs because urushiol, a chemical found in poison ivy, causes a form of eczema called allergic contact dermatitis. Certain people get similar rashes from allergic reactions to metals, foods or antibiotics [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. Although it takes only a few minutes for urushiol to penetrate the surface of the skin, it can take hours -- anywhere from 12 to 72 -- for a rash to develop [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

The best treatment for poison ivy is proactive care: If you know you've been exposed, immediately clean the area with warm water and soap. For more intensive treatment, apply rubbing alcohol to the area. Also, be sure to remove and clean any clothing that might have come in contact with urushiol. However, if it's been more than an hour since exposure, the urushiol has already had time to penetrate your skin [source: Mayo Clinic]. If you're one of the 85 percent of people who are allergic to poison ivy, it may be time to start looking for ways to relieve the inevitable itch -- such as an oatmeal bath [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

While doctors aren't positive why oatmeal baths relieve the itchy symptoms of poison ivy, some studies show that avenanthramides and phenols, chemicals in oatmeal, have anti-inflammatory properties [source: Sur., Kurtz]. Because avenanthramides and phenols reduce the inflammation caused by the skin's reaction to urushiol, this may explain why oatmeal can temporarily relieve itchiness.

Oatmeal and oatmeal baths aren't just used to treat poison ivy. Keep reading to learn about other uses for oatmeal baths.

Other Uses for Oatmeal Baths

Oatmeal baths aren't used only for relief from poison ivy -- you can soak in this home remedy for a variety of other mild skin irritations.

If you have chickenpox, insect bites or a rash caused by an allergic reaction, oatmeal baths can provide temporary relief just like they do for poison ivy. Because oatmeal has anti-inflammatory properties, it can soothe the inflammation that results from your body's reaction to allergens [source: Sur]. Oatmeal baths are also a popular remedy for sunburns, dry skin and conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Itchy, dry skin often has a high pH level, but oatmeal can help normalize your skin's pH, which can relieve itchy, uncomfortable skin [source: CTV]. Oatmeal baths also soften and moisturize your skin, which helps lock in moisture and protect skin from exterior irritants [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

The advantages of oatmeal don't stop there. Saponins, chemical components found in oatmeal, allow oatmeal to function as an effective natural cleanser -- they absorb dirt, oil and odor. Oatmeal also contains phenols and flavonoids that provide protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays and act as antioxidants to fight free radicals. Plus, the presence of avenacins in oatmeal suggests that it may also have some antifungal properties [source: Rosacea Support Group].

Now that you're aware of all the benefits an oatmeal bath can provide, check out the next page for tips on how to prepare one.

How to Take an Oatmeal Bath

Oatmeal baths can soften your skin and tame the itch caused by allergic reactions or skin conditions, and they're easy to make at home. You can purchase colloidal oatmeal, oatmeal that's ground into a fine powder, at most drugstores [source: Cosmetics Info]. Colloidal oatmeal won't sink to the bottom of the tub -- it remains suspended in your bathwater, which maximizes exposure to your skin.

When preparing an oatmeal bath, use tepid water -- particularly if you're taking an oatmeal bath as a treatment for poison ivy, allergic reactions, dry skin or chickenpox. Water that's too hot can draw moisture from your skin or aggravate already inflamed skin. Add the colloidal oatmeal as water flows from the faucet to ensure it mixes completely. Soak for 10 minutes or however long the package or your doctor recommends. If you feel sticky after your oatmeal bath, rinse with tepid water. Afterward, pat or blot yourself dry with a towel -- don't rub your skin because this can cause irritation. You can take an oatmeal bath up to three times a day to treat dry, itchy or irritated skin [source: Whole Health MD].

Whether you bathe in it, scrub with it or eat it, there are a lot of reasons to love oatmeal. To learn more about oatmeal and its benefits, visit the links listed on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Minimizing Flare-ups." (Accessed 9/13/09) http://www.skincarephysicians.com/psoriasisnet/flare_ups.html
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  • A.W. Read. "A History of Dr. Johnson's Definition of Oats." Agricultural History. Vol. 8, No. 3, p. 81.
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  • Kurtz, ES and Wallo, W. "Colloidal oatmeal: history, chemistry and clinical properties." PubMed. (Accessed 9/13//09)http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17373175
  • Mayo Clinic. "Cholesterol: The top 5 foods to lower your numbers." (Accessed 9/12/09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cholesterol/CL00002
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  • Roscea Support Group. "Colloidal Oatmeal: A Dream Ingredient for Rosacea Sufferers." (Accessed 9/13/09)http://rosacea-support.org/colloidal-oatmeal-a-dream-ingredient-for-rosacea-sufferers.html
  • Sur, Runa, et al. "Avenanthramides, polyphenols from oats, exhibit anti-inflammatory and anti-itch activity." Archives of Dermatologic Research. (Accessed 9/13/09) http://www.springerlink.com/content/lh588j6x6n21r761/
  • WebMD. "Baby Eczema: 7 Questions Answered." (Accessed 9/13/09) http://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby-eczema-questions-answers?page=2
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