If you’ve had to deal with an outbreak of poison ivy, you know how it feels to want to get rid of that itchy rash ASAP. While your poison ivy likely won’t be able to be cured overnight, there are treatment options to help alleviate the pain, such as soothing moisturizers and topical or oral corticosteroids. But you may be wondering about more natural remedies, like the wide range of essential oils out there touting various healing properties. Can any of them truly work to treat poison ivy?
First off, before opting for a natural treatment like essential oils, it’s useful to understand your level of exposure.
“The ‘itch till you bleed’ ivy rash is an allergic reaction to the plant oil urushiol, which is highly allergic,” explains Yufang Lin, MD, a physician in the Center for Integrative Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “Once the plant contacts the skin, the plant oil quickly penetrates the skin where it triggers the white blood cells to react, and once activated, the reaction can last one to two weeks.”
Conventional therapy for poison ivy involves lotions and salves to tame itchiness, in addition to steroids to suppress the inflammation, Dr. Lin says.
“If you are able to remove the oil from your skin within hours of exposure, you may be able to avoid the symptoms altogether, or at least reduce the symptoms significantly,” Dr. Lin says.
Certain natural treatments like peppermint oil might be able to help a bit, adds Brian Kim, MD, co-director at the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “But these treatments are not nearly as effective at getting rid of the inflammation as [oral or topical corticosteroids],” he says.
As quickly as you can after known exposure, Dr. Lin advises washing the area really well with dish soap and water. Once the rash starts, she recommends using an OTC poison ivy scrub, which can lift the oil from the skin. Be patient and follow the instructions as it can take several minutes of scrubbing per site, which can often prevent the rash from progressing.
When to use essential oils for poison ivy
Then, if you do want to try an essential oil, you can use them in one of three ways: You can dilute them with distilled water to make an herbal wash, you can make a topical gel by mixing the oils with aloe vera, or you can make an herbal tea to put on your skin.
For a wash or gel: Lavender, helichrysum, roman chamomile, rose, tea tree, geranium can all be good options for treating poison ivy because they have anti-inflammatory properties, Dr. Lin says. However, you should avoid using citrus-based essential oils, as they can contribute to photosensitivity and also burn the already irritated skin, she says.
“Make sure the wash is diluted to no more than 2% (i.e. 10-12 drops per ounce of the water or aloe),” she says. “Avoid using oil as a carrier in this case because poison ivy rash tends to be hot and swollen. You do not want to trap the heat with oil.”
For the topical tea: Start by washing the affected area with a cooling herbal tea that has anti-inflammatory properties, such as chamomile, lavender, or oatmeal, recommends Dr. Lin. That may help calm the rash, reduce itchiness, and help healing. To make a tea, steep the flower or plant material in hot water, let cool, soak a towel with the tea (steeping liquid), and apply to the area of concern.
The bottom line on essential oils for poison ivy
Essential oils may potentially help to reduce symptoms, but they should not be your first line of defense when it comes to treating poison ivy.
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