Eczema, also known as Atopic Dermatitis, is approaching epidemic levels in Western nations, with more than 25% of all children born in Australia having a degree of eczema. Sufferers of the condition have dysfunctional skin that dries out, which leads to the skin cracking, bacterial infection, redness, scratching and itching.
However, in positive news for the wool industry, two recent dermatology trials - funded by The Woolmark Company - have shown that infant and adult sufferers of eczema have reduced symptoms when wearing superfine Merino wool garments next to the skin.
The successful research findings are being documented and published in high-rating dermatological journals, and a communications and marketing plan has been prepared, in collaboration with the International Wool Textile Organization, to effectively take this positive message about Merino wool to high-value consumer markets across the world.
Study 1: clinical trial of infants with eczema (MCRI, Melbourne)
A study of approximately 40 babies and young children under 3 years old, at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, showed significant advantages of superfine Merino wool base-layers over cotton in improving the symptoms of eczema. In the study half the children wore 100% superfine Merino wool for six weeks before changing over to cotton, with the remaining children starting in cotton before switching over to Merino wool after six weeks.
“We found that wearing superfine Merino wool led to an overall greater improvement in eczema, when compared with wearing outfits made of cotton,” said Associate Professor John Su.
“This finding challenges prevalent beliefs in the lay and medical communities, as well as findings from older, less rigorously performed studies from the mid-1950s, when coarser diameter and heavier wool garments were used.
“Skin irritation from any fibre type partly relates to the diameter of fibres. While wool can have many fibre diameters, only low diameter (superfine) Merino wool garments were used in the MCRI study.
“When comparing Merino with cotton, there are also other inherent differences in fibre properties: Merino’s greater ability to transfer moisture vapour and heat than the other major apparel fibres enable it to maintain a more stable microclimate between the skin and the garment.”
These research findings about the beneficial impacts of Merino wool have been presented by Associate Professor Su at dermatology conferences in Brazil (International Society of Atopic Dermatitis), France (European Society of Pediatric Dermatology) and Australia (Australasian College of Dermatologists). A paper entitled ‘Determining the Effects of Superfine Sheep wool in Infantile Eczema’ has also been submitted for publication in a high impact peer-reviewed dermatological journal.
The findings have already generated media interest. In Australia, the Nine Network broadcasted a very positive news report on the study’s findings. Featured in the news report were Rheannan Williams and her 2-year-old daughter who suffers from eczema.
“The eczema was red, painful and blistery,” Rheannan said. “But within two to three weeks of wearing wool it was unbelievable… her skin is clear… I would 100% recommend it, it’s amazing.”
Study 2: clinical trial of adolescents and adults with eczema (QIDerm, Brisbane)
A parallel study of adolescent and adult sufferers of eczema in Brisbane by the Queensland Institute of Dermatology (QIDerm) has confirmed the beneficial findings of wearing superfine Merino wool.
QID research leader Dr Lynda Spelman, Teagan Holland, Kurt Davidson and study facilitator Dr Eshini Perera examine the Merino apparel used in their initial studies.
Dr Lynda Spelman of QIDerm says all the trial participants showed substantially reduced symptoms with none of them displaying an allergic or irritant reaction.
“We have seen substantial reductions in skin dryness, redness and itchiness and in the measured area of inflammation - and for a number of the patients, this is the first time a real solution to their condition has been presented,” Dr Spelman said.
She says the results appear to relate partly to the unique moisture management properties of wool.
“Wool is a hygroscopic fibre which has the ability to absorb up to 36% of its weight in water and create a thermal buffer between the skin and the external environment. The wool appears to be keeping the moisture content of the wearer’s delicate skin at the levels it should be, preventing it from becoming too dry and therefore reducing the risks of bacterial infection and the desire to scratch the itch.
“Furthermore, superfine Merino is not able to pierce the epidermal layers, due to its small diameter, thus not initiating a localised, inflammatory response.”
Positive results for superfine Merino wool
The trials have been conducted using lightweight, 150 gram per square metre superfine Merino wool garments with a micron range finer than 18.6 microns.
Program Manager of Fibre Advocacy and Eco Credentials with The Woolmark Company, Angus Ireland, says the studies demonstrate a strong role for superfine Merino in fostering healthy skin and managing eczema.
“The traditional advice to indiscriminately avoid wool against the skin, based on early commentaries that failed to distinguish between wool fibre types, can now be modified to include superfine Merino as a recommended next-to-skin clothing choice.
“It’s interesting to note that, prior to the QIDerm study, most patients say they couldn’t tolerate wool and many believed they were allergic to wool. However, we didn’t have a single patient withdraw from the study due to any types of intolerance of these superfine wools.
“The results from the dermatological research are extremely encouraging and provide a significant opportunity for Merino wool. The findings are potentially not only profound for sufferers of this debilitating and potentially life-long condition, but also for the wool industry.”
The fact that the Brisbane-based study was undertaken throughout the city’s hot and humid summer conditions, also shows that low-micron lightweight wool garments are suitable for all seasons.
From R&D to marketing
A major focus of The Woolmark Company’s ‘Fibre Advocacy’ investment program is validating and communicating the health and wellbeing benefits of wool products.
“The major challenge in this area is that globally more than 4 in 10 consumers who won’t consider purchasing wool garments nominate perceived itch and prickle as the reason, with around 1 in 10 claiming they are allergic to it, even though there is no credible evidence that wool is an allergen” Angus said.
“If these misconceptions about wool can be addressed then there is huge potential to ‘unlock’ demand growth for Merino wool because of the strong trend in consumer markets towards healthy and environmentally friendly products.
“This is especially true for markets such as babywear, sleepwear and underwear as well as base-layer activewear. These are relatively new markets for wool, containing products that are used every day and can command a high retail price per kilogram of fibre used - which is good news for Australian woolgrowers.
“A risk management activity associated with this research is the development of a specification for garments that are suitable for eczema sufferers’ delicate skin, as use of inappropriate garments could quickly undermine this good news story. Low micron (18.5 micron or less), lightweight (150 gram per square metre) Merino garments were used in the studies but comfort is also affected by other fibre, fabric and garment characteristics which may need to be controlled. The Woolmark Company is developing a Woolmark specification ‘Suitable or sensitive skin’ which will evolve into a swing tag to help ensure shoppers choose appropriate garments.
“Ultimately, The Woolmark Company program aims to increase and maintain demand.”