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Close contact: wool for eczema

Photography by Saskia Wilson
Styling by Mitchell Oakley Smith

As scientific studies continue to demonstrate the benefits of natural remedies to treat many conditions, Lisa Griplas reports on wool’s wellbeing properties.

Joanna wears John Smedley super fine Merino wool cardigan. Above: Rosie wears P. Johnson Tailors super fine Merino wool sweaters.

Many of us have broken out in a rash at least once in our lives – heat rash, stress rash, or some other nasty. But spare a thought for those who suffer from constant breakouts, or for babies too young to understand what this intense itchy, dry skin is. Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, now affects up to 28% of children. Its prevalence varies geographically and is increasing in many countries. Eczema sufferers have dysfunctional skin that dries out, which can lead to cracked skin, bacterial infection, redness, scratching and itching.


Ketung wears P. Johnson Tailors super fine Merino wool sweater.

However, in a major medical breakthrough, wool has been found to be beneficial to the skin, providing a natural adjunct treatment for eczema that reduces the need for traditional medicines. Dermatologial trials have shown that adult and infant eczema sufferers who wear superfine Merino wool garments – of 17.5 microns or less – next to the skin have significantly reduced symptoms.

Whether it’s hot, cold, humid or dry, Merino wool garments are the most breathable of the common apparel types because of wool’s ability to absorb and release twice as much moisture vapour as cotton, and 30 times as much as polyester. When worn next to the skin, super fine Merino wool works as a dynamic buffer, helping to stabilise the humidity levels and temperature of the micro-climate between the fabric and the skin. It appears super fine Merino wool acts like a second skin for people whose ‘first’ skin is too dry. 

According to a Nielsen survey, commissioned by The Woolmark Company, half of the consumers that decline to purchase wool do so because they consider it itchy or incompatible with their skin. Until now, the evidence behind beliefs that wool is an allergen had not been critically appraised or examined in light of today's improved understanding of allergy and the modern light-weight, low-micron wool garments now available. It is therefore important to challenge these myths and champion wool’s wellbeing benefits. Similarly, although most members of the medical community accept that wool is not an allergen, medical professionals continue to recommend that their patients with eczema avoid wool garments.


Brody wears John Smedley super fine Merino wool sweater.

In response, The Woolmark Company initiated a multidisciplinary collaboration of allergists, immunologists and dermatologists, and a leading wool textile chemist, to re-examine the evidence. Their task was to review the claim that wool is an allergen, as it appeared in scientific literature over the past 100 years. The group has now published a paper Debunking the Myth of Wool Allergy, in which it concludes that there is no evidence to support the conclusion that wool is an allergen. Importantly, it was found that any skin irritation caused by garments, independent of fibre type, was due to course fibres protruding from the fabric (in diameters greater than 30 microns). Skin irritation can be caused just as readily be caused by coarse synthetic fibres as by coarse wool fibres.

The theory that superfine Merino wool worn next to the skin could benefit eczema sufferers was put to the test in this study led by Associate Professor John Su at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

The study showed that superfine Merino wool clothing reduced the severity of paediatric mild-moderate atopic dermatitis as compared to cotton clothing. It found the reduction in eczema symptoms over a six-week period while wearing wool clothing and the subsequent increase in symptoms on resuming cotton clothing.

Published in the British Journal of Dermatology, this study challenges the misconception that all wool is to be avoided by children with eczema. The study concluded that traditional management guidelines classing all wool-based clothing as irritants should be modified to include superfine Merino wool as a recommended clothing choice in childhood atopic dermatitis.

Joanna wears John Smedley super fine Merino wool sweater.

A second study, concerning adolescent and adult sufferers of eczema, by the Queensland Institute of Dermatology [QIDerm] in Brisbane has also demonstrated the beneficial effects of wearing superfine Merino wool next to the skin.

Published in the Journal of Scientific & Technical Research, the study concluded superfine Merino wool base-layer garments could provide a valuable adjunct therapy in the management of atopic dermatitis. 

“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.

A study of children and adult sufferers of eczema by the Division of Dermatology, University of Louisville, Kentucky has also demonstrated the beneficial effects of wearing superfine Merino wool next to the skin. The study, published in the medical journal Dermatitis and led by Professor Joe Fowler, confirmed that wearing Merino wool clothing compared to standard clothing provided improvements in severity of atopic dermatitis as well as quality of life in atopic dermatitis patients.

“This study and those of Professor John Su and Dr Lynda Spelman show that fine-diameter Merino wool clothing should be considered acceptable for people with eczema and seems to be therapeutic to patients with mild to moderate atopic dermatitis,” Professor Fowler said.


Ketung wears P. Johnson Tailors super fine Merino wool sweaters.

Lisa Griplas has more than ten years experience in the media and communications industry. A journalist by trade, she spent a number of years working at a daily newspaper before moving to The Woolmark Company to take up the role of Global Editor, a title she holds today.