Merino medical breakthrough

17 September 2012

A dedicated research team at the Queensland Institute of Dermatology (QID) has been exploring the role that superfine Merino knitwear has in the treatment of chronic dermatitis conditions, such as atopic dermatitis.

Research leader Dr Lynda Spelman, Teagan Holland, Kurt Davidson and study facilitator Dr Eshini Perera examine the Merino wool apparel used in the study.

A major challenge for the global wool industry is that about four in 10 consumers globally associate the word ‘wool’ with ‘prickle and itch’, and one in 10 thinks wool is an allergen. In some of our key markets, such as China, this belief is held so strongly and widely that it acts as a major barrier to having consumers and even paediatricians consider trialling wool for baby wear.

As a result, conventional dermatological wisdom is for people with sensitive skin to avoid wearing wool.

Now, in what may come to be seen as a major breakthrough in this perception battle, a dedicated research team at the Queensland Institute of Dermatology (QID) has been exploring the role that superfine Merino knitwear has in the treatment of chronic dermatitis conditions, such as atopic dermatitis.

The observations of the QID study might have major ramifications in how wool is perceived, and open doors to new high value product markets.

Due to a reduced ability of their skin to retain moisture and resist infection, chronic sufferers of atopic dermatitis are faced with a lifetime of needing to constantly apply skin moisturisers, avoid heat, and often rely on prescribed anti-inflammatories in the form of topical steroid and antibiotic creams, and even oral antibiotics to manage their conditions.

Led by QID’s Dr Lynda Spelman, a pilot study funded by The Woolmark Company has been exploring the impact of wearing fine Merino over the affected areas of the skin for sufferers of atopic dermatitis. This chronic condition is becoming increasingly prevalent and affects 8-12 per cent of children.

The working hypothesis has been that suitably specified fine Merino products would not irritate the delicate skin surface, and in fact create a beneficial microclimate which reduces the rate of epidermal moisture loss, skin drying, and therefore bacterial infection risks and the desire to scratch the itch (“pruritus”).

The early findings of this study have excited both The Woolmark Company and the clinical dermatology research team. QID recruited 30 long-term sufferers of chronic atopic dermatitis (both male and female) and trialled Superfine Merino knitwear as alternatives to their typical clothing – these consisted of commercially available underpants, longsleeve tops, gloves and socks, as well as custom-made bras. The patients were monitored across a six-week period, with four examinations before the Merino wool garments were used and three examinations post-Merino wool.

“These initial results have truly been amazing,” Dr Spelman said. “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.

“Wool appears to be keeping the relative humidity of the wearer’s skin at the levels it should be, preventing it from becoming too dry, or too wet.

“The finding will probably be controversial in dermatological circles, but all of us here at QID are inspired to continue this study for a longer period of time.”

For The Woolmark Company’s Group Manager of Market Intelligence and Reporting, Dr Paul Swan, the results are both extremely positive, and not surprising.

“A major focus of The Woolmark Company’s investment program is validating and communicating the health and wellbeing benefits of wool products,” Dr Swan said.

“There is a strong trend in the  market towards healthy and environmentally friendly products, and wool’s natural attributes make it very suitable as an integral part of everyone’s health regime.

“Our suspicion has been that by actively buffering the skin surface moisture and temperature levels, Merino wool would alleviate some of the symptoms caused by atopic dermatitis – acting as a second skin.

“While it is early days for this stream of research, the results are extremely encouraging. If as successful as we expect, the findings from Lynda’s team are potentially profound for both the wool industry, but also sufferers of this debilitating, life-long condition.”

Click here to read more about the study's findings.