Wool no longer a prickly subject

27 February 2015

53-year-old Rhonda Millard of Brisbane has been a long-term sufferer of atopic dermatitis (eczema), but since she started wearing superfine Merino wool knitwear next to her skin she has noticed a significant reduction in her symptoms.

Barbara Grant from Brisbane - wearing a Merino wool top - was one of the participants in QID trial: “My eczema has now completely cleared up which is a great relief.”

Rhonda was one of 30 women and men suffering from eczema that took part in a Woolmark-funded study by the Queensland Institute of Dermatology (QID) to explore the impact of wearing superfine Merino wool over areas of skin with by the condition.

“I have been affected by eczema all my life, which can be very uncomfortable and something that I can be very self-conscious about,” said Rhonda. “Typical areas that I’m affected by are behind the knees, on the elbows, body, buttocks, hands, and even on the scalp and face. Although I’ve used ointments, which work to some extent, I’d become resigned to accepting that I’d suffer from that level of eczema for the rest of my life.

“When I was asked to take part in the trial, to be honest I was quite sceptical because wool has traditionally been known as being itchy and scratchy. However, during the course of the six-week trial, the skin under which I wore a Merino wool vest definitely improved - the eczema both felt and looked better.

“It’s made a big difference to my life. Even though the trial has ended, I still frequently choose to wear the vests with which I was supplied. I absolutely love them. I was given six vests and they are still in very good condition.

“My eczema naturally tends to improve during summer, but if I ever start to feel itchy I put on one of the Merino vests and I know I will feel a lot better. I tend to wear them all through winter when my eczema traditionally tends to be worst.”

68-year-old Barbara Grant from Brisbane was another participant in the trial. She had been suffering from eczema under her breasts and also had shingles which had created little blisters across her back.

“I had previously been wearing synthetics which would irritate my skin, but was also a little doubtful that the long sleeve Merino wool that the QID researches provided me with would be suitable to wear, because I had always thought that wool was too hot for this climate,” Barbara said.

“But I was very pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the Merino was - it didn’t feel like how I thought ‘wool’ would feel.

“My eczema has now completely cleared up which is a great relief, and my shingles are a lot better. Prior to the trial, my shingles had caused me a lot of pain and very disturbed sleep, but by wearing and sleeping in the Merino wool top, the pain and sleeplessness were greatly reduced.”

Dr Lynda Spelman of QID says all the trial participants showed substantially reduced symptoms with none of them displaying an allergic or irritant reaction – a result which appears to relate to the unique moisture management properties of wool.

“These 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.

“The wool appears to be keeping the relative humidity 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.”

For The Woolmark Company General Manager Research Dr Paul Swan, the results are extremely positive and provide a profound opportunity for Merino wool.

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

“The major challenge in this area is that globally more than 4 in 10 consumers still nominate perceived prickle and itch as a barrier to buying wool products, with around 1 in 10 consumers claiming they are allergic to wool.

“Since these personal barriers reflect personal experience, or advice from people they trust, they ultimately can only be overcome with positive real-world experiences.

“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. 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.

“While it is still early days for this dermatological research, the results are extremely encouraging. The Merino wool appears to be actively buffering the skin surface moisture and temperature levels – acting like a second skin. The findings are potentially profound for sufferers of this debilitating, life-long condition, but also the wool industry.”

The Woolmark Company is continuing to fund research that aims to demonstrate that fine Merino products are healthy for the skin, especially for those with the most sensitive skin. QID continues its research with adults, while Murdoch Children’s Research Institute involves research with children.