Photography Saskia Wilson | Styling Mitchell Oakley Smith
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 20 to 30 per cent 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.
However, in a major medical breakthrough, wool has been found to be therapeutic to the skin, providing a natural treatment for eczema that reduces the need for traditional medicines. Dermatologial trials have shown that adult and infant eczema sufferers who wear super fine 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 thirty 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 therapeutic 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.
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 wool’s unique moisture management could benefit eczema sufferers was put to the test in a recent clinical trial of approximately 40 babies and children younger than three years old, at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne. The study confirmed that wearing super fine Merino wool with a mean fibre diameter less than or equal to 17.5 microns had benefits for eczema sufferers. The study, led by Associate Professor John Su, showed that super fine Merino wool clothing reduced the severity of paediatric mild to moderate atopic dermatitis more effectively than cotton clothing. Published earlier this year in the British Journal of Dermatology, this study challenges generalisations that wool is to be avoided by children with eczema. The study concluded that traditional management guidelines for children with eczema should be modified to include super fine Merino wool as a recommended clothing choice.
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 super fine Merino wool next to the skin. The pilot study, led by Dr Lynda Spelman of QIDerm, confirmed that participants were not only able to tolerate super fine Merino wool fabric, they also gained a therapeutic advantage – an improvement in mental and physical wellbeing – by wearing these garments during the intervention phase. Dr Spelman said that each of the trial's participants showed substantially reduced symptoms, and none of them displayed 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.