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British universities’ first world study comparing child eczema moisturisers

A world-first study directly comparing different types of moisturisers to use for children with eczema, has come up with unexpected findings, notes Medicalbrief.

Around one out of every five children suffers from eczema, and the resultant scratching and sleep loss affects school performance and exhausts not just the children but also their parents.

This British study, published in The Lancet, highlights the importance of patient education and choice when deciding which moisturisers to use for children with eczema.

Moisturisers (also called emollients) are recommended for paediatric eczema (also known as atopic eczema/dermatitis), which causes dry and itchy skin. More than 100 different moisturisers are prescribed in the NHS, costing more £100m a year.

Lack of research in this area means NHS guidelines vary widely in what is recommended, which leads to confusion and waste.

In the study, led by the universities of Bristol, Nottingham and Southampton, 550 children with eczema aged under 12 were randomised to use one of four types of moisturiser (lotion, cream, gel or ointment) as their main moisturiser for 16 weeks.

Parents completed diaries about their child’s eczema for a year, and some were interviewed to gain an in-depth understanding of how they used the moisturisers and what they thought of them. All children also had an independent examination of their skin.

The result? The Best Emollients for Eczema trial found that no one type is better than another.

Used alongside other eczema treatments, there was no difference in effectiveness of the four types of moisturiser used in the study.

Skin reactions such as itching or redness were common with all moisturiser types. Awareness of the different types of moisturiser was low, and users had different preferences based on how the moisturisers look and feel. For example, some people liked how lotions quickly soaked in whereas others preferred the “barrier” provided by ointments.

Professor Matthew Ridd, a GP and study lead from Centre for Academic Primary Care at the University of Bristol, said: “A study of this type has been long overdue. It has not been in the interest of the manufacturers to directly compare types of moisturiser in the way we have done in this trial. Our findings challenge conventions about how often moisturisers need to be applied, which types are less likely to cause problems, and which patients should be recommended certain types. For example, ointments are often suggested for more severe eczema, yet they were found to be no better.”

Professor Hywel Williams, consultant dermatologist and co-researcher at the University of Nottingham, said: “Along with anti-inflammatory treatments such as topical corticosteroids, emollients are a really key part of treatment for childhood eczema, preventing flares and helping to soothe the skin and improving the quality of life for children and their carers.

“Our study shows that one size does not fit all, and points to the need for doctors to make parents aware of the different emollient types and to help them choose which one is mostly likely to work for them. At last we have evidence that supports the saying, ‘The best moisturisers are the ones the patient will use’.”

Professor Nick Levell, NIHR National Specialty Lead for Dermatology, said: “This study confirms that parent and patient preference is very important in choosing a moisturiser to treat eczema. Some people prefer ointments, but others like gels, creams or lotions. No one option is best. As reactions to moisturisers are common, it is important that the NHS provides a wide choice to help parents find something that soothes and calms their child’s fiery skin.”

Further work is needed to determine if these findings apply to adolescents and adults with eczema, and people with other dry skin conditions.

Study details

Effectiveness and safety of lotion, cream, gel, and ointment emollients for childhood eczema: a pragmatic, randomised, phase 4, superiority trial.

Matthew Ridd, Miriam Santer, Stephanie MacNeill, Emily Sanderson, Sian Wells, Douglas Webb, Jonathan Banks, Eileen Sutton, Amanda Roberts, Lyn Liddiard, Zoe Wilkins, Julie Clayton, Kirsty Garfield, Tiffany Barrett, J Athene Lane, Helen Baxter, Laura Howells, Jodi Taylor, Alastair Hay, Hywel Williams, Kim Thomas.

Published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health on 23 May 2022

To our knowledge, there are no trials comparing emollients commonly used for childhood eczema. We aimed to compare the clinical effectiveness and safety of the four main emollient types: lotions, creams, gels, and ointments.

We did a pragmatic, individually randomised, parallel group, phase 4 superiority trial in 77 general practice surgeries in England. Children aged between 6 months and 12 years with eczema (Patient Orientated Eczema Measure [POEM] score >2) were randomly assigned (1:1:1:1; stratified by centre and minimised by baseline POEM score and age, using a web-based system) to lotions, creams, gels, or ointments. Clinicians and parents were unmasked. The initial emollient prescription was for 500 g or 500 mL, to be applied twice daily and as required. Subsequent prescriptions were determined by the family. The primary outcome was parent-reported eczema severity over 16 weeks (weekly POEM), with analysis as randomly assigned regardless of adherence, adjusting for baseline and stratification variables. Safety was assessed in all randomly assigned participants.

Between Jan 19, 2018, and Oct 31, 2019, 12 417 children were assessed for eligibility, 550 of whom were randomly assigned to a treatment group (137 to lotion, 140 to cream, 135 to gel, and 138 to ointment). The numbers of participants who contributed at least two POEM scores and were included in the primary analysis were 131 in the lotion group, 137 in the cream group, 130 in the gel group, and 126 in the ointment group. Baseline median age was 4 years (IQR 2–8); 255 (46%) participants were girls, 295 (54%) were boys; 473 (86%) participants were White; and the mean POEM score was 9·3 (SD 5·5). There was no difference in eczema severity between emollient types over 16 weeks (global p value=0·77), with adjusted POEM pairwise differences of: cream versus lotion 0·42 (95% CI −0·48 to 1·32), gel versus lotion 0·17 (−0·75 to 1·09), ointment versus lotion −0·01 (−0·93 to 0·91), gel versus cream −0·25 (−1·15 to 0·65), ointment versus cream −0·43 (−1·34 to 0·48), and ointment versus gel −0·18 (−1·11 to 0·75). This result remained unchanged following multiple imputation, sensitivity, and subgroup analyses. The total number of adverse events did not significantly differ between the treatment groups (lotions 49 [36%], creams 54 [39%], gels 54 [40%], and ointments 48 [35%]; p=0·79), although stinging was less common with ointments (12 [9%] of 138 participants) than lotions (28 [20%] of 137), creams (24 [17%] of 140), or gels (25 [19%] of 135).

We found no difference in effectiveness between the four main types of emollients for childhood eczema. Users need to be able to choose from a range of emollients to find one that they are more likely to use effectively.


The Lancet article – Effectiveness and safety of lotion, cream, gel, and ointment emollients for childhood eczema: a pragmatic, randomised, phase 4, superiority trial.


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