What Research Says About Gluten and Eczema

woman kneading bread dough on table with fresh vegetables around

 Nastasic / Getty Images

Eczema is a common skin condition that causes an itchy, scaly skin rash. The skin condition appears to be linked to celiac disease and to non-celiac gluten sensitivity and a gluten-free diet—the treatment for both of those conditions—may, in fact, help treat eczema in some people.

When you have eczema, you develop patches of red, cracked skin, that sometimes weep clear fluid. The condition, also known as atopic dermatitis, is very common, affecting 10% to 20% of young children, and about 7% of adults.

Eczema treatment usually starts with skin creams that contain corticosteroids, which work to calm the inflammation on your skin. If those don't work, your doctor may prescribe stronger corticosteroids that you take by mouth. In severe cases, physicians may try other drugs that suppress the immune system reaction that causes skin inflammation.

However, there may be another alternative for people seeking eczema treatment. Current research suggests that gluten may also be a contributing factor, and limiting gluten may help improve eczema in certain individuals.

Gluten and the Skin

Gluten is a type of protein that is naturally occurring in certain grains, namely wheat, barely, and rye. Gluten is what gives yeast-risen dough it's elasticity and bread its texture. It also gives other baked goods, such as cakes, the ability to hold their shape as they rise.

It's known that those with eczema, especially those who developed the skin condition before the age of two, are more likely to have food allergies as well. Eggs, milk, and nuts dairy are foods that commonly trigger eczema flareups in sensitive individuals. It's possible that gluten affects eczema similarly.

The idea that gluten affects the skin is not an obscure one. For example, gluten can cause a rash called dermatitis herpetiformis in certain individuals with celiac disease, and going gluten-free completely clears it up.

It's believed that certain foods may trigger a T cell response. In other words, although you are not technically allergic to the food, it triggers an inflammatory response within the body. This, in turn, could worsen eczema. Gluten, or even wheat itself, may contribute to inflammation.

You don't need a true food allergy to have certain foods trigger a flareup of eczema. Even a sensitivity or an intolerance to certain foods may be enough to make eczema worse. Food triggers are different from person to person.

The Link Between Celiac Disease and Eczema

It's not clear what causes eczema, but the skin condition appears to result from a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.

People with eczema seem to have both lower levels of a type of protein that's associated with a healthy immune system plus higher levels of a protein that's involved in allergic reactions. Some physicians consider eczema an autoimmune condition, which means it involves your immune system attacking your own healthy tissue by mistake.

Researchers have compared the prevalence of eczema in people who also have celiac disease to eczema prevalence in control subjects.

Researchers have found that eczema occurs about three times more frequently in people with celiac disease and about two times more frequently in relatives of celiac disease patients, potentially indicating a genetic link between the two conditions.

The Link Between Gluten Sensitivity and Eczema

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not as well understood as celiac disease. However, researchers who are studying it say that symptoms include digestive issues, such as diarrhea, constipation, pain, and bloating plus other symptoms, including brain fog and skin conditions.

Eczema has been associated with gluten sensitivity. Specifically, one 2015 study looked at 17 people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity who had skin problems, including rashes that looked like eczema, dermatitis herpetiformis, and psoriasis. The study found these people's skin improved significantly within about one month when those people adopted the gluten-free diet.

Is a Gluten-Free Diet Considered an Eczema Treatment?

It's possible that a strict wheat-free or gluten-free diet could help treat some cases of eczema, both in those with celiac disease and in people with gluten sensitivity.

In a 2017 piece published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 169 people with eczema were surveyed. More than half of those who cut gluten from their diets reported seeing an improvement of their eczema symptoms.

A 2013 study found that among 149 participants, 80% saw an improvement of their eczema symptoms when following a hypoallergenic diet (including removing gluten).

The main drawback of these studies is the small sample size. Also, in these studies, the gluten-free diet helped some, but not all, eczema patients control their symptoms. Others have found a gluten-free diet not to create any significant improvement in eczema.

While a gluten-free diet may, in some cases, improve eczema symptoms it is not a substitute for eczema treatment.

Consider dietary changes as complementary to your current treatment routine. Before restricting your diet, you should talk to your physician for advice.

If you've just been diagnosed with celiac disease and you also have eczema, you may find that you resolve some or all of your eczema symptoms with a gluten-free diet. In addition, since eczema and celiac disease appear to be related genetically, and since both run in families, you may want to consider celiac disease testing if you have eczema and are related to people who have celiac disease.

If you have eczema along with celiac disease symptoms, you definitely should get tested for celiac disease, since you're already at a higher risk for the condition. Again, if you do turn out to have celiac disease, as a bonus, you may find that the gluten-free diet helps to clear up your eczema symptoms.

If you're concerned you may have food allergies or sensitivities, you should bring this up with your physician. Keeping a food diary can be very helpful to see if eczema flares correlate with any specific foods.

If you've finished with all the medical testing you wish to have for celiac disease (regardless of whether you've been diagnosed with the condition), you might want to consider trying the gluten-free diet on a trial basis for several months to see if it helps with your eczema. Just remember, for the diet to work, you'll need to follow it strictly without cheating.

A Word From Verywell

So far, there is no proof that eliminating any food will completely clear up eczema on its own. Rather, limiting or removing foods from your diet, which seem to trigger a flareup for you may help keep eczema under control when used along with your regular treatments.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Katta R, Schlichte M. Diet and dermatitis: food triggers. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014 Mar;7(3):30-6.

  2. Ciacci C, Cavallaro R, Iovino P, et al. Allergy prevalence in adult celiac disease. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004 Jun;113(6):1199-203. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2004.03.012

Additional Reading