Bleach Baths to Treat Eczema Are Popular. But Do They Work?

·7 min read

Evidence suggests this home remedy may have some benefit, as long as it’s done safely

By Catherine Roberts

On its face, the idea of using diluted bleach to soothe the itchy, dry, sensitive skin endured by people who have eczema might seem counterintuitive.

But there are plenty of people who swear by this home remedy, with posts about it garnering millions of views on TikTok. In videos of babies with eczema patches on their cheeks, parents describe how bleach baths helped calm the condition down. “Another flare-up, another bleach bath,” one declares. Another common theme: TikTok dermatologists assuring viewers that yes, bleach baths are in fact a legitimate treatment.

The topic may have first gained momentum back in 2009, when a study in the journal Pediatrics suggested that bathing in a diluted bleach solution might help ease the symptoms of atopic dermatitis (the most common form of eczema), when combined with other strategies.

Since then, scientists have found additional evidence that diluted bleach baths might be helpful, at least for some people. “It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a slam dunk,” says Derek Chu, MD, ​​assistant professor in the departments of medicine and health research methods, evidence, and impact at McMaster University in Ontario, who’s studied bleach baths as a treatment for eczema. “But it’s an important tool to have.”

Here, what scientists have discovered about why bleach baths might help, who’s most likely to benefit, what the risks and downsides are, and—if you want to try bleach baths—how to undertake this treatment safely. Whatever you do, never use undiluted bleach directly on your skin, and always keep bleach products out of reach of children. (More on proper dilution below.)

Why Bleach?

The classical thinking about why a diluted bleach bath might work to relieve some eczema symptoms has to do with one of bleach’s most well-known properties: its ability to kill germs.

In the past, scientists have found that people with eczema very commonly have the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) on their symptomatic skin, and that worse eczema flares are linked to greater amounts of S. aureus bacteria. So, the theory goes, perhaps a bleach bath might lessen the amount of S. aureus on a person’s eczema-affected skin, thus reducing the severity of their symptoms.

The problem with this theory? In order to safely use a bleach bath, you must greatly dilute the bleach, down to a concentration of about 0.005 percent. A 2019 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that, at least in test tubes, that concentration of bleach wasn’t nearly strong enough to kill S. aureus bacteria. The minimum concentration that did work to kill the bacteria—0.03 percent—is much higher than is safe to use on your skin. (At high concentrations, bleach can cause skin irritation or burning.)

Still, the study was done in test tubes and not on actual human skin, so it can’t completely disprove the bacteria-killing theory. “The body has mechanisms to kill bacteria as well, so it could be working together with bleach,” says Joseph M. Lam, MD, clinical associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. “But it did cast some doubt as to the initial theory of why it works, in terms of the bacterial killing effects.”

Lam says some other preliminary science has suggested an alternative mechanism by which bleach baths may work: that they may have some direct anti-inflammatory effects. But that’s still just a theory and needs more study to be confirmed.

The short answer is that scientists don’t really know yet why bleach baths might be effective when they do work.

Using Bleach Baths Safely

A bleach bath may not work for everyone, and is probably best used in conjunction with other therapies as recommended by your doctor. If you do want to try it, you should take several important steps to make sure you’re using bleach baths safely.

Understand the risks. The studies of diluted bleach baths indicate it’s a fairly low-risk treatment, but there are still some potential problems to be aware of. For one thing, bleach has been known to cause irritation to the nose and lungs, which could be especially problematic for people with asthma. Kids (and adults) with asthma that isn’t well-controlled should work on getting asthma under control before trying diluted bleach bathing, Chu says. A handy rule of thumb, according to Lam, is that if your child with asthma can safely swim in a chlorinated swimming pool, then it’s probably safe for them to use a diluted bleach bath, too.

The other main risk is stinging and burning on eczema-affected skin. Silverberg notes that people with very severe flare-ups may not want to risk such effects.

Check with your doctor. Bleach baths can be safely used on young children and even babies in some cases, but both the National Eczema Association and the American Academy of Dermatology say to check with your doctor before trying it out for the first time.

Dilute the bleach correctly. Experts emphasize: No one should bathe in undiluted bleach, which would be very dangerous. Here’s how to make sure you get the right concentration.

  • Use household bleach, and check the label to make sure whatever you’re using has a concentration of about 5 to 6 percent (not higher). 

  • You’ll want to be most careful with diluting water for an infant’s tub. Lam recommends using something like an empty 2-liter bottle to fill the tub, so you know how much water you’re using to fill it. From there, he says, the math is easy: However many liters of water you use to fill the tub, that’s how many milliliters of bleach you should stir in.

  • For a full-sized tub, with an older child or adult, use ½ cup of bleach in a full tub, or ¼ cup of bleach in a half-full tub. Although bathtubs may not have standardized sizes, Lam says at such high volumes of water, there’s more of a buffer zone for getting the concentration right. 

  • Make sure the bleach and water are mixed well before bath time begins.

Don’t add anything else to the water. Bleach should not be used in conjunction with any other products. For example, apple cider vinegar has also been touted as a possible home remedy for eczema, but these two ingredients should never be used together in one bath—the acidic vinegar can react dangerously with the alkaline bleach.

Get the temperature right. Because bleach can create fumes when mixed with hot water, use only lukewarm or cool water for a bleach bath. Avoid using water that is hot.

Add ventilation. For the same reasons, ventilate the room where you’re using a bleach bath by opening a window or turning on a bathroom fan. (You may want to skip a bleach bath if you have no good ventilation options in your bathroom.)

Limit your bath time. A bleach bath isn’t the time for a long, luxurious bath. Soak for about 10 minutes, the National Eczema Association recommends, and no more than 15.

Keep bleach out of your eyes and mouth. Try to keep babies and kids from splashing any bath water into their eyes. To treat eczema on the face, soak a washcloth in the bleach bath water, wring it out, and dab onto the face. Never put your or your child’s head underwater in a bleach bath.

Rinse off. Once you drain the bleach bath, rinse off completely with fresh water. Follow up with your normal routine of moisturizing and topical skin treatments.

Don’t overdo it. Bathing with diluted bleach every day isn’t necessary. Experts suggest using the treatment just two or three times per week.

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