Eczema is a skin condition that affects around 15–30% of children and 2–10% of adults (1).

Scientists have found the cause of eczema may be mostly genetic. That said, people with eczema often observe that eating certain foods appears to either cause or worsen their eczema symptoms.

Among dietary factors, gluten is one of the suspected culprits people report most. Indeed, some research suggests there may be a link between gluten and symptoms in people who already have eczema.

This article reviews the relationship between gluten and eczema to help you figure out whether a gluten-free diet may worsen or relieve this condition.

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Eczema — also known as atopic dermatitis — is a skin condition in which you experience dry, itchy, skin that turns into a rash if you rub or scratch it (1).

Other types of dermatitis exist, but eczema is by far the most common. It’s most common in babies and children, but it can persist well into adulthood (1).

Experts believe that eczema happens as a result of a compromised skin barrier. This lets water escape from the skin more easily, causing it to become dehydrated.

Research suggests that genetics may play a role in this. A mutation in the filaggrin gene may be one possible cause of the skin barrier dysfunction that often occurs with eczema. This gene affects the maturation of skin cells (2).

A dysfunctional skin barrier can make it easier for harmful substances to penetrate the skin.

People with eczema also appear to have fewer beta-defensins, which are compounds responsible for fighting invading viruses, bacteria, and fungi (1).

As a result, they may be more prone to skin infections.

In addition, the inflammatory immune response appears to be different in people with eczema. This may explain why their skin can become easily irritated by fragrances, soaps, detergents, or other allergens (1).

People often treat eczema with fragrance-free moisturizing ointments on a daily basis, and many people use anti-inflammatory medications for flare-ups.

Healthcare professionals often advise people with this skin condition to avoid triggers, such as harsh soaps, detergents, fragrances, and nonbreathable fabrics.

Some people further report improvements after they cut out certain foods from their diet, such as those containing gluten (3).

Summary

Eczema is a skin condition resulting from a dysfunction in the skin barrier. People usually treat it with topical ointments and by avoiding environmental irritants. However, some people also make dietary changes, such as avoiding gluten.

Gluten comprises a group of proteins that can be found in some grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley (4).

These gluten proteins can be difficult for your gut enzymes to break down. In some cases, incompletely digested units of gluten — also known as gluten peptides — may cross over from the gut into the rest of your body (5).

This can trigger an immune response. That’s what happens in gluten-related conditions like celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and wheat allergy (4).

What’s the link between eczema and gluten intolerance?

Three conditions can cause gluten intolerance (4):

  • Celiac disease. This inflammatory autoimmune disease damages the lining of your gut when you eat gluten. It can result in anemia, weak bones, neurological disorders, and skin conditions like eczema.
  • Wheat allergy. This is an abnormal immune response to specific proteins in wheat. Symptoms can range from mild nausea and eczema to life threatening anaphylaxis.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). A doctor might diagnose you with NCGS if you experienced symptoms similar to celiac disease or wheat allergy despite not having either of these conditions.

These three conditions are distinct, but their symptoms can overlap. This is the case for eczema, which can happen in all three of these conditions (6, 7, 8). ​​

Interestingly, there may be a link between gluten and eczema.

One study reported that up to 18% of people with NCGS experienced skin issues. Eczema, rashes, and undefined dermatitis were the most common (9).

Another study reported that people with eczema may be 1.6 times more likely to have celiac disease than those in the control group. However, only 0.6% of people with eczema also had celiac disease, so the absolute likelihood seems to be very small (7). ​​

Similarly, people with a wheat allergy often experience eczema as a result of eating gluten-containing wheat. However, they may not experience the same symptoms when eating other gluten-containing grains (4, 8).

Summary

When your body doesn’t digest gluten completely, its breakdown products can travel from your gut into the rest of your body and cause inflammation. Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and NCGS all have eczema as an overlapping symptom.

The cause of eczema is believed to be genetic. There’s currently no evidence that gluten causes it.

That said, many people with eczema believe that what they eat can influence the severity of their skin flare-ups.

Among all the possible dietary culprits, gluten is one that people commonly believe worsens their eczema (3).

Summary

No evidence suggests that gluten causes eczema. However, some people who already have eczema have reported that eating gluten worsens their condition.

Although research suggests there may be a link between gluten and eczema, scientists have not conducted many studies to determine whether a gluten-free diet can offer relief from eczema.

Moreover, the few published studies that exist have observed conflicting results.

One recent study surveyed 169 people with eczema and found that around 40% of them tried a gluten-free diet as a way to reduce their symptoms. Of them, 51.4% reported improvements after cutting out gluten (3).

However, a recent large study in women with eczema did not find a link between the two (10). ​

Scientists need to do more research to understand the relationship between gluten and eczema. In the meantime, a gluten-free diet may be worth trying so you can see whether it improves your eczema symptoms.

Just keep in mind that such a diet needs to be well balanced to avoid the risk of nutrient deficiencies. It’s a good idea to seek out guidance from a registered dietitian to help you do this.

Summary

A gluten-free diet may offer some relief from eczema for some people. However, more research is needed to investigate this relationship.

People with an intolerance to gluten often experience eczema. On the other hand, people with eczema, regardless of whether they’re intolerant to gluten, often perceive that consuming gluten worsens their symptoms.

Some evidence suggests that people with eczema may experience relief when they follow a gluten-free diet. However, few studies exist on this topic, and their results aren’t unanimous. Scientists need to do more research to investigate this potential connection.

If you’d like to test whether going gluten-free improves your eczema, it’s best to seek guidance from a doctor or registered dietitian to ensure that you continue to meet your nutrient needs after you remove gluten-containing foods from your diet.