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What is Emu Oil and Why are Patients Rubbing it on Their Skin?

What is Emu Oil and Why are Patients Rubbing it on Their Skin?

This month, Dr. Taylor explains what you and your patients should know about using this exotic oil for dermatologic conditions. Maybe you have had some patients ask you about emu oil. I have had several in the past few months, and to be truthful, I had no idea what it was. Patients I have seen are using it on their faces for wrinkles, on their scars and on stretch marks. Some have said they take it by mouth in a capsule for arthritis. My own Google search for “emu oil” turned up 710,000 hits with the first one displayed being The Emu Store. The online Emu Store (www.emustore.com) offers several types of emu oil preparations for purchase and claims the following: “We have an Emu Oil product to suit everybody, and assist to heal almost any body ailment, these uses include - · Wrinkles and fine lines · Stretch marks · Arthritis · Eczema · Acne · Hair loss · Headaches · Bruises · Burns · Pain relief · Scar repair · Skin Rashes · Sunburn and many more…” Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Well, it’s really not. It turns out, emu oil is not that well studied and almost all of the studies that have been done were done with rodents.

The Emu Mystique

What is an emu, anyway? The emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is a large, flightless bird indigenous to Australia, and is actually the national bird of Australia.1 In the United States, these docile, ostrich-like creatures are now being bred for their meat and oil, which are marketed for their health benefits. The emu meat is said to be high in omega fatty acids and lower in saturated fat than chicken, turkey, pork or beef. However, it is the oil — which comes from the fat of the bird — that is more popular in the mainstream than the emu meat. Promoted as an agent that can heal all sorts of things from wrinkles to psoriasis to eczema to arthritis pain, it is sold in the form of capsules, creams and lotions, as well as the oil alone.

What the Research Shows

There is just not much good data out there showing that this oil is all that beneficial for skin conditions. It primarily has been studied in rodents in relation to wound healing, and in one study, as a cosmetic agent in humans.2-5 Moisturizing Properties An Australian group published a double-blinded clinical trial looking at the moisturizing properties of emu oil in comparison to mineral oil. This group concluded that emu oil was found overall to be more cosmetically acceptable and had better skin penetration and permeability than the mineral oil.3 However, the sample size was too small for any differences to be statistically significant. While the results of this study are positive, there are plenty of other well-studied topical emollients that have been proven to be effective in numerous quality studies. Wound Healing Regarding wound healing, a Canadian group used a rat model to study emu oil and wound healing at 24 and 48 hours. The conclusions of this study were that applying emu oil on a fresh wound actually delayed wound healing, most particularly epithelialization and formation of organized granulation tissue.4 Anti-Inflammatory Properties More recently, a study compared the topical anti-inflammatory efficacy of emu oil with several other oils, including olive oil and flaxseed oil. The oils were applied to mouse ears after their skin was irritated with a volatile oil, and cellular irritant response was measured several hours later. The results showed emu oil had somewhat better anti-inflammatory properties than the other oils in the study, though not by a substantial margin compared to more readily available oils, including olive.5 Although this study showed anti-inflammatory properties of emu oil, other oils perform the same function at a much lower price point.

Bottom Line

Emu oil may show anti-inflammatory and emollient properties, but it is not the miracle that the marketing wizards make it out to be. Although the image of emu oil may be exotic and special, it is my own opinion that this is nothing more than another novelty product cleverly marketed by companies that want to sell it. It is definitely not essential for the daily function and maintenance of human skin. Dr. Taylor, a Fellow in the Department of Dermatology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, is board-certified in Family Medicine, which she practices in Winston-Salem, NC. Disclosure: Dr. Taylor has no conflict of interest with any materials presented in this article.

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