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Sunflower seed oil is rich in linoleic acid, and has been used topically in the treatment of essential fatty-acid deficiency, rapidly reversing the disease with its excellent transcutaneous absorption. More locally, these essential fatty acids can help maintain the skin barrier and decrease transepidermal water loss, both important features in thinking about skin problems such as atopic dermatitis. There is some thought that preparations with higher amounts of linoleic acid versus oleic acid may be more beneficial in this role and some clinical data that bears this out.
Several studies have also suggested that sunflower seed oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Linoleic acid is the major lipid that converts to arachidonic acid, which leads to prostaglandin E2, an inflammatory modulator, possibly via peroxisome proliferative-activated receptor-a (PPAR-a) activation. These anti-inflammatory aspects are very compelling for our menagerie of inflammatory dermatoses.
19 adults were randomized to receive olive oil to one arm versus sunflower seed oil to the other for 4 weeks. Interestingly, the olive oil caused a worsening of the barrier function and even erythema in subjects with and without a history of AD. Sunflower seed oil, on the other hand, did not cause erythema and preserved skin barrier function while actually improving hydration.
Safe, inexpensive, and widely available, sunflower oil seems a reasonable consideration for any patient with impaired skin barrier, so long as there is not a known sunflower seed allergy.