Natural oils have been used as topical treatments for the skin from the earliest recorded history.[i] Sunflowers (Helianthus annus) are native to the southwest and have been used as food, medicine, and for ornamental purposes for generations.[ii]
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.[iii] 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.[iv] 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.[v]
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. [v]
There is a rather amazing and somewhat bizarre line of evidence for the skin barrier enhancing properties of sunflower seed oil. A study of 497 pre-term infants deemed high-risk for sepsis were given three times daily application of sunflower seed oil versus a petroleum-based moisturizer, versus standard of care (no topical agent) to see if improving the skin barrier would prevent systemic infection. Indeed, sunflower seed oil reduced sepsis by 41 percent, with a 26 percent reduction in mortality, significantly better than no treatment and similar to the effect of the petroleum-based moisturizer, but at a fraction of the cost.[vi] No adverse events were reported, suggesting that sunflower seed oil is pretty safe, even in these most vulnerable premature infants.