The Traditional Chinese Medicine Guide To Skincare
Natural ingredients are taking over the beauty industry. Ingestible collagen supplements are 2018 staple. It’s clear that modern beauty enthusiasts are searching for something more when it comes to cultivating that lit-from-within glow — and with a focus on balance and the belief that a healthy body makes for healthy skin, traditional Chinese medicine just might be what you're looking for.
“The theory behind traditional Chinese herbalism is using natural sources and lifestyle changes to stimulate the body’s own restorative mechanisms,” Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com, and author of the upcoming Keto Diet, tells The Zoe Report. “Rather than viewing the body as separate systems or organs, which is part of the modern approach, in traditional Chinese herbalism the body is viewed as a complex network of interconnected parts.” This is the concept known as Qi, or life force.
When all of these interconnected parts are in balance, the body is considered healthy; and any issues that pop up — skin-related or otherwise — can be traced back to an imbalance somewhere in the body. This holistic view means that TCM skincare isn’t relegated to topical creams and ointments. “Skin conditions are treated both topically and internally in TCM,” Antonia Balfour, the founder of Yin Yang Dermatology, tells The Zoe Report.
The recommended treatment for most skin conditions includes a blend of traditional herbs and oils, some ingestible and some meant to be applied directly to the skin. “Each herbal formula will also include ingredients to address other symptoms that are part of the individual’s overall health picture,” Balfour says. “Typically with acne, there can be hormonal imbalances or gut involvement, that we also address with herbs.”
But unfortunately, TCM treatment isn’t as simple as Amazon-ing standard skin-healing herbs to your front door — skincare plans are highly individualized. “Looking at eczema, for example: The color of the rash, whether it’s moist or dry, the degree of flaking or scaling, and the level of itch — all of these variables indicate different herbs to be included in the customized treatment,” Balfour tells us. For this reason, it’s recommended to meet with a TCM practitioner to discuss your needs rather than trying to DIY it.
“During a consultation with a traditional Chinese herbalism practitioner, he or she will look for patterns to determine what’s causing the skin response,” Dr. Axe says. “It may be triggered by warm weather, spicy foods, stress, food intolerances, or exposure to environmental toxins. The cause needs to be addressed before balance can be restored.” This stands in direct contrast to modern Western dermatology, which focuses on eliminating symptoms (like pimples or rashes) and, until fairly recently, has largely ignored the link between internal health and outer glow.
All that being said, there are some universally beneficial herbs touted by TCM. “Chamomile tea is great topically for facial redness and acne, and tea tree is of course a famous and effective anti-acne herb,” Balfour tells us. She also recommends honeysuckle to relieve rosacea, and calendula oil to soothe eczema. “One of the most commonly used plants for skin health is aloe vera,” Dr. Axe adds. “It can be applied topically to soothe the skin.” Anytime you use an herb topically, though, you should spot test a small area of skin first. “When the skin is inflamed, any product — chemical or natural — could be an irritant,” Balfour warns.
As far as TCM-approved foods to treat skin issues on an internal level, Balfour maintains that these will largely depend on what is wrong with the skin. “For example, dry skin can benefit from flax seed and sesame seed, and skin that is very damp or oily benefits from aduki beans, mung beans, and barley.” If your skin is red and inflamed, she recommends “soothing and cooling” foods, including daikon radishes, pears, and mint leaves.
“Herbs and spices that support healthy skin from the inside out are turmeric, oregano, and chaga,” Dr. Axe says. Turmeric helps reduce inflammation, oregano supports a healthy microbial balance, and chaga is an antioxidant that helps protect the body from “oxidative stress,” or pollution. Tea is another easy way to incorporate TCM ideals into your everyday life; Dr. Axe suggests echinacea, olive leaf, tulsi, and green tea for clear skin.
The practice isn’t all herbs and plants, though. “A traditional Chinese herbalism practitioner usually uses a combination of topical herbs, dietary changes, and acupuncture,” Dr. Axe reveals.
“Acupuncture is a branch of Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of sterilized, single use, disposable, incredibly thin filiform needles into the skin, in locations predetermined by a differential diagnosis after a Chinese medical intake,” Stefanie DiLibero, an acupuncturist and founder of Gotham Wellness in New York City, tells The Zoe Report. But the whole long-needles-to-the-face thing isn’t as scary as it seems; in fact, it’s an incredibly gentle way to stimulate the body’s natural healing capabilities, depending on where the needle is inserted. Those healing responses include "the release of endorphins (which can reduce pain and stress levels) and the activation of your immune system (which is called to action because it is responding to a micro-injury),” DiLibero says. “Acupuncturists often speak of this these phenomena as ‘moving Qi.’”
Cosmetic acupuncture, DiLibero’s speciality, is a version of the treatment that focuses on remedying the root causes of skin issues. “Poor sleep, compromised digestion, and emotional or hormonal imbalances can show up as symptoms on the face in the form of premature wrinkles, puffiness, dark circles, and acne,” DiLibero explains. When working with clients, she determines where, exactly, to focus the acupuncture needles by assessing the “physiological causes of these imbalances,” which will vary from patient to patient. She also incorporates more modern elements, like LED light and micro-current therapy, into her services. “Even if two people come in with their main complaint being acne, they won't necessarily receive the same acupuncture treatment,” she says.
While acupuncture is not a surgical procedure, it does offer anti-aging benefits by naturally stimulating the body’s production of collagen. “Facial acupuncture points create a micro-injury to the skin, which the body responds to by producing collagen as a repair response,” DiLibero says. Another beneficial bonus? “Most people leave feeling incredibly relaxed and zen, which shows on their face, and they want to continue feeling this way.”
There are some caveats when it comes to acupuncture: It’s not advised for those with skin cancer or active infections on the face; anyone who’s had recent surgery, Botox, or fillers; or pregnant women (“theory is that the Qi in the body should be directed towards growing a healthy baby and not diverted to beautifying the face,” DiLibero says). There’s also a slight chance of bruising or bleeding; but judging by the glowing reviews on the Gotham Wellness site from industry icons like Teen Vogue’s former editor in chief Elaine Welteroth and fashion designer Mara Hoffman, clients swear by this TCM practice for skin that’s stress- and wrinkle-free.
Like every facet of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture really shines when incorporated into a holistic skincare regimen. “Clients often commit to making changes to their diet and personal care routines to see lasting effects,” DiLibero tells TZR. The result? Healthy skin from the inside out — and the outside in.