As an herbalist specializing in the treatment of skin conditions, I'm often asked: "Why go holistic?"
I see countless families in turmoil thanks to fighting over acne drugs. It usually looks like this: a teenager with chronic pimples and deep, cystic acne is "dying" to go on a strong medication such as isotretinoin. The parents flat-out refuse due to the dangerous side effects. The teen, already insecure and depressed because of the acne, is now also irate with the parents. Luckily, there's an alternative.
The number one reason patients choose holistic dermatology is that it works! Healing your constitution from within is the best way to completely eradicate acne.
The second reason is that acne medications have side effects: some minor and some quite serious.
For severe cases of acne, I always prescribe internal herbal remedies together with botanical topical products. For acne that's mild to moderate, simple botanical ingredients can create a successful protocol to completely clear the skin.
Holistic Alternatives to Pharmaceutical Drugs
1. Pharmaceutical: Topical Vitamin A Derivative
Holistic Approach: Cleanse with Moroccan Rhassoul Clay
Vitamin A derivatives (such as retinol) dry sebum and remove the upper layers of skin. They commonly cause skin side effects such as stinging, burning, redness or peeling. Rhassoul clay is a wonderful alternative. It reduces oil production without drying the skin out, leaving the skin soft and smooth. I prescribe many of my patients a mask made with rhassoul clay and a blend of Chinese herbs.
You can also make your own at home. Simply mix a teaspoon of rhassoul clay with warm water. If your skin is oily, add 1/4 teaspoon green tea leaves to the clay. For skin redness, mix in 1/4 teaspoon chamomile tea leaves. Cleanse daily with any of these clay combinations.
2. Pharmaceutical: Antibiotics
Holistic Approach: Gel or Cream Containing Tea Tree
Antibiotics used to treat acne can cause upset stomach, dizziness and discoloration of the skin. And, of course, overuse of antibiotics ultimately leads to antibiotic resistance, which has now become a global health issue.
The topical use of tea tree reduces redness and has strong antibacterial properties. It's been shown to be effective against P. acnes and Staph aureus, the two strains of bacteria associated with acne. I recommend topical products containing at least 5% tea tree. Make your own serum at home by combining 5% tea tree oil with 95% of a non-comedogenic oil (such as argan oil).
3. Pharmaceutical: Benzoyl Peroxide
Holistic Approach: Serum or Wash with Green Tea
Benzoyl peroxide clears the pores and reduces bacterial count by creating an environment where bacteria cannot survive. It dries skin and works as a peeling agent. It commonly causes dryness and irritation, and in some can cause burning, itching, peeling and swelling. Topical use of green tea reduces sebum production and protects against acne-causing bacteria. Its high antioxidant concentration eliminates the free radicals that lead to inflammation.
Use a green tea serum, or simply add 2 tablespoons of loose green tea leaves to one cup of boiling water. Allow the tea to steep for 10 minutes and use as a daily wash. While you’re at it, drink one to two cups of green tea per day for the general anti-inflammatory benefits!
4. Pharmaceutical: Salicylic Acid
Holistic Approach: Cleanser or Serum Containing Willow Bark
Salicylic acid is used as a topical ingredient to decrease inflammation and exfoliate the skin. Willow bark contains a natural source of salicylic acid. While salicylic acid can actually cause skin irritation in some people, willow bark provides a more gentle method of exfoliation. It sloughs off dead skin and speeds up the turnover of cells, expediting the overall healing of skin.
5. Pharmaceutical: Isotretinoin
Holistic Approach: Avoid Dairy and Sugar
Oral isotretinoin (sold under a variety of different names) is used to treat cystic acne and commonly causes dry lips, skin and sun sensitivity. More seriously, it has been linked to birth defects, liver disease, severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Chinese medicine teaches that cysts and nodules associated with acne come from a build up of "phlegm" and "dampness." Ice cream, cheese and milk are a direct cause of phlegm production. Sugar creates "dampness," which lays the foundation for cystic acne to develop.
The underlying root of acne comes from within the body. The best way to make internal changes is through diet. For inflammatory acne, avoid hot and spicy foods. For oily, greasy skin, avoid fried and fatty foods. Use common sense when it comes to selecting foods that work for you. Aim for variety, with plentiful vegetables, some fruit and lean sources of protein.