There are certain ingredients that pass the test of time because they really provide the benefits that come attached to their mystic. Then there are the ingredients that span multiple categories—showing up in medicine, beauty, food, and so on—because they function as an impressive multitasker. Turmeric happens to be both.
The golden spice is beloved in ayurvedic tradition, and since many other cultures have picked up on its benefits. This is even true of modern-day well-being, which puts turmeric on a much-deserved pedestal.
It's also, we might add, a much wowed-about skin care ingredient. So if you see it pop up on the ingredient list of your favorite face mask—or are curious about trying it as a DIY active—read up on the laundry list of benefits, below.
What is turmeric?
This yellow ayurvedic ingredient holds an esteemed place in well-being and skin care circles alike. It's a powerful anti-inflammatory herb made from the root of Curcuma zedoaria (a cousin to ginger) that's been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments and is native to Southeast Asia. The primary active in the herb is curcumin. Traditionally (and in modern iterations, too), it has been used as an ingredient in meals (it's what gives curry powder its hue), as a healing tonic or supplement, and even formulated into ancient skin elixirs for beautifying rituals.
"In India turmeric is used heavily in cooking, beauty, and herbal remedies because it is really thought to be a hugely beneficial root. The two benefits I hear the most are brightening and reducing inflammation," says ayurvedic beauty expert Michelle Ranavat, founder of Ranavat Botanics.
What's great about the ingredient is experts, research, and anecdotal evidence all agree: It's a multitasking wonder. "From joint pain, acne, to even hormone imbalances, curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory that packs a punch," says Taz Bhatia, M.D., integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member.
What is turmeric?
6 science-backed benefits of turmeric for the skin
On that latter point: Why does turmeric make an appearance in so many skin care items for so long? Well, it has pretty impressive skin-benefiting qualities. We should note that because turmeric's power is thanks to the curcumin, much of the research is geared around that—but can be applied to turmeric as well.
- Anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is the root of many skin woes, like eczema, rosacea, acne, and premature lines and wrinkles. See, inflammation does a number on your skin, including breaking down collagen, triggering breakouts, and spurring chronic conditions. So to keep skin feeling supple and bright, it's vital to keep inflammation down. One way to do this is through anti-inflammatory topicals, such as turmeric. Turmeric inhibits the production of pro-inflammatory genes1, blocking the inflammatory response pathway. Turmeric's powerful anti-inflammatory properties offer a protective benefit.
- Antioxidant. Free radicals are a naturally occurring part of your body; however, they can become problematic fast. These unstable molecules harm healthy ones in the body, and when they become rampant it leads to oxidative stress (something your skin absolutely does not want). Turmeric has been shown2 to increase the body's natural antioxidant capacity, boosting your defense system against free-radical damage.
- Antimicrobial. The ingredient also has an impressive ability to balance good bacteria and bad bacteria on the skin, thanks to its antimicrobial properties3. While this can help skin health generally, specifically it's beneficial for dealing with acne, as one of the components of breakouts is an overabundance of acne-causing bacteria on the skin.
- Soothes skin conditions. Thanks to all of the above characteristics, turmeric has been shown in preliminary research to treat specific skin conditions4 like eczema and psoriasis. Researchers in these studies note that more work is needed to see the actual application method for efficacy—and whether it should be combined with other treatments and modalities—but it's a promising start.
- Aids in wound healing. Wound healing is an underrated benefit of many botanicals, including turmeric. Your body's ability to heal itself is paramount to skin health, and unfortunately, this declines with age. Curcumin has been shown to aid this process by reducing inflammation and neutralizing oxidation5, which allows the skin to repair itself faster with less residual damage.
- Brightens. Perhaps the most commercially marketed benefit of turmeric is that it can help brighten tone and relieve dark spots thanks to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. "This combination is hugely important because often, certain kinds of hyperpigmentation occur due to past inflammation. Using an ingredient like turmeric breaks the cycle," says Ranavat.
How to use turmeric for the skin at home
There are many impressive ways to use the active in your skin care routine. But before we dive in, a quick debrief on the type of turmeric used in topicals (or things you put on your skin) rather than the type of turmeric you ingest.
Food-grade turmeric is the type you'll find in little spice jars at any standard grocery store, and that's the type you'll use for food or drink. This type, however, causes stains easily. This is why many people who regularly use turmeric as a topical ingredient use something called kasturi turmeric, which does not come with coloring issues—this type, however, you cannot eat and tends to be harder to find.
The conclusion? Just be mindful of the type you're using and how you're using it.
You can improve your skin from the inside out with this much-beloved marigold-hued tonic. In its most basic iteration, golden milk is a hot or room-temperature beverage that's made by combining either turmeric powder or fresh turmeric root with the milk of your choosing (almond, coconut, cashew, etc.). Other ingredients are then added to the recipe such as black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and honey, but these will vary depending on the recipe.
The milk has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which can help soothe skin internally, neutralize free radicals, and fight signs of premature aging. In fact, board-certified family medicine physician Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., says she drinks a family recipe regularly: "There is definitely truth and power in turmeric," she notes.
Simple golden milk recipe:
- Mix 2 cups milk, 1 teaspoon turmeric, a big pinch of ground cinnamon, a pinch of black pepper, and a sweetener of your choice (honey, for example) in a saucepan.
- Add in any additional flavors to taste, such as ginger, vanilla, coconut, and so on.
- Bring the mixture to a simmer on low heat.
- Pour into a cup, let it cool to drinking temperature, and enjoy!
Two-ingredient turmeric face masks are oh-so-easy to whip together. For turmeric, we recommend using a base of yogurt: "Mixing turmeric with yogurt as a base gives a nice texture to spread on your face as a mask," says Marisa Plescia, research scientist at clean beauty e-tailer NakedPoppy. "Plus, yogurt is full of probiotics that could help balance the skin's microbiome."
Here's a DIY recipe:
- Mix ⅛ to ½ teaspoon of turmeric and a large scoop of yogurt. Stir until evenly mixed.
- Apply an even layer to the skin, leave on for 10 to 20 minutes, then remove with warm water.
- Always remember to seal in the moisture with a cream or oil so you don't dry your skin out further.
Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, it may help calm breakouts—especially the angry, red kind. The best part is that making yourself a little spot treatment is easy and fairly customizable.
You can choose from a base of yogurt (the good bacteria can help your body deal with the bad bacteria that's causing the breakouts), aloe (which has soothing properties, too, as well as hydrating ones as not to cause dry scabs post-zit), or apple cider vinegar (a popular acne-fighter in its own right, thanks to the natural alpha-hydroxy acids).
Here's how to do it at home:
- Pick your base (suggestions above).
- Add a dash of the powder to your selected base, blend, and apply to affected areas.
- Leave it on for about 15 minutes, rinse, and continue with your standard face routine.
Of course, you can simply buy products with the golden active in it. Here, our favorites.
For the most part, turmeric is a pretty safe ingredient to use as a topical ingredient. However, no ingredient—no matter how impressive—is without its cautions.
Cautions for using it topically:
- As always with any new product or DIY experiment, do a patch test before slathering on. Just because you can consume the spice doesn't mean your skin will tolerate it the same way. Sometimes people can have unexpected reactions to the topical treatment, especially if you have sensitive skin.
- We'd be remiss not to discuss traditional turmeric's bright orange hue, which makes for a beautiful mask, sure, but turmeric is also notorious for staining (your clothes and your skin, it turns out). To avoid tinging your face orange, use just a small amount of the spice in your DIY adventures. Or, you can find the aforementioned kasturi turmeric and avoid this problem altogether.
- And the worst-case scenario: The staining is only temporary. So don't freak! "Curcumin, the main component of turmeric, is oil-soluble," says Plescia. So a gentle oil cleanser should be able to remove the pigment, even if it does take a couple of times for it to totally clear. Even if you leave the stain alone completely, the sebum in your skin will lift off the pigment eventually.
Cautions for ingesting it:
- Avoid if you have a known allergy or sensitivity to it.
- If you take too much curcumin, it can cause bleeding and bruising, says Yufang Lin, M.D., an integrative medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic. So stick to the typical dosing, which is usually around 500 milligrams max per day.
- "Allergic reaction and intolerance—such as stomach upset, diarrhea, and reflux—are possible," Lin adds, but this is extremely rare.
Can I apply turmeric on my face everyday?
If you are using straight food-grade turmeric, it’s probably not ideal to use it daily as it has the potential to stain your skin yellow. However, many products use it in the formula at levels that this isn’t an issue—so if you’re using a skin care product with turmeric that notes it’s safe for everyday use, you should be fine.
Will turmeric lighten your skin?
Turmeric has skin lightening and brightening properties. In fact, its most commercially marketed skin care benefit is that it can help brighten tone and relieve dark spots thanks to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Is turmeric good for skin repair?
Can I use kitchen turmeric for the face?
The type of turmeric you find in the kitchen is different from what’s used in skin care products, which is called kasturi turmeric. You can use food-grade turmeric for DIY recipes, however you just need to know that it can stain easily. If you want to lessen the possibility of staining in your DIY concoctions, opt for kasturi turmeric—however, it can be harder to find.
There's a reason this ingredient has stuck around—and keeps on popping up, for that matter: It's a soothing, anti-inflammatory miracle addition to any skin care routine.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.