Consider salicylic acid, the active ingredient in many acne solutions. It helps dissolve pore-clogging dead skin cells that contribute to breakouts, but it has no effect on sebum production that traps oil in those pores or on the excess P. acnes bacteria that fuels inflammation by feeding on the trapped sebum. The benzoyl peroxide used in other products kills the P. acnes but does not affect sebum production or the abnormal shedding of skin cells associated with acne.
It’s like fighting one army battalion while ignoring others firing at you from different directions. You might win one battle but you’ll lose the war.
Plants used in traditional Chinese medicine offer an effective alternative. That’s because every plant contains multiple active ingredients that can attack different disease pathways simultaneously for better and longer-lasting results.
Find the right botanical or combination, and you do battle against many of the biological mechanisms causing your condition at once. You also gain prebiotic benefits, encouraging the growth of “good” bacteria that keep the “bad” bacteria in check and thereby support a healthy skin ecosystem. And you avoid side effects like drying, flaking and irritation that are common with standard treatments.
Nearly two decades of research into hundreds of botanicals by biologists, chemists, formulators and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners affiliated with skincare solutions company Kamedis has not only confirmed the efficacy of specific plants for dermatologic use but also identified the best candidates and combinations for specific ailments.
Here are five that have emerged as some of the most versatile and effective.
1 - Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
This annual succulent – grown for more than 4,000 years as an edible and medicinal plant, and worn in the first century as an amulet to ward off evil – has four key properties that are especially useful for treating acne.
Purslane is both anti-inflammatory and analgesic, which also makes it a highly effective topical application for healing insect bites and allergic rashes. In addition, it is anti-microbial (so it inhibits the growth of P. acnes bacteria), anti-oxidative (so it increases the production of the antioxidant superoxide dismutase that can help rally the body’s immune defenses), and wound healing (helping prevent scarring following inflammation). These same attributes are valuable for other skin disorders as well.
2 - Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum)
A cousin of the non-medicinal garden rhubarb used in dishes like strawberry-rhubarb pie, this species is one of the most commonly used botanicals in traditional Chinese medicine with records dating back to 2700 B.C. It not only shares purslane’s anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-oxidative and wound healing attributesbut also provides anti-allergic benefits by significantly reducing histamine release. In addition, it helps regulate sebum secretion.
This mix of features makes rhubarb an important component of treatments for conditions like eczema. This single botanical can play a role in soothing eczema-related dry, itchy, irritated and red skin, combating allergy triggers that can cause flare-ups, and fighting the S. aureus bacteria unleashed by long bouts of scratching to relieve itchiness. Rhubarb’s sebum regulation abilities are also valuable for relieving the sebum-related symptoms of acne and dandruff.
3 - Soapberry (Sapindus mukorossi)
Soapberry is the fruit of the soapnut tree, a deciduous species grown in Asia at altitudes of up to 4000 feet. The fruit contains a high concentration of saponins, a compound that has natural detergent and foaming properties useful in soaps and cleansers (hence the name soapberry). It is also anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal.
Conditions like dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis respond well to soapberry by inhibiting the production of TNF-alpha, a cell-signaling protein involved in systemic inflammation, and helping to control M. furfur, a fungus present in these disorders that feeds off excess sebum. Soapberry is also useful for acne face cleansing because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
4 - Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)
This species of indigo, also called true indigo, is a flowering shrub that was one of the original sources of indigo dye. It has been traditionally used to provide relief from various skin inflammations because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial activities as well as the ability to reduce skin cell proliferation.
The latter attribute also has therapeutic value for controlling dandruff, which is caused in part by abnormally rapid growth and shedding of hair follicle cells called keratinocytes. Indigo’s ability to help control that runaway cell growth helps visibly reduce dandruff flakes and works synergistically with other botanicals to nourish and hydrate the scalp.
5 - Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)
One of the 50 fundamental herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine, this variety of skullcap belongs to a genus of flowering plants in the mint family. It is anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-allergic and anti-oxidative as well as useful in reducing sebum secretion. As discussed above, all these features apply to skin conditions like acne and eczema.
Using these and other medicinal plants requires knowledge of which part of the plant to use – whether the root, fruit, flower or bark – as well as which combinations will yield the best results. Using multiple botanicals not only makes it possible to treat the multiple pathways involved in a particular disease but also can dramatically increase efficacy. According to Kamedis research, for example, using Great Burnet and Tree of Heaven together rather than individually more than triples microbe-fighting activity.
Sophisticated processes are also required to produce botanical extracts with a high concentration of active ingredients that will maximize the potency of the treatment.
With the right formulation, however, botanicals have the power to help strengthen the skin barrier, restore the skin’s natural protective function, and keep microorganisms, allergens and other skin attackers at bay. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have known this for centuries. Western societies are just beginning to understand that these elements of nature hold exceptional promise for relieving skin conditions that frequently fail to respond to the products found on pharmacy shelves today.
About the expert
Roni Kramer is founder, chairman and CEO of Kamedis Inc. (https://kamedis-usa.com), a provider of advanced botanical solutions for chronic skin disorders. She is an experienced Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner with 10 years of experience in treating skin disorders. She holds an M.Sc. in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Chinese herbology from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, including an internship at Chengdu University and Hospital in Sichuan, China.