Many of us have struggled with acne at some point of time (or sadly, still are), and always looking out for new treatments to help us get back the clear skin we once took for granted.
In recent times, people are gaining interest in using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat this pesky skin problem. TCM advocates the use of natural products, and is increasingly recognised as a viable form of alternative medicine.
So, how does TCM tackle acne? Is TCM actually safe for everyone?
To answer your burning questions about TCM and acne, we consulted Physician Khor Tze Hsin from Kin Teck Tong and Physician Eleanor Chua Chih Yin from Singapore College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In TCM, what are some common causes of acne?
When we see acne appearing on our face, the first question we ask is: why? We know one common cause is clogged pores – but could there be other causes explainable by TCM?
Both physicians mention that one very common cause is ‘heatiness’ in the lung and stomach. Heat can be caused by a diet rich in unhealthy fats, fried food or spicy food. In TCM, ‘heat’ rises and causes ailments in the upper body, which is why acne tends to be found on the face, upper chest and upper back areas.
Physician Chua also attributes acne to ‘dampness’ and ‘wind’. ‘Dampness’ is a concept that defines a certain body constitution or TCM syndrome, and seen as a common cause of acne as some people with acne have oily skin, or the affected areas tend to be oilier. If there is excess dampness that the body cannot get excrete normally, it will find other routes available, such as our skin. ‘Wind’ can be understood as external factors such as biological pathogens or a change in environment. Western medicine has confirmed that acne-causing bacteria is one of the causes of acne, which is why dermatologists sometimes prescribe antibiotics for acne.
Other possible factors include emotions, and kidney deficiency, which points at hormone imbalance. However, do take note that the presence of acne may have to be viewed in a more holistic way, since it could be a merely a symptom of an underlying disease.
Does acne on different parts of the face/body indicate different health issues?
Other than having acne on your cheek caused by bacteria from a pillow that is only washed once per year, could the location of your acne tell you anything else about your health? It turns out that the answer is yes.
Physician Chua says that each part of the body can be further divided into areas corresponding to the different organs. For example, in TCM, the chin corresponds to the kidneys. One major difference between TCM and Western medicine is that when TCM physicians refer to the kidney, it does not refer to just the anatomical kidney, and can refer to the reproductive system.
For example, if there is a patient with acne localised at the chin area, and considering some other symptoms that may be hint at a gynaecological issue, it may be deduced that the underlying cause of the acne is related to the reproductive system.
Physician Khor also gives us an example of acne resulting from lung and liver ‘heatiness’: this type of acne is more likely to appear on the face, around the nose, as well as the upper back.
It is important to note, however that it is not always accurate to deduce the organ affected just by looking at where the acne is localised. The location may give a clue or direction, but other symptoms that are presented also have to be taken into consideration.
Can acne be treated with TCM?
For all of you who are tired of applying multiple acne creams and seeing no visible results, here’s the question you’ve been waiting for: can TCM treat acne?
According to Physician Khor, the answer is a definite yes. TCM is said to be an effective, green and safe method for treating acne.
Physician Chua also concurs that there are many patients seeking TCM treatment acne with good results. However, she cautions that if there is a serious infection that needs urgent attention, you may want to consult a western medical doctor who is specialised in this.
Can anyone use TCM to treat acne?
That’s great news! Now you may be wondering: is TCM suitable for everyone to use in combating acne? For example, we know that pregnant women are typically restricted from using Western oral acne medications, and even children are cautioned against it.
Fortunately, Physician Khor shared with us that TCM is actually safe for everyone, and there are no specific groups of people who are advised against undergoing TCM treatment. In fact, TCM actually specialises in highly-personalised treatment, meaning that each individual will be prescribed a treatment that is based on his or her body constitution and the course of disease that is troubling him or her.
With that being said, Physician Chua further warns that physicians need to diagnose to understand your body condition. This includes whether you are pregnant, whether you have underlying diseases such as high blood pressure, etc.
Apart from cancer and other serious conditions that require more specific intervention, most people are able to use TCM to treat acne. In pregnancy, there are certain herbs and acupoints that are contraindicated, so your TCM physician will avoid using or use with precaution.
Which kinds of Chinese herbs can we consume to help alleviate acne?
Before you head to your nearest medical hall to buy as many herbs as you can, here’s a piece of advice from both physicians: the type of medication you will need differs from individual to individual. Therefore, it’s better to get a consultation from licensed practitioners before you consume anything!
How long does it usually take for acne to heal after taking medication?
TCM offers no miracle cure for acne, so the cystic acne which has been affecting you for several years will not magically disappear after two weeks – sorry folks!
For acne that is caused by ‘heatiness’, Physican Khor recommends that patients complete a one-month session. On the other hand, acne resulting from emotions and kidney deficiency could take a longer time to heal.
Depending on the individual, the healing process may be visible after a week or up to several months. Physician Chua also points out that in some cases, TCM treatment may be even slower than Western medicine, but some patients still decide to use TCM as there are fewer side effects as compared to Western medicines such as Accutane.
The fastest way to recovery? Work with your physician to monitor changes in your condition and work towards a treatment plan that incorporates lifestyle changes.
Are there any side effects from using TCM to cure acne?
Most of us have heard the bad rep of certain drugs prescribed in Western medicine to fight acne. Accutane, for example, is infamous for its multitude of side effects, including birth defects and potential mental health problems. Does TCM also come with such side effects that we should be aware of?
Physician Chua emphasises that in TCM, they believe in everything in moderation. There are herbs that may have toxicity, and even for herbs that are relatively mild, physicians typically do not keep prescribing the same herb. They will instead alternate between herbs that have similar properties. Physicians will also alter your herbal formula according to changes in your symptoms.
Physician Khor also assures that there is actually no visible side effect in using TCM to treat acne, provided that it is taken correctly.
Can TCM prevent acne from occurring?
Beyond just treating acne, is TCM able to prevent acne from occurring at all? According to both physicians, it’s definitely possible.
In general, one of the reasons acne is difficult to treat is because it resurfaces when treatment is stopped. However, Physician Chua has some good news: TCM is able to bring some balance to your body constitution, and because of the holistic way of TCM treatment, it may be better in the long run. Physicians may not just prescribe herbs, but also suggest some changes to your lifestyle as well.
So, what is the difference between using TCM and Western medicine to cure acne?
The difference between using TCM and Western medicine to cure acne can be summed up as this: they look at illnesses through different perspectives.
In Western medicine, there is a strong link between pathological cause and effect. Take acne for example: in Western medicine, this could be seen as folliculitis (inflammation of follicles), and hence doctors advise using Accutane for overactive sebaceous glands (oily skin) or antibiotics for acne-causing bacteria.
TCM, on the other hand, focuses more on the body constitution by looking at the imbalanced aspect of the body that would cause the outburst of the acne, rather than the acne itself. For example, if there is excess heat/dampness in the body, physicians try to facilitate the clearing of heat/dampness from the body or reduce the production of heat/dampness in the body.
Can we actually use TCM and Western medicine at the same time to cure acne?
If you are currently on Western acne prescriptions such as Accutane, do you have to refrain from taking TCM until you finish your course?
In general, you can actually take both TCM and Western medicine to cure your acne. However, both physicians recommend that you check with your physician beforehand about whether that will work for you. In fact, Physician Chua emphasises that the patient (you!) plays a crucial part in bridging the gap between TCM and Western medicine!
For those who want a general guideline, Physician Khor’s advice is that Western medicine and TCM should be taken at least 2 hours apart.
About the TCM experts we spoke to
Physician Khor Tze Hsin
Physician Khor Tze Hsin graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Biomedical Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, went on to earn his Bachelor in Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, and then his Masters in Liaoning University of Chinese Medicine.
In addition to his clinical practices at Kin Teck Tong, he has also actively participated in a related research project granted by the MOH, and been invited as a speaker on Channel 8 and F.M.972.
Address (Head Office): 33 Ubi Avenue 3, Vertex Building, #02-14 Singapore 408868
Telephone: 6659 0589
Opening hours: Differs by clinic branch
For more information, visit their website here.
Physician Eleanor Chua Chih Yin
Eleanor graduated with First Class Honours in the Biomedical Sciences and Traditional Chinese Medicine double degree programme from Nanyang Technological University and Beijing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. During her tertiary studies, she was awarded NTU College Scholarship and Singapore College of TCM Outstanding Student Scholarship.
Eleanor has a keen interest in skin and vascular diseases, having worked with both TCM and western skin specialists. She believes in holistic health and is a certified Yoga Alliance teacher. She is also vegan and has conducted several talks relating to health and diet in Beijing.
Eleanor is a registered TCM physician and is currently with Singapore College of TCM.
Address (Head Office): 640 Lorong 4 Toa Payoh Singapore 319522
Telephone: 6250 3088
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday: 9am – 9pm, Sunday: 9am – 5pm (closed on public holidays and 17 March)
For more information, visit their website here.