Herbal Therapies Promising for Skin Disorders
Herbal therapies have historically been used in Europe and Asia to treat a variety of skin disorders, and a new report in the Archives of Dermatology suggests that many of these treatments have scientific merit.1 Many of the conventional prescription medications for skin problems have side effects, and herbal preparations may in fact be equally as effective with fewer adverse reactions.
Many topical and oral herbs may be prescribed to treat acne. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a safe topical preparation that helps reduce acne lesions as it contains tannins, which help tighten the skin. The authors recommend using the fresh bark, as the tannins in commercial witch hazel products are removed in the processing. Topical tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) has been shown to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide in diminishing acne lesions, but may take longer to achieve the desired result. Allergic skin reactions to tea tree oil have been reported, but the herb is still considered safe to use topically. Some evidence suggests that chaste tree berry (Vitex agnus-castus) may be effective in treating premenstrual acne; the amount recommended is 40 mg per day of a standardized extract. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid using chaste tree berry.
Skin burns and wounds appear to respond well to the topical application of several herbs. Both the gel and the juice produced from the Aloe vera plant have been used for centuries to treat wounds, frostbite, burns, itching, and ulcers. The gel is considered safe to take internally as well, but the juice should be avoided as it has potent laxative effects. Honey applied topically can accelerate the healing of wounds and may also be helpful in treating burns, ulcers, and infections. The marigold flower (Calendula officinalis) appears to stimulate growth of new skin and has antibiotic properties. It can be used topically to aid with wounds, ulcers, burns, rashes, shingles, and varicose veins and can also be gargled to reduce throat inflammation.
Several herbal products have been found to be an effective treatment for herpes simplex (cold sores). Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) appear to have antiviral activity and are safe to use topically. While lemon balm and hibiscus can be safely taken orally, licorice can induce high blood pressure in some people and should therefore be monitored carefully when taken internally.
Tea tree oil and garlic (Allium sativum) are potent antibiotics and useful topical treatments for bacterial and fungal infections. Both have been shown to help with nail infections and athlete’s foot. Allergic skin reactions have been reported with frequent topical application of garlic, so this should be used cautiously. Using topical podophyllin, which originates from the American mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), may reduce common warts. However, as podophyllin can cause skin ulcers and other serious side effects, it should be administered only by a physician. Application of oat straw (Avena sativa), greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), and bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) appears to reduce warts as well. American mayapple, greater celandine and bittersweet nightshade should be avoided during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Traditional Chinese medicine may be helpful in reducing eczema. The study mentioned one Chinese herbal product that produced a 63% reduction in eczematous lesions in children, compared with a 6% improvement in the placebo group.
Topical aloe was shown to be more effective than placebo in treating psoriasis. Another study demonstrated that a cream containing 0.025% capsaicin, made from Cayenne pepper (Capsicum frutescens), decreased the scaling, redness and itching of psoriasis, compared with placebo. Cayenne pepper may cause a short-term burning sensation at the site of application, but this usually resolves within several minutes. It should not be used near the eyes or an open wound.
Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), a condition of poor circulation of the legs, may be helped with specific herbal therapies. Oral horse chestnut seed extract (Aesculus hippocastanum) taken in the amount of 50 mg twice a day works as well as compression stockings in increasing blood flow through the veins of the legs. However, the seeds are poisonous and must be specially prepared to ensure the toxic constituents have been removed. Butcher’s broom (Ruscus acuteatus) and sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) have similar effects with CVI as horse chestnut. Other herbs such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), witch hazel, and grapeseed extract may improve venous flow as well.
There has been good evidence that some herbs have anticancer properties. In animal studies, green tea (Camellia sinensis) has been shown to protect against inflammation and skin cancer. It is also proposed to be a potent antioxidant, which may prevent abnormal changes in cells from occurring. Other herbs such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), propolis (a material produced by honeybees), red ginseng (Panax ginseng), and milk thistle (Silybum marianum) may inhibit the growth of tumors and enhance immune function. However, human studies are lacking so it is unknown whether these herbs would be beneficial for skin cancer in people.
Other miscellaneous herbal medicines that may be helpful with general irritation, itching or bruising include arnica (Arnica montana), German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), marshmallow (Althea officinalis), slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), plantain (Plantago sp.), and mullein (Verbascum thapsus). They all help soothe irritated skin when applied topically. These can also be taken orally, except arnica, which is toxic when consumed.
The authors conclude that many herbal treatments are effective for treating skin and other disorders. Many of the side effects experienced with herbs are minor and often resolve once the product is discontinued. However, not all herbs are completely safe and some have been associated with serious illness. They also point out that these herbal therapies may interfere with prescription medications. It is important to discuss any oral or topical herbal therapy with a health care provider, to avoid any possible drug-herb interaction.
1. Bedi MK, Shenefelt PD. Herbal therapy in dermatology. Arch Dermatol 2002;138:232–42.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of Garlic and Cholesterol: Everything You Need to Know (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice in Westport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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