Sometimes kicking it old school is the best way to solve a problem. Gulping down water works just as well (or better) than popping an Advil when you have a headache, and a dip in the ocean can replace ointment if you need a soothing cure for skin inflammation. So when it comes to acne, it’s no surprise that taking an ancient approach can work wonders.
One of the oldest healing methods in the book? Traditional Chinese Medicine.
“Chinese Medicine is a foundational-based medicine that looks at the root of the body,” says Mona Dan, a Beverly Hills-based acupuncturist and owner of Vie Healing, a holistic medicine center and supplements line. “We believe the environment and the proper flow of blood and energy throughout the body have a strong impact on us.”
“The most important approach to fighting acne is looking at the internal aspect.”
And breakout-prone skin, Dan says, is no different. “The most important approach to fighting acne is looking at the internal aspect,” she says. “Your body holds onto toxins because you’re [nutrient] deficient. This builds up heat, which shows up on the skin as different kinds of pimples.”
The fix, Dan says, isn’t any single serum, but rather a 360-degree approach. “You don’t want to have to work for your body,” but instead find a way to make your body work for you, Dan explains. This means attacking the problem at its root—no trial-and-error testing of spot creams necessary (phew).
Here are the four most important ways to combat acne, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
1. Choose natural topicals
One thing’s for sure: TCM will never ask you to apply harsh acne treatments (so you can say goodbye to your benzoyl peroxide). Instead, it’s all about using organic, totally natural ingredients that have cooling properties—many of which you may already have in your kitchen. “Applying things like honeysuckle flower powder, pearl powder, turmeric, and fresh cucumber juice reverses the heat in the body that causes acne,” Dan explains.
“Honey is my secret weapon for everything,” Dan adds. “It’s a great antibacterial and antifungal.” (Plus, it’s effective as a face wash—I’ve tried it.) Dan advises mixing it with some coconut oil for a synergistic, skin-boosting blend. Another acne solution you can find in your cupboard is oatmeal, which Dan says is best for treating dry, cystic acne.
2. Eat a neutral diet
Steering clear of inflammatory foods is a classic staple of fighting acne from the inside out, but TCM is particularly adamant about turning down the heat (in temperature as well as taste). “Avoid greasy, spicy, damp foods,” says Dan. “Try to eat dishes that aren’t too hot or too cold—otherwise, they can trap heat in your blood vessels, and that can show up as acne.”
She notes that room-temperature meals are best because digesting cold and raw food can also trap heat inside your body. “You need your body to be relaxed to function properly,” Dan says, not working overtime to break down the things you eat. (Need recipe inspo? This one-pan Japanese omelette checks all the boxes.)
3. Get moving
There’s not much that exercise doesn’t help with—acne woes included. “It’s important to get your blood flowing, but in a moderate, non-taxing way,” says Dan. “Be gentle with your body, but break a sweat.”
So when fighting a flare-up, it could be better to opt for Pilates rather than, say, the hardest HIIT class in your neighborhood. “Causing too much stress on the body puts you into fight or flight mode,” Dan adds. “This stops your proper processing modes,” and could wreak havoc on your skin. (Plus, who doesn’t mind having a reason to take a break from boot camp?)
4. Turn to herbs and adaptogens
If you think of herbs when you think of TCM, you’re…totally correct—they play a big role in stabilizing the body. “Adaptogens help regulate the hormones and nervous system, which saves your skin,” says Dan. “They’re very balancing and allow you to more properly digest, which soothes irritated breakouts.” But depending on your skin type, some herbs may be better than others, so be sure to talk to a professional before stocking up on supplements.
The last major thing you can do to stave off acne has nothing to do with your diet: Dan says reducing stress and regulating hormones will always help clear your face (hence why her supplements line includes restorative, immune-boosting herbs like ashwagandha, licorice root, schizandra berry, ginseng, and astragalus). The lower the cortisol, the clearer your skin.
If you feel it’s time to call in the breakout-fighting reinforcements, here are the yoga poses that could help clear up your skin. And when all else fails, this is how to deal with acne scars the natural way.