Chinese Herbs for AcneChinese Herbs for Acne

By Joel Harvey Schreck, L.Ac.

While studying my face in the mirror this morning I was forced to recall a painful old memory. A tender red spot on the outer edge of my nostril was growing. It was a prominent zit forming in an old familiar place; and with it came memories of being fifteen, and what a hard time that was for me. Throughout my teenage years, I struggled with a bad case of acne. It’s too bad that back then I didn’t know anything about using Chinese herbs.

Acne is an all too common skin problem affecting the oil producing areas of the skin where lesions (pimples) and redness appear. This occurs mainly on the face and upper body. Though acne is usually associated with teenagers and young adults, it can happen to anyone at any age. Apparently, I am proof of this.

Though no one considers acne a serious disease, it can, as I well know, be a source of awkward self-consciousness, low self-esteem, and great Anxiety. These “side effects” can be serious, sometimes leading to depression and other life altering mental afflictions. It’s best to treat acne early and aggressively.

Western medicine and Chinese medicine treat acne very differently though they agree on one point. Dirty skin does not cause acne. In fact, too much scrubbing can make matters worse. In the Western view, acne is caused by a combination of surface bacteria known as Propionibacterium acnes and an oversupply of androgens, which are hormones exuberantly produced during puberty.

Chinese herbalists see acne as an internal condition called damp heat in the Lung / Large Intestine. Though this may sound strange, it makes perfect sense within the logic of Chinese medical theory. To understand it, just think of the dampness as pus and the heat as inflammation. The Lung/ Large Intestine refers to the skin, because Chinese medicine understands that the lung controls the pores and by extension, the skin. Also, the Lung and Large Intestine channels (aka meridians) cross the face and chest where acne most often develops.

Fortunately, you need not understand this or even have heard of the herbs used to treat acne. You only have to use the medicine. The herbs work and, in my opinion, they work better than Pro Active©, PhiSoHex©, Clearasil©, or any corticosteroid, antibiotic or other potentially dangerous pharmaceutical prescribed for this condition.

This may be because acne is an internal condition rather than a topical one. Chinese herbs are taken internally, either by pill, powder, or decoction (brew). The herbs are always used in formulas and rarely used as single herbs. These formulas create powerful synergies by combining two or more herbs having similar but not equal properties. Combining herbs also can be used to negate the harsh side effects of single herbs.

Herbal formulas used to treat acne mainly use herbs from four categories: Herbs to Clear Heat, Herbs to Dry Damp, Herbs to Relieve the Surface, and Herbs that Move Blood. The proportion of cooling herbs to drying herbs will most often depend on the degree of inflammation (redness) vs. the amount of purulence (pus)

Some of the most common herbs used are: Honeysuckle (jin yin hua), forsythia (lian qiao), chrysanthemum (ju hua), pearl (zhen zhu), and gypsum (shi gao). All of these clear heat.

Scutellaria (huang qin), coptides (huang lian), and philodendron (huang bai) all clear heat and dry dampness, so they are especially useful for this condition. You’ll find at least one of them in most anti-acne medicines.

You’ll also find mild dampness draining herbs such as job’s tears (yi yi ren) and poria (fu ling) included in most acne formulas. Another powerful combination allies astragalus (huang qi) with Chinese angelica root (dang gui) to drain pus. Stronger systemic drying herbs like white atractyodes (bai zhu), red atractylodes (cang zhu), or pinellia (ban xia) are used only when acne presents with other damp symptoms such as diarrhea, phlegm, or a lot of pus.

Since acne appears on the surface of the body, herbs that Relieve the Surface are also included in most acne medicines. Used in this way, they’re called messenger herbs and lead the action of the other herbs to the skin. The herbs siler (fang feng) and schizonpeta (jing jie) are two favorites in treating skin conditions.

Mild Herbs that Move the Blood such as red peony root (chi shao) or moutan (mu dan pi), are utilized because moving the blood will clear heat. Imagine that you’re in a warm room. Simply moving the air by turning on a fan will actually make the room cooler. Or remember that your car’s engine is kept cool by moving water through the engine block. Stop the flow of water and you’ll overheat in only a few minutes.

These are not the only herbs you can use. There are scores of herbs that can help. It just takes training to choose them. OTC Chinese patent medicines are sometimes helpful, but since they do not conform to your individual pattern, they may be less than reliable. Clearly the best treatment depends on diagnosing the underlying conditions that can produce damp heat in the Lung/ Large intestine.
For those who lack access to professional help, the following acne formula employs safe and universally well-tolerated herbs. People who can’t get a precise Chinese medical diagnosis can use it.

Phellodendron - Huang bai – 15%
Scutellaria - Huang qin – 15%
Coix - yi yi ren – 10%
Astragalus - huang qi – 10%
Angelica Sinensis - dang gui – 10%
Schizonepeta - jing jie – 10%
Moutan - mud an pi – 10%
Peonia Rubra - chi shao – 10%
Licorice root - gan cao – 5%
Pearl – zhen zhu – 5%

About the Author

Joel Harvey Schreck, L.Ac. is an acupuncturist and herbologist. Schooled in Hong Kong and San Francisco, he's been practicing since 1987. He is the author of A Patient's Guide to Chinese Medicine,

He is co-founder of the Shen Clinic and co-founder of the popular Dr. Shen line of natural medicines, sold nationally in many natural food stores. Visit

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