Cool, Calm, Clear: The Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach to Acne

By Lydia Au, L.Ac, MSOM /

Cool, Calm, Clear: The Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach to Acne

Acne is one of the most common skin conditions, affecting over 85% of us at some point in our lives. It’s also one of the most frustrating conditions to manage and treat. But at The Beauty Within, we have a few ancient acne secrets up our sleeves. Learn more about our unique Chinese Medicine Approach to Acne.

In this article, we’ll dive into the basics of acne, then cover the main ways we can reverse this pesky skin condition with Traditional Chinese Medicine and healthy habits.

Acne Basics

Before we dive into the different types of acne in Chinese Medicine and our Chinese Medicine Approach to Acne, let’s take a closer look at what acne really is.  Acne is a skin condition that occurs at the pilosebaceous unit, the area where the hair bulb, hair shaft, and sebaceous gland meet.

Normally, the sebaceous gland releases just enough sebum, or oil, to keep the skin nourished and protected. But for various reasons (especially hormone imbalance), these glands can release too much sebum which then mixes with bacteria and dead skin cells and clogs the pores. 

The result?  Breakouts – usually in the form of either whiteheads or blackheads. In more serious cases, however, inflammation can cause the acne to develop into deeper lesions such as papules, pustules, nodules, or cysts.

Conventional dermatology theory views acne as a skin condition mostly related to hormone imbalances or genetics. Other issues, like exposure to grease or oils as well as excess friction or pressure on the skin, are also considered potential causes.

Acne According to Chinese Medicine Theory

Like all things in Chinese Medicine, acne is not considered one single “condition”, but the outcome of a range of different patterns of imbalance. This means that we treat each case of acne in different ways based on the individual’s unique patterns with a Chinese Medicine Approach to Acne. 

While each person’s skin is slightly different, there are some common patterns that tend to show up frequently. Here we’ll dive into each of these patterns – perhaps you’ll find one that matches your skin type?

chinese medicine skincare

"Wind-Heat-Type" Acne
  • What it looks like: Red acne, especially on the nose and cheeks. 
  • Organ System it affects: Lung
  • What it is: According to Chinese Medicine Theory, the Lungs are directly linked to the skin. When heat and inflammation affects the Lung system, it can often show up as irritation on the skin. Several different skin conditions can fall under this pattern (such as hives or eczema), including acne. 

Chinese Medicine can help improve this kind of acne by:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Encouraging cooling blood flow to the skin
  • Balancing the Lung system

Lifestyle tips to clear wind-heat acne:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Choose foods like almond, apricot, asparagus, licorice, pear, tangerine, beef, turkey, glutinous rice, tofu, cauliflower, yam 
  • Avoid dairy and spicy, hot, salty, or fried foods
"Damp-Heat-Type" Acne
  • What it looks like: Sore, red breakouts that are pus or fluid-filled. They tend to show up on the forehead, around the mouth, or chin
  • Organ System it affects: Large Intestines and Stomach
  • What it is: When heat and excess fluids get together in the body, trouble ensures. “Damp-heat” is a term unique to Chinese medicine that is often at the root of many health conditions. While we can understand heat as increased body temperature and inflammation, dampness is the result of fluids congealing or becoming stagnant. This includes extracellular fluids, mucus, and pus. Damp-heat is closely tied to diet choices and therefore tends to affect the Large Intestine and Stomach (the organs of digestion).

Chinese Medicine helps improve this kind of acne by:

  • Cooling excess heat
  • Transforming and clearing away dampness
  • Enhancing the digestive function to prevent dampness
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improving blood flow

Lifestyle tips to clear damp-heat acne:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Drink warm lemon water in the mornings 
  • Choose foods like apple, apricot, cucumber, dates, eggplant, lemon, maltose, mung bean, orange, olive, pear, sweet potato, tomato
  • Avoid dairy and spicy, hot, salty, alcohol, sugar, and fried foods
"Qi Deficiency and Phlegm-Type" Acne
  • What it looks like: Pus-filled, deep, cystic-type acne. Tends to accompany digestive issues.
  • Organ System it affects: Spleen
  • What it is: Spleen Qi may sound like a strange term, but it basically refers to our overall vitality and ability to make more energy. When Spleen Qi is lacking, the body doesn’t have the ability to function properly. One result is both the build up of dampness and the inability to push out foreign materials. As a result, the skin’s pores can become deeply clogged with bacteria, dirt, or dead skin cells and form cystic acne.

Chinese Medicine helps improve this kind of acne by:

  • Supporting the Spleen system to return to balance
  • Improving the body’s energy
  • Transforming and clearing away dampness
  • Enhancing the digestive function
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improving blood flow
  • Relieving pain if present

steamed veggies

Lifestyle tips to clear Qi deficiency acne:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Choose foods like buckwheat, cardamom, carrot , cinnamon, clove, dill seed, fennel, garlic, ginger, ginger powder, lamb, mustard, mustard seed, nutmeg, orange peel, pepper (black, red, white), pork, rice, root vegetables (cooked), salmon, string bean 
  • Cook your foods lightly by steaming or sautéing
  • Avoid heavy, greasy foods, excess carbohydrates, and sugar
  • Exercise (mild to moderate) daily
"Heat in the Blood-Type" Acne
  • What it looks like: Red, irritated acne, sometimes with bleeding.
  • Organ System it affects: Liver, Gallbladder, Heart, Small Intestine
  • What it is: Excess heat builds up in the body for many reasons. An unbalanced diet, a hyperactive lifestyle, emotions like anger, and other factors can increase heat and set the body off-balance. When this happens, heat often gets trapped in the blood, which then nourishes the skin. Blood that is too hot will try to release its heat through the skin, and we see clusters of irritated, inflamed acne sores, hives, or bleeding.

Chinese Medicine helps improve this kind of acne by:

  • Clearing heat in the Liver blood
  • Cooling and calming the skin
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Nourishing the blood and improving circulation
  • Relieving stress or emotional constraint

green tea

Lifestyle tips to clear blood-heat acne:

  • Stay hydrated, especially with mint or green tea
  • Choose foods like Asparagus, Bamboo Shoot, Banana, Cucumber, Endive, Mung Bean, Mushroom, Peppermint, Strawberry
  • Balance the diet with a mix of some raw or cooling foods and lightly cooked food
  • Avoid hot, spicy, heavy, greasy foods
  • Practice calming stress-relief techniques daily like walking, yoga, or meditation
    Blood Stasis and Phlegm-Type Acne
    • What it looks like: Dark red or purple sores that are deep and painful (cystic acne). May accompany other hormonal issues related to blood stasis and phlegm such as PCOS or endometriosis.
    • Organ System it affects: Liver, Spleen, Heart
    • What it is: When the body’s fluids stop moving properly, stagnation occurs and slows everything down. As that stagnation progresses into “stasis,” fluids and blood congeal and become stuck. The result is painful clots and “phlegm” nodules (phlegm in this case refers to pus, not sticky mucus). Stagnation and stasis can occur for a variety of reasons, but in general, a lack of movement, inflammation, poor diet, and emotional constraint are at the core.

    Chinese Medicine helps improve this kind of acne by:

    • Clearing heat in blood
    • Cooling and calming the skin
    • Breaking down stuck phlegm
    • Reducing inflammation
    • Encouraging a healthy flow of blood throughout the body
    • Relieving stress or emotional constraint

    Lifestyle tips to clear damp-heat acne:

    • Stay hydrated, especially with mint or green tea
    • Choose foods like asparagus, bamboo shoot, banana, cucumber, endive, mung bean, mushroom, peppermint, strawberry 
    • Avoid dairy, alcohol, sugar, heavy, and greasy foods
    • Exercise daily for better blood circulation throughout the body
    Clear your Skin to Find the Beauty Within

    As Southern California’s natural beauty experts, we are passionate about using a Chinese Medicine Approach to Acne with holistic approaches to help our patients feel good about their skin. At The Beauty Within, we developed our own specialized acne clearing program, Acu-Balance (as well as an acne scar healing program, Acu-Clear) that addresses your specific skin challenges to clear acne and heal the skin. We know how difficult and stubborn acne can be, but we can get to the root of the problem with some smart Chinese medicine strategy!

    Stop hiding and start embracing the beauty within! Schedule your first session, or contact us to learn more about treating your acne naturally with our Chinese Medicine Approach to Acne.

    Dr. Lydia Au, DACM is the founder of The Beauty Within in Southern California. After practicing as an acupuncturist for a decade, her interest in holistic facial rejuvenation began when she started experiencing issues in her own skin. Experimenting with different holistic skin care modalities, she was astonished at the amazing results she yielded without invasive procedures. She has trained with cosmetic acupuncture experts such as Dr. Martha Lucas or MeiZen, Amanda Shayle of Acuregen and much more. She has also obtained certifications in various modalities such as guasha, cupping, facial sculpting, microneedling and LED light therapy. At The Beauty Within, experience a collective of ancient beauty rituals with modern technology to bring forth holistic yet effective results.

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