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Aloe is an excellent, gentle herbal skin healer.

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Cosmetic Conundrum

For more than 20 years, I used cosmetic products containing methyl and propyl parabens, stearates, myristtates, oleates, etc. Last October, my face started showing red spots, which are the early signs of dermatitis. My doctor gave me steroids, but they did not help. My face is itchy and flakes out every day. Also, I am rapidly developing astigmatism. It seems the chemicals in cosmetics produce vapors that irritate my eyes. What can I do now?
Sunnyvale, California

KHALSA RESPONDS: This is a great opportunity to try sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), a berry with a long history of treating skin problems like yours. Sea buckthorn has been used for centuries as a food and medicine in Europe, Tibet, Mongolia and China. Recently, it’s been showing up here in cutting-edge skin-care products. Farmers in eastern British Columbia and Manitoba are now cultivating the plants.

Oil extracted from sea buckthorn seed and fruit pulp is the main active ingredient with nourishing, revitalizing and restorative properties, and it appears in body oils, creams, soaps and shampoos. Russian research started in 1920s, and more than 70 scientific studies have appeared in the literature since 1956. Essentially, sea buckthorn oil has properties very similar to evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) oil.

Sea buckthorn oil contains 80 to 95 percent essential fatty acids, including substantial quantities of oleic and linolenic acids. Sea buckthorn has a high concentration of the rare palmitoleic acid (omega-7), a fatty acid that is a component of skin fat. It is rich in phytosterols (beta-sitosterol, beta-amirol and erithrodiol). It also contains vitamin E and several other tocopherols, and assorted flavonoids. A 2004 German study found the plant contains powerful anti-inflammatory proanthocyanidins.

Sea buckthorn seed oil is used to encourage the healing of skin conditions, including injuries, burns, acne, wounds and eczema, and to moisturize dry skin. Finnish research studied the oil taken in capsules for dermatitis. Forty-nine dermatitis patients took 5 grams (10 capsules) of pulp oil daily for four months and had significant improvement.

Applying the oil helps combat wrinkles, dryness and other symptoms of prematurely aging skin. For topical use, the oil is available as a liquid or cream. Take it internally as a capsule. A typical dose is 1,500 to 3,000 mg a day. For eye irritation, apply the pure oil as eye drops with a clean eyedropper.

KEVILLE RESPONDS: The cosmetic ingredients you mentioned are some of the most commonly used, even in “natural” body-care products. Although they are considered safe by the cosmetics industry, they could indeed have contributed to your skin condition. It is difficult to know if any of these ingredients are directly responsible or if they irritated your face, making it more susceptible to the problem. In any case, you’re right to discontinue their use. It’s a good idea for anyone, even those who aren’t experiencing skin problems, to keep their skin-care products as free of artificial chemicals as possible. Most people who experience skin sensitivities find that the problem starts to clear up once the offending products have been discontinued. So, there might be something else that is irritating your face. There are a few things to consider, such as whether your face is exposed to cold air, you sit by a heating or air conditioning vent at work, you often wear a scarf or hat, the detergent used to wash your pillowcase, and especially what you use to wash your face.

You can try topical herbs right on those troublesome spots. The steroid drugs you took act as a potent anti-inflammatory. As an alternative, turn to skin-soothing salves or creams that contain anti-inflammatory herbs, such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and chamomile (Matricaria recutita). These herbs also speed skin healing and are antiseptic, so they’ll help prevent an opportunist bacterial infection from getting involved. Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and aloe (Aloe vera) are other excellent herbal skin healers. Products containing tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) also are often helpful. These herbs often are found in herbal skin-care products and you can just dab them on your face where the spots are appearing. Experiment to find what works best for you.

The majority of skin conditions respond far better if you also treat the body internally. Even without knowing anything about you, the primary organ I would consider treating is your liver—it’s the first place an herbalist considers for almost any ongoing skin problem. Herbalists, and some progressive dermatologists, have found that treating the liver with herbs often is all it takes to clear up skin problems. The liver is an obvious place to begin if you have a history of any type of liver problem, such as hepatitis, heavy alcohol consumption, or take sedative or antidepressant drugs regularly. However, skin disorders also can be caused by a relatively healthy liver that is overworked. That’s quite common in our modern, chemical-laden world.

It certainly won’t hurt to take a blend of liver-healing herbs as a tea, extract or in pills. One of the most popular is milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Its use to help a damaged liver repair itself is supported by scientific research. Turmeric (Curcuma longa), burdock (Arctium lappa) and the Chinese herb bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense) are just a few other examples of liver-healing herbs.

One more thing to do is eat foods that are good for your liver. Beets, carrots, artichokes and dark leafy greens all are on that list. Be prepared to continue your herbal and dietary program for at least a month to see results. The good news is that because you’re addressing this problem early, you should be able to eliminate it completely!

Naturally Healthy Gums

At my recent dental checkup, I was told I have early signs of gum disease. What can I do to keep this problem under control?
Woodinville, Washington

KHALSA RESPONDS: First, let me give you hope that this problem is reversible. I have seen many people regain healthy gums, even after advanced cases of periodontal disease. Mind you, it takes some persistence.

Consider green tea (Camellia sinensis), which supports oral health in at least five ways. It kills plaque-causing bacteria, such as Streptococcus mutans. It prevents the attachment of the bacteria to the teeth and inhibits the gum tissue-destroying activity of the bacteria below the gum line. Green tea polyphenols are anti-inflammatory, so they reduce gum disease (gingivitis). Also, green tea increases the tooth enamel’s resistance to erosion from bacterial acid. Most studies use a dose of three cups a day.

When brushing your teeth, add a bit of extra herbal medicine to your routine. In addition to your toothpaste, brush again with herb powder. Prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum americanum), from North America, was used in toothpowders into the 1950s, when its popularity gradually decreased. Powdered myrrh gum (Commiphora spp.) is widely used in Middle Eastern herbalism. You can add a drop or two of tea tree oil to stimulate circulation and kill germs.

Finally, you can use a gum pack while you sleep. There are many variations, but one good version is made by mixing a teaspoon of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) powder with 400 IU of vitamin E oil, squeezed from a softgel. Insert the mushy paste between your lips and gums, and let it rest there while you sleep. Surprisingly, on most mornings when you awaken, it will be right where you left it.

Sea buckthorn oil encourages the healing of skin conditions, including acne and eczema.

KEVILLE RESPONDS: Besides all of the dental hygiene recommendations that you have undoubtedly been told, several herbal remedies can help you heal your gums. The goal is to reach and break up colonies of bacteria that live between the teeth and gums. These bacteria promote recessed gums, and as the gums pull farther away from the teeth, they form “pockets” in which the bacteria hide and multiply. These areas become increasingly difficult to reach, so essential oils are particularly helpful because they are composed of small molecules that absorb into gum tissue and down into the pockets.

Tea tree essential oil is a particularly strong germ fighter that has an acceptable taste. Tea tree’s claim to fame is based on numerous studies backing its use to deter mouth disease. The best time to use tea tree is after brushing and flossing your teeth, after dinner when you won’t be eating again until morning. One technique is to use a plastic irrigator supplied by dentists. It is designed to dispense hydrogen peroxide, which is an effective treatment in itself, but you can get two bottles and fill the second one with diluted tea tree oil. A thin, metal tube distributes minute amounts of the liquid in between the gum and teeth. Either use an extract of an herbal formula that contains tea tree or dilute your own by mixing 5 drops of tea tree oil in 15 drops distilled water. You have to shake this very well before using. (Don’t store the solution in the plastic bottle for more than a few weeks—even a small amount of essential oil will eat away at the plastic.) You can use tea tree daily, but use hydrogen peroxide only about twice a week since it destroys good bacteria in the mouth along with the bad. This makes the mouth especially prone to developing yeast infections.

Using an herbal antiseptic mouthwash is another good idea. These are available at health-food stores; look for a product that contains essential oils of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), peppermint (Mentha ×piperita), thyme (Thymus spp.) and birch (Betula spp.). You also can use herbal toothpaste. If you like the taste of peppermint or tea tree, these are good choices, because both are very antiseptic.

Good for you for seeking ideas about what to do to help your gums during the first, early signs of disease. So, pat yourself on the back and try to avoid stress, at least as much as possible, because it impairs the immune system and encourages disease.

You also should take a look at your diet. Avoid sweets and when you eat, rinse your mouth soon afterward and brush your teeth when you can. Eat plenty of foods that contain vitamins A and C. These “anti-infection” vitamins also help strengthen the immune system to help fight off the infection from within the body. Plus, vitamin C strengthens connective tissue, including gum tissue. •