Max Swanson comforts his little brother, Sam, by applying a cool black tea bag to his poison ivy rash. Tannic acid in tea contracts inflamed tissue and relieves itching.
Natural health practitioners view the skin as a barometer of overall health. And when skin is clear and glowing, there’s nothing more attractive. But when it’s troubled, natural remedies can often provide relief. Sometimes topical treatment is all that’s necessary; other conditions require an in-depth health analysis.
In this article, we focus on herbal treatments for common but often perplexing skin problems experienced by children and adults alike. Unless otherwise noted, these remedies are gentle enough for both children and sensitive skin. But first, a few skin basics.
The skin is one of our primary defenses, a barrier between our bodies and marauding microorganisms, damaging light rays, and toxic chemicals. It helps regulate body temperature, receives sensory information from the outside world, secretes water and salt, and manufactures vitamin D. The outermost skin layer, the epidermis, is a band of tough cells stacked atop one another. Below the epidermis is a thicker layer called the dermis that contains collagen and elastic fibers, which make skin strong and stretchable. Within the dermis are blood vessels, nerves, hair follicles, sweat, and oil glands.
To remain healthy, skin needs plenty of fluids, a nourishing diet, and nutrients such as carotenes and vitamins A and C—they help make skin strong and supple. Vitamin E and selenium help repair damage caused by insults such as ultraviolet radiation.
The type of fat we eat is important, too. Essential fatty acids form components of cell membranes. Without the proper ratio of fatty acids, cell membranes become less fluid and don’t function well. Skin cells are constantly dying and being replaced, so we need to eat the right fats regularly. Diets heavy in saturated fats and certain omega-6 fatty acids (the kind contained in corn, soy, sesame, and safflower oils) tend to be deficient in the skin-friendly omega-3 fatty acids found in the seeds of flax, hemp, and pumpkin and in cold-water fish and green leafy vegetables.
Body organs can influence skin health, most notably the liver. The skin is the largest eliminative organ; the liver is the body’s biggest filter. If the body produces too many waste products because of stress and food allergies, the liver can’t filter these products completely. This increases the skin’s burden to eliminate wastes and may cause skin inflammation as a result.
The epidermis is a band of tough cells stacked atop one another. Below it is the dermis, which holds blood vessels, nerves, hair follicles, sweat, and oil glands.
Foiling Persistent Acne
Acne is a common skin problem and afflicts many people sometime between ages eleven and thirty, though it can manifest even later in life. It can be mild or severe and persistent.
Beginning in preadolescence, the adrenal glands secrete hormones that stimu- late the skin’s oil glands. Excess oil and sloughed skin cells clog pores; these plugged pores are commonly called whiteheads. When the plug reaches the surface and its fats and cells oxidize and darken, it becomes a blackhead. If the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes proliferates inside the blocked oil gland, it will swell and turn into a red pimple. If the oil gland cavity breaks open inside the skin, cysts can develop. Cystic acne is the type most likely to leave scars.
Conventional acne treatments include over-the-counter products such as benzoyl peroxide, external or internal antibiotics, glycolic acid, tretinoin (Retin-A and other products), and isotretinoin (Accutane). Side effects range from mild skin irritation, reddening, and sun sensitivity to painful joints, tendinitis, elevated blood fats, and a higher risk of birth defects.
Some herbs provide gentle alternatives and are among the most effective remedies around, as long as you accompany their use with common-sense prevention. Use only gentle cleansers, drink lots of water, boost fiber intake, avoid touching your face, don’t squeeze pimples, and, for women, replace foundation makeup every few months. You may also try using natural cosmetics, especially those preserved with vitamin E.
Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil, used externally, kills the bacteria associated with acne. One study found that a 5 percent tea-tree oil preparation worked as well as a 5 percent benzoyl peroxide compound in treating acne, but with fewer side effects.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil is a tried-and-true remedy. Just dot it onto individual blemishes. It dries pimples almost overnight, and with a far more pleasant scent than tea tree oil. People with dry or sensitive skin may have a slightly parched patch the next day, but the trade-off is usually worth it.
Fruit acids, or alpha-hydroxy acids, help rid the body of dead skin cells. You can spend a lot of money buying products containing these acids, but you can also have fun making them. Pineapple husks can be applied directly to the face or whirred in a blender to make a poultice. Grapes contain alpha-hydroxy acids, too; strawberries contain these acids as well as salicylic acid, as do some commercial acne products. Facial smoothies, anyone?
Essential fatty acid deficiencies have been linked to acne. Apparently this deficiency causes more skin cells to slough, meaning there’s more stuff available to clog pores. Although no studies show that fatty acid supplementation helps remedy acne, these essential fats generally reduce inflammation and contribute to the skin’s health. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseed oil and cold-water fish oil. Gamma-linolenic acid, a beneficial omega-6 fatty acid, is found in the seed oils of borage, black currant, and evening primrose.
We’re also starting to hear more about topical uses of seed oils that contain essential fatty acids. Given that such oils also contain natural anti-inflammatory compounds, this makes sense. You can grind up flax or borage seeds and make them into a poultice or mask, or puncture a capsule of borage, evening primrose, or flaxseed oil and apply it directly to the affected skin. (We can’t explain why putting more oil on the face helps blemishes disappear, but it works in some cases.)
Soothing the Itch
For sensitive skin types, exposure to poison ivy, oak, or sumac can produce rash-reddened, itchy skin, blisters, then oozing and crusting. The source of the reaction? A resin called urushiol causes cells to release histamines and other inflammatory chemicals into the skin. For some people, only a tiny amount of resin will trigger the rash; others seem virtually immune. The rash can appear anywhere from a few hours to a few days after exposure.
One way to tell whether the rash has been caused by contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac is to examine the pattern of the blisters—they run in lines where the leaves brushed the skin. Right after exposure, don’t touch yourself anywhere, especially around the eyes, to avoid spreading the resin. Wash the skin thoroughly to remove the irritating oil, using soap and lots of water. Doing so within five to ten minutes may avert the rash. Try dissolving a half-cup of baking soda into a tepid or cool bath to help remove plant residue and soothe irritated skin.
Meanwhile, wash all clothing, shoes, and any toys or other objects that may have touched the offending plant. Cut your fingernails short and try not to scratch. The fluid within the blisters won’t spread the rash, but scratching can cause infection or injure fragile skin.
For itch relief, apply a baking soda paste or calamine lotion. Rubbing an ice cube over the rash can soothe, too. Doctors often recommend over-the-counter antihistamines; in severe cases, topical or oral corticosteroids may be prescribed. But herbs can help as well.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) has acquired a reputation for quelling the rash caused by poison plants. If jewelweed grows in your area, apply the fresh, crushed leaves or a leaf tea. You can also purchase liquid extracts at health-food stores and apply them externally.
Grindelia (Grindelia squarosa, G. robusta), also known as gumweed, exudes a gummy resin that has anti-inflammatory properties. If you would rather not be covered with this sticky resin, purchase an alcohol-based tincture made for this purpose at a health-food store and apply it externally to the rash.
Black tea bags work well for itches. Just dunk a bag in a scant cup of hot water for several minutes, cool, then apply the tea bag to the rash. The tannic acid will contract inflamed tissue and relieve itching.
Oak and willow bark (Quercus spp. and Salix spp.) are good astringents. According to Joy Gardner in The New Healing Yourself (Crossing Press, 1989), a strong decoction of white oak added to her bath worked on poison ivy “when all else failed.” She suggests simmering one-half cup of chopped oak bark in one quart of water for twenty minutes, straining, then adding the liquid to a cool or tepid bath. Use fresh tea in your bath and soak for twenty minutes daily for several days.
Other plant medicines that can help calm itchy skin include plantain (Plantago spp.), chickweed (Stellaria media), and cucumber. Apply a mash of any of these directly to a recent poison oak or ivy rash. Or make a strong infusion, let it cool, and apply cool compresses to the skin. Witch hazel lotion can also be effective in soothing and tightening swollen, irritated tissue.
Although not an herb, green clay is worth mentioning here. It has a natural ability to draw oils from the skin and works well in relieving the itch of poison oak or ivy. Green clay powder is available either in bulk at natural food stores or as an ingredient in facial masks. Finger-paint the premade mask or a paste made from the clay powder and water directly onto the irritated areas. You may look like a polka-dotted avocado, but you’ll probably feel better!
Linda B. White, M.D., has written on health issues for many publications. Sunny Mavor is an herbalist and founder of Herbs for Kids, a company that makes herbal medicines for children.
Article adapted from
Kids, Herbs & Health
Linda B. White, M.D.,
and Sunny Mavor
256 pages • paperbound
two-color illustrations throughout
$21.95 plus $4.95 shipping and handling
Available from Interweave Press in March 1999.
Ask for it at your local bookstore or herb supplier, or call 800-645-3675.