Traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced for thousands of years. And while the practice as a whole is nothing new, Chinese medicine in skin care is relatively new… at least to the Western world.
When we say Chinese medicine in skincare, one of your first thoughts is likely to do with acupuncture. You’re right in thinking that acupuncture is part of Chinese medicine, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Traditional Chinese medicine incorporates several practices meant to bring your body back into balance because the imbalance is the source of illness and disease (up to and including skin conditions).
To help us breakdown how Chinese medicine and skincare are related, we talked to Cecilia Wong, Celebrity Facialist and Founder of Cecilia Wong Skincare, and Juhi Singh, an Oriental Medicine Specialist, Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist. They explained to us what Chinese medicine is, the relationship between Chinese medicine and skincare, and how Chinese medicine for acne, eczema, and other skin conditions works.
WHAT IS CHINESE MEDICINE?
Traditional Chinese medicine is the culmination of thousands of years of Chinese medical practice dating back more than 2,500 years. Practitioners use “a combination of herbal medicine, acupuncture, exercise, massage, and diet to create a healthy lifestyle from head to toe,” says Wong.
There are two central components of traditional Chinese medicine. These are the concepts of qi and yin and yang.
Qi is your life energy. It’s believed to run throughout your entire body. It must be able to flow and move in a free and balanced way because, according to Singh, “once your qi is out of balance, the rest tends to follow”.
Yin and yang are opposites that are used to describe the qualities of qi. Yin is associated with feminine, day, light, and hot while yang is associated with masculine, night, dark, and cold. The idea behind yin and yang is that everything in life has an opposite, and that creates balance.
Balance is at the core of your physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health. This is why traditional Chinese medicine practices work to balance and harmonize energies. When the yin and yang of qi are in balance, you feel healthy and well. When they lack that balance, it causes disease and other health conditions.
This stands in stark contrast to Western medicine. Singh explains that “Eastern and Chinese medicine is going in with the grassroots approach to fix the problem and figure out the issue. This doesn’t just involve the disease and the symptoms but digs way beyond that. Western medicine generally aims at targeting just one façade.” In other words, where Western medicine focuses on treating disease, traditional Chinese medicine focuses on treating your overall wellbeing.
And there’s plenty of evidence to back up its benefits. In fact, Singh tells us that “several studies have shown the benefits of acupuncture and Chinese medicine on digestive, neurological and pain management ailments. The NIH has research-based evidence of acupuncture being an effective treatment for many treatments, such as lower back pain, tennis elbow, asthma, headaches and more.”
But the conditions that Chinese medicine can treat also include those that affect your skin, which is where Chinese medicine in skincare takes over.
CHINESE MEDICINE & SKINCARE
The conventional approach to skincare is: you have a condition you want to fix, you apply something to the skin to treat it. For example, if you suffer from dry skin, you might start using a serum in conjunction with your daily moisturizer. But Chinese medicine in skincare says that, while it may offer short term relief, that approach isn’t addressing the real reason for your dry skin.
Chinese medicine doesn’t view the body as separate systems and organs. Instead, the body is seen as a complex network of interconnected and interrelated parts. Singh describes this concept perfectly: “we can always use cosmetic procedures, lotions, potions, and serums, but if you don’t heal the inside, it will show up on the skin. Balancing the body internally by addressing any systemic concerns such as digestion, sleep, and anxiety will help clear up the skin.”
Skincare, from the perspective of Chinese medicine, means recognizing that what’s happening on the inside has a big impact on what you look like on the outside.
Wong explains that “In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it’s believed that creating radiant, nourished, and clear complexions begin with a healthily functioning respiratory, digestive, and immune system.” Meaning that your dry skin isn’t a function of your skin alone… it’s the result of an unhealthy balance between all those bodily systems. Chinese medicine in skincare says that when all your interconnected parts and systems are in balance, you look and feel healthy. When a skin problem arises, you can trace it back to an imbalance somewhere in the body.
That’s why Chinese herbs for beautiful skin are only one aspect of Chinese medicine in skincare. In fact, Wong tells us that “Everything we put in our bodies and put our bodies through, directly affects our skin in one way or another. The food we eat, the water we drink, and the stress we feel can all take a toll on our complexion. Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, whether it is acupuncture or the incorporation of herbs into your daily meals, helps to create homeostasis internally and healthy functioning organs. Once this is achieved and our body is no longer circulating toxins, the skin — which is the largest organ — will appear healthy and radiant.”
COMMON CHINESE MEDICINE SKINCARE INGREDIENTS
One fantastic aspect of Chinese medicine skincare ingredients is that, according to Wong, “Taking the natural approach to skincare is something that is synonymous with Traditional Chinese Medicine.” Singh, too, gave us an unequivocal and resounding “Absolutely!” upon inquiring about the relationship between Chinese medicine and natural ingredients. She insists that “…its fundamentals are rooted in nature.”
This is largely due to the fact that a big component of Chinese medicine is herbalism, which involves using plant-derived ingredients to heal and treat various conditions. All that to say that you can expect natural, clean ingredients from Chinese medicine skincare practitioners and brands.
Wong shared with us some of her favorite traditional ingredients that are making their way into skincare products on this side of the Pacific: “There are so many traditional ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and some are even commonly known in the United States. Some of my favorites for treating various health and skin concerns are ginseng, red and black dates, goji berries, honey dates, Chinese yams, astragalus, wolfberry fruit, Angelica root, black sesame, ling zhi or reishi mushroom, and even monk fruit.”
Many of those ingredients, such as goji, ginseng, and wolfberry, are powerful antioxidants that not only treat skin conditions but prevent the development of additional issues. Ingredients such as chamomile, honey dates, and calendula, help relieve and soothe conditions as serious as rosacea or eczema. Flaxseed and sesame are great for nourishing dry skin, and mushrooms, mung beans, and even barley can help restore balance to your sebaceous glands and their production of oil.
But because Chinese medicine skincare treats more than just your skin, proper treatment will usually involve a blend of traditional herbs and oils as well as some ingestible items to work on your respiratory, digestive, and immune systems. Your treatment cycle will treat both the symptoms of imbalance that appear on your skin as well as other symptoms that are part of your overall health and wellbeing.
WHAT CONDITIONS CAN CHINESE MEDICINE TREAT
Chinese medicine skincare can be used by anybody to promote a healthier complexion. By working from the inside-out, Wong detailed how Chinese medicine skincare is beneficial for anybody wanting to improve the appearance of their skin: “Herbs and other ingredients commonly found in Traditional Chinese Medicine can be used to regulate organ function, promote blood circulation, and nourish the yin and qi… By regulating organ function, these herbs can help resolve several different skin issues and imbalances, and promote an overall healthy complexion.”
But of course, Chinese medicine can also be used to treat specific needs, such as reducing the visible signs of aging: “We use products that contain various herbs to target skin concerns, facial massage, such as gua sha, to help lift and tone facial muscles, and acupuncture or acupressure to target pressure points and prevent fine lines, wrinkles, and loose skin.” Similarly, Singh points to some internal factors that could be impacting your skin in a less-than-ideal way “Discoloration around the mouth can signify digestive issues. Acne shows that there is excessive heat in the body.”
There’s also Chinese medicine for eczema and Chinese medicine for acne, though these work a bit differently: “This method treats the problem at the root cause, by finding the imbalance within your body and correcting it. By treating the problem at its source, it can create a lasting impact on your skin health and help to clear up common skin concerns like eczema and acne.”
Unfortunately, Chinese medicine skincare requires more than an Amazon subscription for ordering the right creams, lotions, and serums. Treatment plans are highly personalized, and for true healing, your Chinese medicine practitioner will usually combine topical herbs with acupuncture and dietary changes based on an assessment of your lifestyle. For this, you’ll need to be physically present.
In addition, your practitioner needs to determine the cause of your imbalance. For example, wrinkles, dark circles, puffiness, and acne, can all be caused by poor sleep or digestive issues that lead to hormonal imbalances. For you practitioner to treat that, you’ll need a personalized assessment and not just the best under-eye cream.
Although new to the Western world, Chinese medicine has a history that spans thousands of years. Since ancient times, these practices have been used to bring the body back into balance, because imbalance is the source of disease and illness. Chinese medicine skincare simply extends that philosophy to conditions that affect your skin. Practitioners incorporate herbalism, dietary advice, acupuncture, and other traditional practices into treating everything from acne to eczema, but everybody’s complexion could do with the fine-tuning that Chinese medicine offers.