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Finding a good herbalist

The successful treatment of acne with a natural approach takes real commitment on the part of the patient but many excellent results have been seen over the years with a great many people who have been prepared to go the distance and do the work!

Much of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Diet; does it really matter?

Much of the conventional medical literature will tell you that diet has nothing to do with acne and that it only happens because of hormonal changes that start around puberty, this is simply wrong, and badly misleading.

Question: What percentage of young adults in modern civilization get at least some acne? Answer: 96%

Question: What percentage of young adults living in traditional hunter-gatherer tribes get at least some acne? Answer: 0%

A very large part of the widespread acne in modern civilization is the over-consumption of refined carbohydrates and processed foods. These foods impact on our body, our blood, and our hormonal balance, especially our insulin levels, which in turn affects the hormones that cause acne.

Cleansing diet

For most people, to get a long-term cure from their acne, they will need to eat a 'clean' healthy diet, and details on what exactly this means are linked just below.

When your skin is better, you will be able to tell how strictly you need to keep following the diet and which foods, if any, trigger new breakouts. Until then, it can be generally recommended to commit to it wholeheartedly, and to use the kinds of cleansing herbs as discussed next, until such time as you have achieved very positive, significant improvements, more about the cleansing diet here.


Cleansing herbs

All traditional systems of medicine around the world, with the exception of Western pharmaceutical, see chronic skin problems, such as acne, as clear signs from the body that it needs help with internal cleansing. Merely working with a skin problem from the outside is seen as not understanding, or treating, the cause.

The skin is an organ of elimination, as are the kidneys the bowel and the liver. We can ease the burden on the skin to need to remove excess wastes by using herbs to help the body with its internal cleansing. Over time, this approach sees the skin settle down and begin to heal.

There are many potential allies in the plant world to help with internal cleansing. Two that have been seen to provide an exceptionally reliable depth of aid are Dandelion root and Burdock.

Dandelion & Burdock

These two herbs work especially well as a pair, they are very safe and suitable for longer term use if needed. They work by deeply cleansing the liver and the blood and, in the experience of this herbalist, there has not been a single case where there wasn't at least some significant improvement from using them if taken in good amounts for at least 2 or 3 months.

Generally, it will be most convenient when wanting to use them over a longer time-frame, to take them in tincture form, where a daily dose of approximately 4-6 mls of the two herbs combined is sure to convey their therapeutic benefit.

If things are quite bad, and particularly if we want to get the internal cleansing process moving more strongly in the beginning of the treatment process, it can be very effective to use the Dandelion and Burdock in a high-dose decoction for a short while.

Decoction recipe

In the evening take approximately 8 grams of the dried, cut root of each herb (16 grams in total), place in a saucepan and pour over approximately 3 cups of freshly boiled and still-hot water. Allow this to soak overnight and then in the morning bring it up to the boil, then turn down and allow to vigorously simmer for around 5-10 minutes. You should be left with about 2 cups after the simmering and some water absorption into the roots and you then strain this decoction into some kind of container, e.g. a drink bottle or a thermos.

It is up to you whether you drink it hot or cold, it will work just as well either way. These two cups are an entire day's dose but should not be taken in one sitting. Divide into at least two doses or drink throughout the day. Most people find it quite palatable and many say they enjoy it!

Note that this the above method is very potent, high-dose herbal medicine and you must carefully listen to your body for how long to stay with this. For some people two weeks is ample, others will want it for less time and others can take it a longer. Trust your instincts, if you feel intuitively good about taking this medicine but then one day just find that the taste and feel of it repels you, then take a break. Maybe try again later to see if your feelings have changed.

You can read more about the remarkably beneficial Dandelion root here and the potent, deep-acting Burdock root here.

Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion)

Deeper detoxification

It may be that a clean diet along with just those two herbs, Dandelion & Burdock, would be enough to cleanse your system sufficiently for your skin to get much better, however it is also possible that you might need to go further with other, potent cleansing herbs.

Purely by way of example, what follows is a sample of a typical formula that we would give an adult with severe acne.

Cleansing formula

Dandelion root 100mls
Burdock root 100mls
Red Clover flowers 80mls
Juniper berry 80mls
Barberry 80mls
Celandine 40mls
Licorice root 60mls

To make 540mls herbal tincture. Dosage is critical to the success of herbal medicine, too much is as unhelpful as too little so, again purely by way of example, we would use 8-10mls twice a day of this formula for at least a month, then possibly halve it to just once a day if things were already significantly better, or stay at the twice a day longer if needed.

This dose and strength of medicine is likely to provoke a 'healing crisis' in some people, where things get worse before they get better. This subject, and other important matters, are discussed in more depth in the article 'what is detoxification' found here.


Cleansing the skin

Many people who come to the clinic with bad acne have tried every mask, exfoliant, cleanser, lotion, cream, antibiotic and antiseptic there is. The common pattern is initial improvements that turn out to be temporary and then, after enough strong drugs and applications, the skin getting a ‘raw’ damaged appearance.

The spots of acne are caused by the thicker and 'dirtier' sebum, i.e. oil, creating a plug in the tiny sebaceous glands of the skin This oil is a veritable feasting ground for bacteria and if an acne spot gets any white pus in it, this means it has become infected by those bacteria.

Cleansing the skin is very important but it must be done with great care. Enough to deal to the bad bugs and clean the pores, not enough to create more inflammation and damage.

A two-fold approach has been seen to be widely beneficial here. Firstly, Tea-tree to act as a daily cleansing disinfectant, secondly periodic clay-masks to draw out the excess sebum from the skin.

Tea-tree wash

Tea-tree is an exceptional natural antimicrobial; it is effective against a multitude of bacterial and fungal infections. The challenge is to get the dosage exactly right, not too weak and not too strong and, as people's skin sensitivity greatly varies, there must be a willingness to carefully experiment to get it just right.

A 1:20 dilution should be a good starting point that will suit many people and be about right in terms of strength. In practical terms this translates to 10 drops of Tea-tree oil to 200 drops, which is about 10mls, or a dessert-spoon of water.

Using any method of application that is convenient, apply this diluted Tea-tree wash directly to the face or other affected area and allow it to naturally evaporate on the skin, i.e. do not wash it off after applying. Very few bacteria will be able to survive a daily wash even at this strength. Most people do well with a once a day application but, if things are badly infected, starting out with twice a day treatments is acceptable and may be advisable.

Reduce the number of drops of Tea-tree or increase the amount of water if you feel any kind of adverse reaction to this wash. However, if you feel your system is entirely tolerant of this treatment, i.e. no redness, no sensitivity, you may be able to benefit further by increasing the strength of the dilution and, depending on the amount of liquid you need to cover the affected areas, you may choose to do this by decreasing the amount of water or increasing the amount of Tea-tree oil.

Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea-tree)

Clay masks

Clay has been with us as a treatment for acne for thousands of years but it can sometimes make the skin seem worse before things get better so you must carefully read and understand the following if you will use this ancient treatment for the skin.

The balancing act

People who have not used clay masks before need to know that the immediate affect can be to make the spots seem bigger as all that blocked up sebum is drawn to the surface. This is not a bad sign as the pore soon starts to 'breathe' again and the spots tend heal much faster once that starts happening.

Also, don't be surprised if your skin seems to get noticeably drier, at least at first. This is because of the natural action of the clay having the effect of drawing out the oils from your skin. Resist the urge to re-moisturise your skin, in fact try to avoid putting anything on it for a good 8 hours after doing the mask if it all possible.

What should happen is that your oil glands will start to produce a thinner, cleaner and less sticky oil to naturally re-moisturise your skin. In other words, firstly your skin needs to dry out a little before it can naturally rebalance itself. Ultimately, it is producing a healthy amount of good oil, one that doesn't block your pores, that will cure you of acne once and for all.


Clay masks are easy to make. There are a number of products that contain premixed clay or you may prefer to use a powdered clay that you can make thicker or thinner to your preference.

The clay and water mix must be spread over the skin in a mask that is thick enough to draw out the debris as it dries out, a thin 'Pea-soup' may be a useful guide for how much to dilute it. Apply the wet clay to the face or any other areas of affected skin then relax and wait for the mask to dry out and start to crack. When it is dried it will wash off with water.

Clay options

Any kind of clay will work, but if you have a choice there are some subtle differences as follows.

~ White Clay:    
Easily the gentlest of the clays. Will soften skin whilst lightly cleansing

~ Pink Clay:       
The next most delicate after white, good for sensitive, easily damaged skin

~ Yellow Clay:
More stimulating and cleansing than Pink but still quite gentle

~ Blue Clay:       
Quite strong cleansing actions with deep effects on the pores

~ Green Clay:    
Green is the strongest of the cleansing clays, good for robust skin with very blocked pores



Whilst hormones are unlikely to be the only issue, they are still often a major part of chronic acne. Changes in puberty that involve the increase of hormones called androgens cause an increase in the production and the thickness of the oil, i.e. the sebum, from the sebaceous glands in the skin.

It will be sufficient for some people to eat a cleansing diet and to use some cleansing herbs internally and externally. However, there will also be instances where some help from Nature to remedy a hormonal imbalance will be necessary and two hormonal herbs, Vitex and Sarsaparilla, are highlighted here as examples of medicines that have been seen to be particularly beneficial to many cases.

Note that hormonal herbs are very potent, the wrong herb for the wrong person can certainly make things worse so this is an area where the help of an experienced practitioner may be of much benefit. If this is simply not possible then the next best step may be to learn and practice the ancient art of pulse testing. It may take a little time to get the hang of it and to set up a the process whereby you can get some remedies to test, but some minutes of trouble now is surely better than months of uncertainty ahead. Read more about this process here

Vitex (chaste-tree)

Vitex is a remarkably potent hormonal herb and it can be especially helpful to women who get a patterning of deeper (cystic) spots around their chin and jawline and who get breakouts that are obviously in conjunction with their menstrual cycles. However, this is by no means a herb for everyone and it must be approached with a great deal of respect for its ability to change things for the better or worse!

When it seems to be the right herb for the right person, we will typically use Vitex for acne at higher than usual doses, e.g. about 2 mls of the tincture in a day. It is often wise to use it for 3 or 4 months and then to take a break for 2 months or more to see how things go and whether things get worse again to suggest going back onto it for a while.

Vitex has also been used with much success for some men with bad acne, however here we use even higher doses, e.g. maybe as much as 5 or 6 mls in a day and for longer time-frames, e.g. up to 5 or 6 months.

In any case, if you will consider using this important herb then learn more about it here

Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste-tree)



Another hormonal herb that can be used for both men and women to help with acne is the herb Sarsaparilla, which may be especially useful when the person has had acne for many years and they have the kind of deep, cystic lesions that are slow to heal and never really come to a head.

Sarsaparilla has substances in it called steroidal saponins that are possibly the reason why it can help so much with hormonal balancing. A typical dose is the equivalent of about 1-2 grams of the herb per day.

. Sarsaparilla combines especially well with Licorice root for this purpose, more about the important and versatile Licorice here and more information about Sarsaparilla itself here

Smilax officinalis (Sarsaparilla)


Mental health matters

A great many people with quite severe acne have been worked with using the above approaches and the truth is that we have had a very high percentage of success along the way however, from long experience, it can be said that you will need to be patient with this approach and also that it may be very important for you to take good care of your mental health along the way.

Acne is unlikely to cause physical pain but there can be no doubt that it has the power to cause a great deal of mental suffering. People understandably and naturally care very deeply about how they look, bad visible acne can truly be a torment.

'Stress' is a big subject, and not one to oversimplify, but two things can nevertheless be generally recommended. The first is to regularly talk about how your skin makes you feel with whoever will lend you a sympathetic ear. Just get it out in the open, do not bottle it up inside.

The second is to do those things that you know make you feel good and relax! It is a quirky, and near universal, facet of human nature that people who are in stress largely stop doing the things that make them relax!

If needed, you can go into this subject in a lot more depth in an article on tension & anxiety found here.


Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences, for example you chance of having bad acne is a great deal higher if you are one of the 'damper' constitutions. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd