Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Chinese herbs are an excellent source of modern drugs and treatment cosmetics, provided one knows where and how to look. To those who are not familiar with it, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is mysterious and full of "mumbo jumbo," as its theory and practice are steeped in esoteric terminology. Terms such as qu feng (wind dispelling ), qing re (heat removing or dispersing), xie (evil), and yi qi (replenishing vital energy) are certainly difficult to comprehend, though others such as jie du (removing toxins), sheng ji (growing muscles / flesh), ming mu (brightening vision), and an shen (calming the spirit) are more obvious. The terminology may seem archaic and sometimes downright superstitious, but the TCM system has evolved over many centuries in a logical way. One just hasto view it form another perspective. Then it will make sense.

Although I never had formal training in TCM, my research over the past 20 years has enabled me to figure out a few things, especially in the correlation between traditional properties and modern scientific findings, as well as in predicting an herb's pharmacological activities by analyzing its traditional properties. Thus, an herb with qu feng properties most likely has anti-inflammatory activity, such as Job's tear, wu jia pi (bark of several Eleutherococcus spp.), Ginger, du huo (Angelica pubescens root), and many other less commonly known ones . Herbs with qing re jie du (heat dispersing and detoxifying) properties generally have antimicrobial and febrifuge effects. Examples include honeysuckle (flower and vine) , forsythia fruit, purslane herb, chuan xin lian (Andrographis paniculata herb), yu xing cao (Houttuynia cordata herb), etc.

Herbs Beneficial to Skin

Many herbs are beneficial to the skin and are used both internally and externally for this purpose. They normally have one or more of the following traditional properties: benefits / improves complexion, removes heat, removes toxins, removes swelling, invigorates / nourishes blood, lightens skin, moistens the skin / removes dryness, prevents scar formation, promotes flesh growth, etc . The following are some common ones: lycium fruit, ligustrum, astragalus, licorice, Chinese hawthorn, sanqi (Panax notoginseng), reishi (ganoderma), common jujube, red and white peony root, luffa, safflower flower, Sichaun lovage (Ligusticum chuanxiong rhizome ), gaoben (Ligusticum sinense root / rhizome), etc.

Astragalus, licorice, and sanqi are well known for their healing properties. Either alone, or in combination, they can be used in various forms (extracts, powder, etc.) for treating wounds, chapped skin, bruises, dry skin, skin peeling, and other minor skin irritations. You could also add to the formulation one or two of the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial herbs, such as xinyi (magnolia flower bud), purslane herb, honeysuckle flower, or forsythia fruit.

In TCM, Sichuan lovage, gaoben, ligustrum, and Chines hawthorn are used topically to treat brown patches on the skin. The former two have been demonstrated to have tyrosinase inhibitory activity, scientific evidence indicating that these herbs can block excessive pigmentation of the skin.

Studies of the Benefits of Herbs for the Skin

The following are derived from two short reports from my file describing results of using Chinese hawthorn and sanqi for treating brown patches and chapped skin, respectively.

Chinese hawthorn (sanzha) for treating facial brown patches (melasma) [Hubei Zhongyi Zazhi, 16 (5): 47 (1994)]. Results are described for shanzha treatment of 12 patients with melasma, afflicting mostly the forehead and cheeks, and less so the nose and upper lip. Patients' ages ranged from 23 to 45 years. Shortest duration of illness was 5 months and longest 12 years. Method: Grind 300g of dried raw shanzha to fine powder and reserve for later use. Wash face with warm water and wipe dry with towel. Mix 5g of shanzha powder with an adequate amount of fresh egg white to form a paste and apply it to the face to form a thin film. Let it sit for 1 hour, during which time the face can be massaged to help the herb's absorption. Do this once in the morning and once at night. Sixty (60) applications constituted one course of treatment. Results: After treatment, pigmentation disappeared in 6 patients, whose skin color had returned to normal; it turned lighter in 4 patients; and 2 did not respond. A case example was described for a 23-year-old single woman with melasma on her cheeks, which had been unsuccessfully treated for 6 months and had started to spread to her forehead and bridge of the nose. After 2 courses of shanzha treatment (120 applications; 2 months), the patient's melasma was completely resolved.

In western medical practice, melasma is usually treated with bleaching agents such as hydroquinone, which is rather harsh. Chinese hawthorn fruit has never been known to be toxic and is a common food and medicine. If it does not work, it certainly will not hurt. You can buy shanzha from any Chinese herb shop and probably many food markets in Chinatown. But be sure to get the dried raw kind (usually in twisted slices of 1-2 cm in diameter and about 0.5 cm thick), and not the shanzha candy that comes in thin wafers stacked 3-4 cm high and wrapped in paper. If the raw shanzha is not dry enough for grinding, you can dry it in the oven at low heat until it is brittle.

Sanqi (Panax notoginseng) powder for treating severely chapped skin [Jiangxi Zhongyiyao, 23 (1): 35 (1992)]. In addition to other effects (immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, etc), sanqi is well known for its hemostatic and wound-healing properties. In this report, results of treating 68 patients with chapped skin are presented. Thirty-six patients were complicated with ringworm of the feet and 41 experienced different degrees of pain or bleeding. Duration of illness ranged form 6 months to 15 years. Method: Mix 30g of sanqi powder well with an adequate amount of sesame oil to form a uniform paste, place it in a sealed clean container, and reserve for later use. Soak the afflicted areas with hot but tolerable water for 10-20 minutes before applying the oily paste. Do this 3-4 times daily for 30 days. Results: After treatment, 45 patients were healed, with no recurrence after more than 1 year; and 23 showed improvements, with longer periods between recurrences, which again responded to the same treatment. The fastest response was 3 weeks and the longest 7 weeks, with an average of 3.7 weeks. It is recommended that the paste be also used as a preventive by applying it to affected areas once every 1 to 2 days.

Sanqi or tienchi ginseng is readily available in any Chinese herb shop. It comes in spindle-shaped whole roots, 2-4 cm long and 1-3 cm in diameter, and is very hard. Unless you have a Chinese bronze mortar and pestle with a lid, it is not easy to powder this herb. You may have to break it up witha hammer first and then grind it in a sturdy coffee mill.

copyright 2005

Healthy Skin – How Chinese Herbs Benefit Your Skin by Albert Leung