After six months of trying all the traditional, derm-approved treatments for my deep, painful cysts — to no avail — I decided it was time to start exploring some out-of-the-box methods to get to the root of my skin issues and fix them for good. I told my derm, "It's not you, it's my skin," and went in search of roads less traveled (at least in the U.S.).
Since my acne had been diagnosed as hormonal, I began working with an acupuncturist in order to balance my hormones, which, in turn, I hoped would clear my skin. When I first asked my dermatologist about trying acupuncture, he said, “If it works, don’t tell anyone, because you’ll put me out of business.” We live in a country where medicine is defined by a prescription pad — and, full disclosure, I did stay on the spot treatment I'd been prescribed — but that doesn't mean you can't find alternative cures.
“I feel strongly that acne should be treated from multiple approaches; nutrition, exercise, Eastern medicine techniques as well as traditional medications,” says Adriana Lombardi, MD, of the Lombardi Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery Center in Eatontown, NJ. “Incorporating Eastern medicine and treating the patient as a 'whole,' and not solely targeting acne with medications, leads to better results as well as improved quality of life for the patient.” And that's where acupuncture, turmeric, and even crystals come in.
One of the most widely used systems of medicine (yes, medicine) in the world, acupuncture is “a technique in which small, sterile needles are inserted into specific points of the body in order to strengthen, stimulate, and relieve symptoms of disease,” explains Patrick Franco, founder of Franco Acupuncture in NYC. The World Health Organization even lists it as a safe, effective treatment for many skin conditions, including acne.
According to Dr. Lombardi, the majority of acne in adults is a result of hormonal imbalance and inflammation. Studies have shown that acupuncture can help by stimulating the release of immunomodulatory cytokines, which decreases inflammation and bacteria while balancing hormones. It also improves local circulation, which can decrease swelling.
But there's no one-size-fits-all plan. Everyone is treated differently depending on their acne patterns, pulse, and the color of their tongue — you'd be surprised by what your tongue can say about your health, but that's a story for another time.
When I first asked my dermatologist about trying acupuncture, he said, 'If it works, don’t tell anyone, because you’ll put me out of business.'
After an initial consultation, here's what you can expect: Your acupuncturist will have you recline on a massage table, then he or she will insert tiny needles along your meridian lines (the path where energy flows through your body), and anywhere else that may be necessary. The pain level? Non-existent. You might feel a prick similar to that of a pen tip pressing down for an instant, or a slight tingling. After that, your only job is to remain still and relax — use it as an excuse to practice your meditation! — for 30 to 60 minutes before the needles are removed and you're on your way.
I got hooked on acupuncture shortly after starting it, not just for the hormonal-balancing aspect, but because of the stress release I felt as a result. I was calm, clear-headed, and relaxed. I began receiving treatment once per week, and after about two months, I noticed that the clusters of cystic acne along my cheeks, jawline, and neck had faded into random, one-off pimples here and there, which are much easier to control with spot treatment. Now, I’m going once per month to keep it at bay and I find it to be a necessary part of my treatment.
Because of its potent anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric, a bright-yellow powder sourced from an Asian plant, has been used topically and orally for thousands of years in Eastern medicine. “Topically, it’s shown to decrease P. acnes (the bacteria that causes acne), along with inflammation; orally, turmeric can decrease systemic inflammation and can improve insulin resistance,” says Dr. Lombardi.
If you google “turmeric face mask,” you’ll find pages of DIY recipes, but Dr. Lombardi recommends steering clear of using honey or dairy products, because both can clog your pores, and the dairy can elicit an inflammatory reaction, which is exactly the opposite of what you want. Instead, try mixing one-and-a-half tablespoons of ground turmeric with half a cup of flour and two tablespoons of water into a paste. Brush it onto your face once per week and leave it on for 20 minutes before rinsing clean.
Orally, you can take 400 mg of turmeric supplements two to three times per day, but since they can thin your blood, Dr. Lombardi says it's important to consult your doctor before doing so. In the meantime, sprinkle the spice on top of your avocado toast.
Crystal-healing is perfect for the New Yorker with a therapist, because one session is like six months of therapy, plus a punch in the face.
Now, this one might seem really out there, but hear us out. Shamanic energy healers, like Colleen McCann, founder of StyleRituals.com, swear by crystal-healing. As an add-on to traditional acne treatments, crystals can be used both topically and orally, as well as spiritually to “explore and address where the skin trauma is coming from on emotional and energetic levels.” Is it all a little hippie-dippy? For sure. Do you have to be open to digging into your personal life? Yes. But can it work if you want it to? That's up for debate.
During a healing session, you’ll relax on a massage table as your healer connects with your spirit guides to find out your energetic backstory, pulling out information about why you’re suffering from the skin condition (among other facts about your life). “I might hear that the person is a workaholic and super-stressed, or that they have a lot of rage and don’t know how to release it properly,” says McCann, “and all of that stress can lead to breakouts.” Next, you’ll experience hands-on healing, in which stones like aventurine are placed on your body so that your healer can
energetically release trauma through them. Finally, you’ll be given a personalized crystal prescription for the ongoing at-home treatment of the causes of your acne and whatever else you may be suffering from. (For example, McCann recommends placing your stone in the freezer to chill, then rubbing it over inflammation and swelling daily.)
Rose quartz can help to soothe acne-prone skin as well as fight fine lines and wrinkles. The minerals in it — aluminum, iron, titanium, manganese — are said to help stimulate blood flow, increase circulation, and clear up inflammatory conditions. Another popular crystal used in the treatment of acne is amethyst, which is high in iron and directly supports the spleen chakra, according to ancient wisdom, which purifies the blood. Poor blood flow can be linked to poor skin conditions. Finally, selenite, the “ultimate cleansing stone that acts like a high-vibe colonic in the crystal world,” says McCann, contains sulfur, which helps to break up stagnation in the body and pull blockages out of the skin on an energetic level (topically, a sulfur mask will help with clogged pores). McCann recommends placing one under your pillow or on your night stand.
“Crystal-healing is perfect for the New Yorker with a therapist, because one session is like six months of therapy, plus a punch in the face,” says McCann with a laugh. However, because of the lack of research on this method, it's worth noting that Dr. Lombardi wouldn’t recommend crystal-healing to her acne patients.
Considering we’re living in a society in which wellness is only getting more widely known, it should come as no surprise that people are becoming more open-minded about holistic healing. While needles, face masks made from curry spice, and chakra-healing may seem a bit eye roll-inducing, they’re skin-care treatments that have stood the test of time for good reasons. As a general rule for all three, stick with them past a session or two to give yourself enough time to gauge the results, and incorporate them into your lifestyle, rather than making them your lifestyle. Remember: When trying to solve a deeply rooted medical issue, change doesn’t happen overnight.
The grown-up guide to dealing with acne. Read more from The Acne Diaries here.