Skin Problems

On-the-Spot Remedies for Minor Vexations

Wise women know that true beauty isn't reflected in a mirror. But it's hard for even the wisest of us to remember that fact when we're hit with an outbreak of adult acne or some other, equally unattractive eruption.

"In a culture that puts so much emphasis on youth and beauty, it's easy to panic when you get any kind of blemish or flaw, especially when it shows up on your face," says Deb Soule, an herbalist in Rockport, Maine, and author of The Roots of Healing: A Woman's Book of Herbs.

Skin problems ruin more than your appearance, though. A bad sunburn, outbreak of hives or fresh batch of mosquito bites can make you miserable. Unless treated correctly, burns or cuts can heal slowly or get infected. Ongoing or frequent episodes of eczema,psoriasis or shingles beg for effective treatment.

You don't have to suffer through skin problems. Here's what you can do.


You thought that you and your acne broke up after high school but, sadly, it's back, worse than ever. The scourge of your teen years has reared its ugly whiteheads and blackheads for all the world to see, smack dab on your 30-, 40- or even 50-something face.

What causes midlife acne? The quick answer is that acne is the result of too much sebum, an oily substance secreted by your skin. Sebum can collect dirt and bacteria, plugging hair follicles in skin pores. If plugs lodge near the pore's surface, blackheads or whiteheads form. If a blockage ruptures, it becomes an inflamed pimple, infected bump or pustule or sometimes a larger, fluid-filled bump or cyst, which can leave serious scars.

Various triggers can shift sebum production into high gear. Common triggers are hormonal fluctuations, stress, diet, irritating ingredients in cosmetics or a combination of these factors. Many women, for example, tend to sprout blemishes just before their menstrual periods or as they approach menopause.

If acne should revisit you, here's what alternative medicine has to offer.

Herbal Relief for Spots and Pimples

Herbalists offer these tactics for erasing acne.

Reach for a weed. An infusion of yarrow is a tried-and-true remedy for acne, says Susun S. Weed, an herbalist and teacher from Woodstock, New York, and author of the Wise Woman herbal series. "To make an infusion of yarrow, put one ounce of dried yarrow flowers into a quart jar. Fill the jar with boiling water and cover. Steep overnight. Strain out the plant material and store the infusion in a plastic bottle. Dampen a washcloth in the liquid and gently pat it on your face every morning, evening and as needed in between."

Discard and prepare a fresh batch every three to seven days, or sooner if it becomes cloudy, advises Lisa Meserole, doctor of naturopathy, research consultant and faculty member in the botanical medicine department at Bastyr University of Naturopathic Medicine in Seattle.

Yarrow is a powerful herbal antiseptic that can kill bacteria that contribute to acne, says Weed. You can buy yarrow (Achillea millefolium) in herbal or health food stores.

Brew up burdock. "Burdock is a safe, effective way to clear up the skin," says Weed. For adult acne, make a very strong tea out of dried burdock root. Brew overnight and drink a cup or two a day.

Acne rosacea, a chronic form of acne that occurs on the cheeks, nose, chin and forehead, also responds well to burdock, says Weed. "For acne rosacea, take 10 to 20 drops of burdock seed or root tincture three times daily, which will usually bring slow but steady improvement," says Weed. Burdock tinctures are available at health food stores. Look for Arctium Lappa.

Treat your face to an herbal steam bath. "Herbal steaming is really good for women with acne because it helps remove the pus, blackheads and dirt that become embedded in your pores," says Soule. She recommends a steam bath using a combination of elder flowers,yarrow and chamomile in particular. Put a handful each of the dried herbs into a large pot, cover with a quart or two of cool water and bring to a very slow, gentle simmer. Continue simmering, and cover the pot and your head with a towel so that the steam touches your face. Keep your eyes closed, and don't get so close that you burn your skin or the towel. Steam for up to 15 minutes.


As a kid, you probably suffered your share of burns, bruises, bumps and cuts. As an adult, you probably still get your share of minor wounds. You flip a fritter a little too fast and splash your skin with hot oil. Or you're taken by surprise on a cloudy day that suddenly morphed into sunlight, stranding you without your sunblock--and with a sunburn. Or you walk into the coffee table and scrape your skin.

You can usually handle most minor burns, bruises and cuts on your own, if you know what to do. Next time you nick or burn your skin, turn to these natural remedies to soothe the pain and speed healing.

Smear on some aloe. Healers have used the aloe vera plant, with its long, spiky, cactuslike leaves, since ancient times.

To soothe a minor burn (including sunburn), scrape or other skin irritation, just snap off an aloe leaf from a mature plant, cut it down its length and apply the transparent gel from inside the leaf to your skin, advises Michael Murray, doctor of naturopathy in Bellevue, Washington, in his book The Healing Power of Herbs. Dr. Murray is also an instructor at Bastyr University of Naturopathic Medicine.

Aloe contains vitamins C and E and zinc--nutrients that speed wound healing. In fact, research shows that fresh aloe gel reduces inflammation and appears to promote wound repair when applied to cuts and burns. In a controlled clinical study of 27 people, for example, burns treated with aloe vera gel healed in just 12 days, which was significantly faster than the 18 days it took to heal burns merely covered with petroleum jelly­coated gauze.

Turn to aloe for frostbite. Aloe has also been used as a first-aid for frostbite, possibly because it acts against thromboxanes, substances that constrict blood vessels. When aloe is applied, the blood vessels relax, helping to heal frostbitten skin. In one study, 56 men and women treated with standard first-aid--including rewarming, pain medication and antibiotics--plus aloe healed faster than others treated with standard first-aid alone.

Grow your own. Fresh aloe gel works better than aloe-containing products, according to Dr. Meserole. Most plant stores and greenhouses sell aloe plants, and they're easy to grow at home. "Every household should have an aloe plant for an easy, inexpensive, ready and pure first-aid remedy."

Soothing relief. For minor cuts and scrapes, mix 15 drops of lavender essential oil with one ounce of aloe vera juice (both are available at health food stores). Place the mixture in a spray bottle and store in the refrigerator for a soothing, cooling mist that you can spray on the hurt, says Mindy Green, instructor at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies in Boulder, Colorado, and co-author of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art.

Plant on some plantain. This common weed found in lawns and along driveways soothes pain, binds together torn tissue and strengthens the skin's surface, says Weed. Plantain can be used fresh. Crush a thin leaf or two and apply to minor cuts and scrapes. Rub the leaves briskly between your palms or chop them with a knife. Hold the crushed or chopped leaves in place with an adhesive strip. Leave this on for 12 to 24 hours. It's okay if it gets wet. You can also use aplantain salve, found in health food stores, to ease itching and promote healing, she adds.

Take homeopathic arnica. Arnica montana, available in health food stores and drugstores, is an amazing remedy for bumps and bruises that are apt to leave you black and blue, says Richard J. Weintraub, M.D., consulting psychiatrist at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, both in Boston. For best results, take the dosage recommended on the package immediately after an injury.

Caution: Never ingest nonhomeopathic arnica, such as arnica tincture or arnica essential oil, as it is highly poisonous.


Nothing nixes the sex appeal of that little black dress faster than little white flakes on your shoulders.

The familiar flaking and uncomfortable itching are signs of dandruff, or seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammation of the scalp. Dandruff can also show up on your eyebrows, the sides of your nose, your chest and behind your ears.

To de-flake yourself, try these remedies.

Rinse away with herbs. To make a dandy antidandruff herbal rinse, combine a handful each of dried nettle tops (Urtica dioica), dried rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and dried calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis), says Soule.

Place the herbs in a two-quart glass jar and cover with a quart of organic apple cider vinegar. Let the herbal rinse sit for one month, then strain it. If you like, scent the rinse with a few drops of your favorite essential oil, such as lavender oil. (You can use the rinse after two weeks, but it's more potent after one month. So the best strategy is to always have a batch or two in the works.)

Use a cup or so to rinse your hair after every shampoo, and leave it in, says Soule. If you find that it's too strong, you can use one to two tablespoons in one cup of water, she says.

Soule also recommends using a tea brewed from the herbs if you can't wait two to four weeks. Pour a cup of boiling water over one to two tablespoons of dried chopped herbs, cover and steep for 10 to 15 minutes, then strain. Rinse your hair with this room-temperature tea. You can rinse it out twice if you wish.


"Eczema isn't just any nasty skin rash--it typically refers to a pink, scaly rash that itches intensely," says Jeffrey Thompson, D.O., a dermatologist in private practice in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.

Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is hereditary. But stress, allergies or extremes in temperature can trigger the rash. Many people who have eczema also have hay fever or asthma.

When eczema is severe, your skin can thicken and crack, especially around folds near your neck, knees and elbows. That's painful.

So far, no one has discovered a permanent cure for eczema, but you can take steps to soothe the rash and minimize discomfort.

Avoid food culprits. "The first thing that you should do if you have eczema is to rule out food allergies," notes Dr. Murray. Milk is the number one culprit, but it's not the only trigger. (To find out if you have food allergies that could be aggravating your skin, see page 338.)

Follow the three-minute moisture rule. "If you have eczema, moisturizing your skin thoroughly and regularly is vital," says Dr. Thompson. "Choose a thick moisturizing lotion and put it on within three minutes of taking your shower or bath, while your skin is still damp. The goal is to seal in the moisture." He recommends plain old solid vegetable shortening, such as Crisco. If you find shortening to be too greasy and messy, Dr. Thompson suggests skin lotions like Aquaphor and Eucerin.

Baby your skin. Above all, don't irritate skin that's already irritated, advises Dr. Murray. Avoid itchy fabrics like wool. Launder your clothes, towels and bedding with mild, fragrance-free detergents, and rinse them well. Also, avoid getting sweaty. Hot, moist skin aggravates dermatitis. If you do work up a sweat, shower off as soon as possible.

The Vitamin-and-Mineral Rescue

Taking a combination of vitamins and minerals can significantly ease the rash of eczema, say experts. Here's what they suggest.

Zinc. Take 50 milligrams a day. Research shows that zinc speeds wound healing, making it particularly valuable in treating eczema, says Dr. Murray. (Doses of zinc above 15 milligrams per day should be taken only under medical supervision.)

Quercetin. Quercetin is a flavonoid, a plant compound related to fruit and vegetable pigment, found in lemons, asparagus and other plants. Studies show that flavonoids block the flood of histamines, substances that the skin releases when exposed to allergy triggers.

Take two capsules of quercetin daily, recommends Willard Dean, M.D., medical director of the Center for Self Healing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and author of "The Immune System," one in a series of booklets titled The Holistic Health Series. The capsules combine quercetin with vitamin C, notes Dr. Dean.

Evening primrose oil. Take two to four capsules of 500 milligrams each, three times a day. Evening primrose oil contains essential fatty acids, substances that help reduce inflammation. If you find that it is too expensive, Dr. Murray suggests that you switch toflaxseed oil as your eczema improves. Flaxseed oil delivers essential fatty acids less efficiently, but it's not as expensive as evening primrose oil. (Some people experience nausea, diarrhea or headaches when taking evening primrose oil. If you experience side effects, discontinue its use.)


Allergies are notorious for making your skin or eyes itch, your nose run and your throat scratchy--symptoms caused by the release of histamines during an allergic reaction to something that you've breathed in or touched. But some allergies can also triggerhives.

Hot or cold weather and certain foods can also cause hives, even if you don't have allergies. And hives can be caused or aggravated by stress. If you break out in hives, act fast. Here's what to do.

Apply a cold compress. Dip a washcloth in cold water and apply it to the welts to shrink blood vessels and block the further release of histamines into your skin, says Leonard Grayson, M.D., a retired clinical associate allergist and dermatologist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield.

Two caveats: Don't use a cold compress if you break out in hives or experience other allergic reactions when exposed to the cold. And if you get hives in your mouth or throat, get emergency medical help immediately.

Try vitamin C and quercetin. If the hives linger or return, Dr. Murray recommends supplementing your diet with 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C three times a day. Or, if you suspect that the hives are triggered by food, take 250 milligrams of quercetin (often combined with vi-tamin C in capsules) 20 minutes before each meal. Its antihistamine action may help reduce thehives.

Identify the source. If you get hives frequently, you need to take preventive action, advises Dr. Murray. He suggests that you try an elimination diet to test for food allergies or see a naturopath experienced in treating food allergies. (For guidelines on following an elimination diet, see page 339. For details on locating a naturopath, see page 251.)


Bring on the sounds of summer . . . the buzzing, the swatting, the slapping, the moaning. When mosquitoes and other invaders dive in, outdoor fun takes flight.

Spraying yourself with a powerful chemical insect repellent containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) will keep bugs away. But DEET is a nervous system toxin--it can make you sick. The safety of powerful chemical repellents is in question, especially for use on children.

If you'd rather not resort to chemical warfare against biting bugs, try these safe, all-natural homemade repellents.

Make a mosquito mister. "Fill a pocket-size four-ounce mister with warm water and add two to four drops of essential oil of cedar or citronella. Shake well and mist yourself as needed," says Weed. "This recipe keeps everyone bite-free, even during my summer outdoor herb workshops. It works great against mosquitoes and no-see-ums, and here's the best part: You can't smell it, but the bugs can."

Concoct a bug oil. "I make a bug repellent using half a cup of olive oil, to which I add five or six drops each of essential oils of citronella, eucalyptus,rosemary and lavender and two drops of pennyroyal," says Soule. "Avoid using the pennyroyal if you are pregnant or if you are giving the mixture to children under age eight. Dab the mixture on as needed, with your fingers. Be sure to avoid contact with your eyes and wash your hands after applying the mixture."

A good smell for bad bugs. If you don't care for the smell of citronella, Green offers a bug banisher made from other equally effective essential oils. Combine five drops eucalyptus, two dropsrosemary, four drops lavender, two drops juniper, eight drops cedar, one drop peppermint, one drop clove, one drop cinnamon and two ounces vegetable oil. Mix together in a glass bottle and apply liberally.

You could also use two simpler versions of the formula. Combine ten drops each of lavender and rosemary, or combine ten drops each of lavender, rosemary and cedar. (Look for pure essential oils in aromatherapy shops and some health food stores.)


"Three leaves, leave it be." You heed Grandma's poison-plant warning whenever you venture outdoors. So how come you're covered with poison ivy?

Most likely, your dog or cat or kids or husband brought it home. And you got the itchy rash because you're allergic to the plant's oil.

"The substance in poison ivy that makes you break out transfers easily from other people's clothing or your pet's fur to your skin," says William Epstein, M.D., professor of dermatology at the University of California at San Francisco.

"If you put poison ivy oil on a patch of cloth, you can transfer enough oil to cause a reaction 2,000 rubbings later," says Dr. Epstein. "Your pet can just brush against poison ivy, come inside and hop in your lap or be petted. If you're sensitive, that's all it takes to give you the rash." (Four out of five people are allergic to poison ivy or other related plants such as poison oak or sumac.)

Quarantining yourself and your family indoors is a sure way to prevent a brush with poison ivy, oak or sumac. Short of that, here's what you can do.

Reach for the alcohol. No, not the chardonnay. "Rubbing alcohol is the safest and best solvent that you can use to get poison plant oil off your skin," says Dr. Epstein.

Even if you just think that you've come in contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac, slosh yourself down, head to toe, with rubbing alcohol. Liberally splash it on your hands, face, arms, legs and any other exposed skin, but keep it out of your eyes. As you are doing this out in your yard, rinse the alcohol off with a garden hose. Do this before going in the house. The alcohol extracts the oil, and the water washes it away.

Act quickly: You have four to six hours before the oil penetrates your skin, says Dr. Epstein. If you're camping or hiking and can't use the alcohol until long after exposure, at least rinse yourself off with water as soon as you can, he adds.

Lather down. An alternative to rubbing alcohol is Fels Naptha soap, says Green. Just jump in the shower and lather. You can find naptha soap at your local hardware or grocery store.

Quarantine your clothes. Make sure that clothes contaminated by poison plants don't touch anything except the inside of your washing machine. Wash them separately so that they can't contaminate clothes not exposed to poison plants.

Make a plantain poultice. All varieties of plantain, a common lawn and roadside weed, contain a mucilaginous substance that contains healing properties. If this weed grows in your yard, you're in luck. Soule suggests bruising some freshplantain leaves, placing them between thin sheets of cotton gauze and placing the poultice directly on your poison ivy.

Wear jewelweed. You might call jewelweed, also known as pale touch-me-not, nature's cortisone. Applied directly to poison ivy, jewelweed can reduce the inflammation as well as cortisone creams customarily used for the rash, says Dr. Dean. In one study, 108 of 115 men and women with poison ivy responded most dramatically to jewelweed cream applied directly to their rashes. Their symptoms disappeared within two to three days.

Jewelweed (Impatiens biflora) grows wild along roadsides. It is a tall annual with succulent stems and yellow or red-brown orchidlike hanging blossoms that appear in summer. Apply the sap from the stem directly onto the affected area. Or, for convenience, you can buy jewelweed cream in health food stores.


Psoriasis is a cinch to diagnose: Skin cells grow abnormally, triggering itchy, uncomfortable and unsightly red patches and silvery scales anywhere on your body but usually on your scalp, the backs of the ears, your elbows or behind your knees. It's not contagious, but comes and goes.

When it comes to treating psoriasis naturally, doctors face a challenge. "I call psoriasis the great humbler because it's the greatest treatment challenge that dermatology has to offer," says Alan M. Dattner, M.D., a dermatologist in private practice in Putnam, Connecticut. Doctors can't cure psoriasis, says Dr. Dattner, who uses alternative treatments in his practice. But some treatments can control it pretty well. Here are some of the most promising tactics.

Catch some rays. Getting out in the sun for about an hour a day helps four out of five people with psoriasis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation. According to Dr. Murray, exposure to ultraviolet light slows down the abnormal growth of cells that causes the problem.

Because sunshine therapy can be such valuable therapy for psoriasis, Dr. Murray says that this is one time when you can modify the usual rules about sun exposure. You can sunbathe any time of the day, but limit your exposure to what won't produce a sunburn on you (which may be less than five minutes if you're very fair). Be sure to cover or use sunblock on areas that are free ofpsoriasis.

And don't make the mistake of thinking that tanning salons offer light-therapy benefits, says Dr. Thompson. "They don't, and they're dangerous."

Just say ohm. Dealing with stress can help you combat psoriasis, not because stress causes psoriasis, but because stress can make it worse in some people, says Dr. Dattner. "Learning how to meditate can help put psoriasis in perspective and help deal with the severe life stresses that can make it flare up in some people."

Look to the East. The National Psoriasis Foundation reports that acupuncture and Chinese herbs have helped some people with psoriasis. Both are part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a system of diagnosis and treatment using a number of healing methods customarily applied in China. (The foundation recommends that you work with a qualified medical professional trained in these techniques. To locate a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine in your area, see page 284.)


For many people, baggy pouches under the eyes result from a run-in with pollen or other allergens. For them, dealing with the allergies can solve the problem. (For information on how to handle allergies, see page 333.) And in some people, puffy eyes are genetic, like brownhair or freckles. More often, though, puffy eyes are an unwelcome legacy from a late-night soiree.

"Undereye puffiness can often be traced to a night on the town," says Adriane Fugh-Berman, M.D., former head of field investigations for the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. "Bags under the eyes usually are a matter of too little sleep or too much alcohol, or both. Though fluid retention causes the puffiness, we don't know exactly what causes the fluid retention. Doctors consider puffy eyes more of a cosmetic annoyance than a health problem." (If eye puffiness extends around the whole eyes, you should see a doctor.)

Even so, before you reach for a cosmetic cover-up, try these tried-and-true, good-for-you herbal remedies.

Make yourself a cup of dandelion-leaf tea. "Help de-bag your eyes with this tonic tea," says Soule. Drink a cup of dandelion-leaf tea, or take half a teaspoon of dandelion-leaf tincture three times a day, recommends Soule. Dandelion is a mild diuretic, which helps your body get rid of excess fluid. You can buy herbal tinctures at health food stores.

Brew an herbal infusion. Combine 1½ tablespoons each of dried calendula flowers, eyebright (Euphrasia, all varieties), borage flowers (Borago officinalis) and raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus). Place the herbal mixture in a glass quart jar, fill with boiling water and cover. Let the mixture steep at room temperature for two to eight hours. Once the infusion has cooled, soak a washcloth with the liquid, lie down and rest with the cloth over your closed eyes, says Soule. Store any leftover infusion in the refrigerator for two to three days, then bring to room temperature before soaking the washcloth and using again.

Slice a cucumber. For years, women have used cucumbers to relieve puffy eyes. This modern folk remedy works because cucumbers contain a natural substance that reduces swelling and eliminates puffiness, says Shawne Bryant, M.D., who incorporates healing herbs and massage therapy into her gynecology practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Slice one-fourth-inch rounds off the cucumber. Gently press the rounds over your puffy eyes and lie down for a bit.


The same virus (herpes zoster) that may have given you childhood chickenpox can strike again in adulthood to give you this painful, blistery rash.

"The classic shingles outbreak looks like a straight-sided patch of little red-edged blisters," says Dr. Dean. "The virus travels along spinal nerves and comes out on either the left or the right side of your body, resulting in a rash."

Shingles pain can sometimes last weeks or months after the rash has healed, especially for the elderly or chronically ill. Fortunately, natural medicine offers soothing solutions for shingles. Here are some of the best.

Go soak in vinegar. Soak a soft dish towel in slightly chilled apple cider vinegar and drape it over the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes, suggests Dr. Dean. It's soothing.

Try a tincture. I take 30 to 50 drops of St.-John's-wort tincture in one to two ounces of water, three to six times a day, says Weed. I also use the oil on dry, itchy rashes hourly if needed. It even helps relieve lingering pain from shingles and burns, she notes. I especially like to use the oil on exposed skin to prevent sunburns. Whether using the oil or the tincture, use caution when going out in the sun. Both can cause photosensitivity.

Save yourself with gel. Aloe vera gel can often provide soothing relief for shingles, suggests Dr. Dean. "The plant gets pretty high marks for reducing inflammation and promoting healing." You can use the fresh gel or purchase some at health food stores.