So you are considering using turmeric for acne? Perhaps you’ve heard it can help, or even read positive reviews from other acne sufferers.
This is well and good, but most pages talking about using turmeric only tell you a part of the story. You may have read that several dozen studies have proven the healing properties of turmeric, but what’s missing is that almost none of those studies are done in humans. You may have seen recipes on how to make your own turmeric mask but not the fact that turmeric will make your skin sensitive to sunlight.
In this post I’ll go over these ‘missing facts’ so that you can make a truly informed decision.
Turmeric = curcumin
Before we plunge ahead, I want to clarify some terms. Turmeric is a yellow spice you can find in most supermarkets. Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric. Most turmeric-related research is done with curcumin, and in this post I’ll use curcumin and turmeric more or less interchangeably.
What science really says about using turmeric to treat acne?
Turmeric has been used in traditional Indian medicine for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But then again, humans have been doing ineffective and stupid things for far longer than that, so it doesn’t really prove anything.
The very same system of medicine (Ayurveda) holds that heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury, have healing properties and intentionally adds these toxic substances to their remedies. Just goes to show that ‘surviving the test of time’ doesn’t automatically make something useful.
Some people are perfectly happy to try something ‘just because 2000 years ago a guru said it works’, but for those who prefer more reliable evidence, let’s see what science has to say about this.
Test tube studies have shown curcumin/turmeric to be:
- Anti-bacterial, including against P. Acnes bacteria (the bacteria linked to acne). One study showed curcumin is 36 times stronger than azelaic acid
- Anti-fungal, curcumin can kill Candida yeasts, though not as well as anti-fungal drugs
All of which makes turmeric potentially helpful in treating acne. But all of these results come from test tube studies. And we can’t be sure that the same thing happens in humans.
One of the few humans studies showed curcumin can be helpful in psoriasis – curcumin was more effective than the prescription drug calcipotriol. While acne is not psoriasis, the keratolytic effects (reduces clumping of skin cells that blocks the pores) seen in that study suggest it could also help acne.
Another study on psoriasis patients, this time using curcumin supplements (4.5g/day) showed no benefits.
Used internally curcumin/turmeric may also have indirect benefits to acne by reducing known causes of acne, namely insulin and inflammation.
A recent paper outlined the potential of curcumin to reduce diabetes and improve insulin resistance. As I have written elsewhere, insulin is one of the cornerstone hormones in acne formation and anything that reduces insulin is likely to be helpful for significant portion of adult acne sufferers.
Studies show acne patients have higher levels of inflammation and lower levels of antioxidants than people with clear skin. Similarly, treatments that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress can reduce acne.
Like most plants and herbs, turmeric has some anti-inflammatory effects. A recent review found that curcumin might be useful for people suffering from inflammatory problems.
Science shows turmeric could maybe perhaps possibly be helpful in acne. Topically applied it can kill bacteria and reduce acne-causing inflammation. Taken internally it may reduce some of the risk factors behind acne.
The problem is that the most of this data comes from test tube and other preliminary studies. There’s reasonable human evidence for insulin and inflammation reducing effects, though. Evidence for direct benefits to acne comes from test tube studies, and it’s not at all clear turmeric has the same effects on living humans.
Problems and side-effects
Curcumin and turmeric are considered minimally toxic, but it doesn’t mean they couldn’t cause any harm.
Topically used curcimin is phototoxic, meaning it increases skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. So if you plan to apply it on the skin, make sure to also use sunscreen. Later research
seems to show curcumin doesn’t make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. Wearing sunscreen is a good idea nevertheless.
- Curcumin binds to iron and may increase the risk of anemia.
- Curcumin can interfere with certain medication. So if you are taking prescription drugs, make sure to talk to your doctor before taking curcumin or turmeric.
- Some clinical studies have reported gut-related problems, such as nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain even at fairly low doses (450mg/day).
- Test tube studies show exposure to curcumin can cause DNA damage. Similarly, curcumin has both oxidative and antioxidant effects. As with all test tube findings, it’s hard to say how these apply to living humans, but they do show curcumin may not be complete harmless.
Yellow.. and even more yellow
And let’s not forget the most obvious problem: curcumin is yellow, and I mean very yellow. And it stains. Like everything. If you are going to make turmeric-based home-remedies expect to spend some time cleaning afterwards.
Topically applied turmeric can also make your skin yellow. Though the staining apparently comes off fairly easily and doesn’t happen to everybody who uses turmeric masks.
Finally, some people report taking curcumin/turmeric supplements causes yellow sweat. Curcumin is excreted through the skin and this can stain your bedsheets and clothes.
Staining isn’t a huge problem, but it’s something you should keep in mind.
Indian food is delicious, thanks in no small part to turmeric. But I wouldn’t call turmeric medicine. Preliminary scientific studies show that turmeric, and its active ingredient curcumin, has some healing properties. It can reduce known acne causes; bacteria, insulin and inflammation. All of which makes it potentially useful as an acne treatment. But scientifically this data is still shaky, and it’s too early to say turmeric is proven to anything.
For a more comprehensive look at turmeric, please see this article from HealthyButSmart.com: The Truth About Turmeric (Curcumin) & It”s “Benefits”. This article focused on skin-related benefits, while the HealthyButSmart.com takes a broader look at the health benefits of curcumin.
That said, it’s minimally toxic and doesn’t cause any serious side effects, at least none have been reported so far. So if you are inclined to test home remedies, I can think of several options worse than turmeric.
Have you tried turmeric? Share your experiences below!
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- In Vitro Anti-Propionibacterium Activity by Curcumin Containing Vesicle System.
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