What Is Acne?

Acne or acne vulgaris (pimples) is an unpleasant disorder of the skin that usually occurs during adolescence. It begins at puberty when, due to hormonal changes, the oil-secreting glands in the skin increase in size and become more active. Some of these glands become blocked and the normal secretion (called sebum) is trapped inside. It becomes thick and hard as it dries out and may also become infected. The gland, along with the surrounding tissue, becomes swollen, red, and itchy or painful and develops a pus-filled “head”. This is the typical white head, which can vary from the size of a sesame seed to that of a five pence piece. The other type is the blackhead, which is usually small and is simply the swollen outer opening of the gland filled with dried sebum.

Acne usually occurs on the face, neck and shoulders and tends to clear up during late adolescence or early adulthood. Some of the aggravating factors include: food allergies, other diseases, cortisone therapy, vitamin deficiency, ingestion of halogens (chlorine, fluorine, bromine or iodine), contact with various chemicals (such as tar or chlorinated hydrocarbons) and psychological factors such as stress, worry and depression.

Perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) there are several different types of acne; it is not simply a single disease that requires a single uniform treatment. Two major factors are taken into consideration: one is the person's body type or constitution, and the other includes all of the different external influences which affect the development of the disorder such as diet, environment, climate, life-style, mental and emotional state and medications. Every individual's body has different strengths and weaknesses and different tendencies towards imbalance. Often two people will react in completely different ways to the same thing, e.g. eating a block of chocolate or being exposed to a hot dry wind. Therefore the TCM practitioner aims to understand the root of the problem (which is the individual's basic constitutional make-up) as well as to distinguish which particular type of acne the patient has.

In terms of TCM, acne develops because of an excessive amount of heat in the body. This heat arises due to a combination of external and internal factors. Those who suffer the worst from acne generally have a constitution, which predisposes them towards becoming “overheated”. This may show itself in different ways, e.g. a low tolerance for hot temperatures, strong reactions to certain foods (such as hot spices, seafood or chocolate), or often having a high temperature when ill. This heat often combines with other waste products in the body to produce a recognisable TCM disease syndrome or “pattern”.

TCM also distinguishes several different levels at which the disease process is actually located. Although acne appears on the skin, the disorder may come from the blood, the internal organs (e.g. stomach, or large intestine), the skin and superficial tissues, or a combination of these.

TCM treatment looks into both the acne and the person's underlying constitution, concentrating mainly on the symptoms in the beginning. Later on, once the symptoms have been relieved, treatment is aimed mainly at correcting the underlying constitutional imbalance and preventing a recurrence. The time that it takes for the successful treatment of acne will vary from person to person and will depend very much on how deep seated the problem is. Generally, results will be seen within a month and treatment may need to continue between one to six months.

TCM Treatment

Usually, TCM doctors use herbal medicines to treat acne. Sometimes acupuncture may be used along with the herbal treatment. Herbal medicines include dry herbal mixtures and ready made products. Dry herbal mixtures are prescribed and formulated after consultation, and are more powerful than ready made products.

Help yourself

There are several things that you can do yourself to help speed up the treatment. These include dietary and life-style changes: