What is Acne?

Acne, medically referred to as Acne vulgaris, is a common skin condition that manifests through the appearance of pimples, blackheads, and cysts, primarily on the face, back, and chest. It results from the clogging of hair follicles with oil and dead skin cells, leading to inflammation and sometimes infection by skin bacteria.

Acne affects individuals of all ages but is most prevalent among teenagers and young adults. The severity and persistence of acne can vary, significantly impacting an individual's quality of life and self-esteem. Addressing acne effectively requires an understanding of its causes and a comprehensive treatment strategy.

How does TCM view Acne?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) interprets acne as an external manifestation of internal imbalances, notably involving the body's Qi, Blood, and Body Fluids systems. TCM identifies several patterns that can contribute to acne, such as Heat, Dampness, and Phlegm, each associated with different organs and meridians.

According to TCM, the successful treatment of acne goes beyond topical remedies, necessitating a holistic approach that restores balance within the body's internal landscape. This perspective underscores the importance of a thorough diagnosis to tailor the treatment to the individual's specific disharmony pattern.

Root Causes of Acne in TCM

TCM highlights Damp-Heat and Lung Heat as two primary patterns often responsible for acne. Damp-Heat arises when an excess of Heat combines with Dampness in the body, leading to symptoms like fever, a sticky taste in the mouth, and, importantly, acne. This pattern underscores the interplay between internal Heat and the accumulation of fluids.

Conversely, Lung Heat pertains to an excess of Heat in the Lung meridian, manifesting as thirst, high fever, and acne, among other symptoms. These examples illustrate TCM's nuanced understanding of acne as a reflection of deeper bodily imbalances, guiding practitioners in developing targeted treatment strategies.

Explore below more details about what might cause Acne according to TCM.

  • By Syndrome
  • By Organ
  • Lung
  • Stomach
Detailed description of the cause

Heat

In TCM "Heat" signifies an excess of Yang energy, leading to an imbalance where heat predominates over the body's cool Yin aspects. This condition is metaphorically akin to an internal over-heating. Symptoms indicative of Heat can include feelings of warmth, fever, sweating, irritability, red face, thirst with a preference for cold drinks, and a rapid pulse. The tongue may appear red with a yellow coating. Unlike the common interpretation of heat in terms of temperature, in TCM, it represents a state of hyperactivity or inflammation in the body.... see more

Heat Patterns That Can Lead to Acne

Common Symptoms: Feeling Hot Thirst Fever Bitter Taste In The Mouth Restlessness Dry Mouth Stifling Sensation In The Chest Dizziness

Pattern Name Relevant Symptoms Relevant Formulas
Damp-Heat Acne, Fever, Neck gland swelling, Headaches, Tight feeling in chest and stomach, Sticky taste in the mouth, Absence of thirst, Feeling hot, Feeling of heaviness, Bitter taste in the mouth... see more Huo Xiang Zheng Qi San | Lian Po Yin | Yin Chen Hao Tang | Gan Lu Xiao Du Dan
Lung Heat Acne, Feeling hot, Thirst, High fever, Cough with thin yellow sputum, Shortness of breath, Perspiration... see more Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang | Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan | Pi Pa Qing Fei Yin | Xie Bai San
Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs Acne, Coughing, Shortness of breath, Wheezing, Stifling sensation in the chest, Sputum, Feeling hot, Thirst, Head and body heaviness, Dizziness, Copious thick yellow sputum... see more Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang | Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan | Pi Pa Qing Fei Yin | Wen Dan Tang | Er Chen Tang | Qing Xin Li Ge Tang | Ren Shen Ge Jie San
Stomach Heat or Fire Acne, Upper abdominal burning pain, Excessive thirst, Craving for cold beverages, Restlessness, Dry stools, Dry mouth, Mouth ulcers, Acid reflux, Nausea, Vomiting after eating, Excessive hunger, Bad breath, Feeling hot... see more Tiao Wei Cheng Qi Tang | Qing Wei San | Xie Huang San | Fei Er Wan | Hua Ban Tang
Detailed description of the cause

Dampness

"Dampness" in TCM is a concept that describes a pattern of disharmony where the body accumulates excess moisture. Imagine the heavy, sticky feeling you get on a very humid day; that's similar to what dampness feels like internally. It can manifest as a sense of heaviness, bloating, sluggishness, or even a foggy mind. This condition is often thought to arise from environmental factors like living in a damp place, dietary habits that promote moisture in the body, or internal imbalances that hinder the body's ability to process fluids properly. In TCM, dampness can obstruct the normal flow of energy and fluids in the body, leading to various symptoms.... see more

Dampness Patterns That Can Lead to Acne

Common Symptoms: Fever Feeling Of Heaviness Arthralgia Diarrhea Neck Gland Swelling Headaches Tight Feeling In Chest And Stomach Sticky Taste In The Mouth

Pattern Name Relevant Symptoms Relevant Formulas
Damp-Heat Acne, Fever, Neck gland swelling, Headaches, Tight feeling in chest and stomach, Sticky taste in the mouth, Absence of thirst, Feeling hot, Feeling of heaviness, Bitter taste in the mouth... see more Huo Xiang Zheng Qi San | Lian Po Yin | Yin Chen Hao Tang | Gan Lu Xiao Du Dan
Damp-Cold Face pimple, Mouth ulcers, White and watery sputum, Nasal discharge, Sneezing, Chills, Abdominal pain, Cold extremities, Arthralgia, Diarrhea, Feeling of heaviness... see more Wei Ling Tang
Detailed description of the cause

Phlegm

In TCM "Phlegm" as a pattern of disharmony is a complex concept that extends beyond the physical manifestation of mucus. It represents a pathological factor that can disrupt the flow of Qi (vital energy) and blood, leading to various health issues. Phlegm in TCM is seen as a sticky, turbid substance arising from the body's inability to metabolize fluids properly, often due to a dysfunction of the spleen. It's not only associated with respiratory problems like cough and congestion but also with systemic issues. Symptoms can include a feeling of heaviness, mental cloudiness, dizziness, and in some cases, the formation of lumps or masses. Phlegm can even be "invisible," contributing to emotional disturbances like depression or stress. ... see more

Phlegm Patterns That Can Lead to Acne

Pattern Name Relevant Symptoms Relevant Formulas
Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs Acne, Coughing, Shortness of breath, Wheezing, Stifling sensation in the chest, Sputum, Feeling hot, Thirst, Head and body heaviness, Dizziness, Copious thick yellow sputum... see more Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang | Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan | Pi Pa Qing Fei Yin | Wen Dan Tang | Er Chen Tang | Qing Xin Li Ge Tang | Ren Shen Ge Jie San
Detailed description of the cause

Cold

In TCM "Cold" as a pattern of disharmony refers to a specific type of imbalance within the body's systems, often linked to a deficiency or weakness. It's not about feeling physically cold or having a common cold, but rather a metaphorical description of certain symptoms and underlying conditions. When a TCM practitioner says someone suffers from "Cold," it usually implies that the body's Yang energy, which is warm and active, is insufficient or overpowered by Yin energy, which is cool and passive. Symptoms of Cold in TCM can include a general feeling of coldness, cold limbs, pale complexion, low energy, slow metabolism, and a preference for warmth. ... see more

Cold Patterns That Can Lead to Acne

Pattern Name Relevant Symptoms Relevant Formulas
Damp-Cold Face pimple, Mouth ulcers, White and watery sputum, Nasal discharge, Sneezing, Chills, Abdominal pain, Cold extremities, Arthralgia, Diarrhea, Feeling of heaviness... see more Wei Ling Tang
Detailed description of the cause

Lung

In TCM the Lungs are seen as the organ responsible for controlling Qi and respiration, as well as being a key part of the body's defensive system. They are thought to maintain the balance and flow of air and moisture, and are closely linked to the skin and hair. When the Lungs are imbalanced or malfunctioning in TCM, it can lead to respiratory issues like coughing or asthma, a weakened immune system, dry skin, and emotional disturbances such as sadness or grief. These symptoms are believed to arise from disruptions in the Lungs' ability to regulate Qi and protect the body, highlighting their central role in maintaining overall health and well-being.... see more

Lung Patterns That Can Lead to Acne

Common Symptoms: Feeling Hot Thirst Shortness Of Breath High Fever Cough With Thin Yellow Sputum Perspiration Coughing Wheezing

Pattern Name Relevant Symptoms Relevant Formulas
Lung Heat Acne, Feeling hot, Thirst, High fever, Cough with thin yellow sputum, Shortness of breath, Perspiration... see more Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang | Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan | Pi Pa Qing Fei Yin | Xie Bai San
Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs Acne, Coughing, Shortness of breath, Wheezing, Stifling sensation in the chest, Sputum, Feeling hot, Thirst, Head and body heaviness, Dizziness, Copious thick yellow sputum... see more Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang | Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan | Pi Pa Qing Fei Yin | Wen Dan Tang | Er Chen Tang | Qing Xin Li Ge Tang | Ren Shen Ge Jie San
Detailed description of the cause

Stomach

In TCM the Stomach is regarded as the "sea of nourishment," pivotal for digesting food and transforming it into Qi and blood. It works closely with the Spleen to distribute these essential nutrients throughout the body. When the Stomach is out of balance or malfunctions in TCM, it often leads to digestive problems such as bloating, nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, or a feeling of fullness. There may also be issues like acid reflux or a sour taste in the mouth. Emotionally, an imbalanced Stomach can contribute to excessive worry and overthinking, reflecting the TCM belief that physical and emotional well-being are deeply interconnected.... see more

Stomach Patterns That Can Lead to Acne

Pattern Name Relevant Symptoms Relevant Formulas
Stomach Heat or Fire Acne, Upper abdominal burning pain, Excessive thirst, Craving for cold beverages, Restlessness, Dry stools, Dry mouth, Mouth ulcers, Acid reflux, Nausea, Vomiting after eating, Excessive hunger, Bad breath, Feeling hot... see more Tiao Wei Cheng Qi Tang | Qing Wei San | Xie Huang San | Fei Er Wan | Hua Ban Tang

TCM Herbal Formulas for Acne

In addressing acne, TCM relies on specific formulas and herbs to counteract the identified patterns of disharmony. For conditions stemming from Damp-Heat, Huo Xiang Zheng Qi San, which includes Korean mint (Huo Xiang), is frequently used to transform Dampness and harmonize the Stomach, indirectly mitigating acne.

Similarly, Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang, with Ephedra (Ma Huang) as a pivotal herb, is employed to clear Heat from the organs in cases of Lung Heat, providing relief from acne. These examples showcase TCM's strategic use of herbal medicine to rebalance the internal conditions conducive to acne.

Explore below some TCM herbal formulas used to address acne, organized by cause and by formula type.

  • By Cause
  • By Formula Type
  • Formulas that clear heat from the organs
  • Formulas that clear heat and expel dampness
  • Formulas that invigorate blood and dispel blood stagnation
  • Formulas that dry dampness and transform phlegm
  • Formulas that transform dampness and harmonize stomach
  • Formulas that clear wind-Heat
  • Formulas that clear heat and transform phlegm
  • Formulas that clear lung-Heat
  • Formulas that clear internal abscesses and sores
  • Formulas that tonify qi
  • Formulas that clear external abscesses and sores
  • Formulas that purge heat accumulation
  • Formulas that reduce food accumulation and transform stagnation
  • Formulas that clear heat from qi and blood
  • Formulas that expel dampness

All Formulas Recommended for Acne Caused by Heat

Formula Patterns Suitable For
Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang Lung Heat, Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan Lung Heat, Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Pi Pa Qing Fei Yin Lung Heat, Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Huo Xiang Zheng Qi San Damp-Heat
Lian Po Yin Damp-Heat
Yin Chen Hao Tang Damp-Heat
Gan Lu Xiao Du Dan Damp-Heat
Xie Bai San Lung Heat
Wen Dan Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Er Chen Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Qing Xin Li Ge Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Ren Shen Ge Jie San Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Tiao Wei Cheng Qi Tang Stomach Heat or Fire
Qing Wei San Stomach Heat or Fire
Xie Huang San Stomach Heat or Fire
Fei Er Wan Stomach Heat or Fire
Hua Ban Tang Stomach Heat or Fire

All Formulas Recommended for Acne Caused by Dampness

Formula Patterns Suitable For
Huo Xiang Zheng Qi San Damp-Heat
Lian Po Yin Damp-Heat
Yin Chen Hao Tang Damp-Heat
Gan Lu Xiao Du Dan Damp-Heat
Wei Ling Tang Damp-Cold

All Formulas Recommended for Acne Caused by Phlegm

Formula Patterns Suitable For
Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Pi Pa Qing Fei Yin Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Wen Dan Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Er Chen Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Qing Xin Li Ge Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Ren Shen Ge Jie San Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs

All "formulas that clear heat from the organs" recommended for acne

Formula Patterns Suitable For (if applicable)
Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang Lung Heat, Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Xie Bai San Lung Heat
Qing Wei San Stomach Heat or Fire
Xie Huang San Stomach Heat or Fire

All "formulas that clear heat and expel dampness" recommended for acne

Formula Patterns Suitable For (if applicable)
Lian Po Yin Damp-Heat
Yin Chen Hao Tang Damp-Heat
Gan Lu Xiao Du Dan Damp-Heat

All "formulas that dry dampness and transform phlegm" recommended for acne

Formula Patterns Suitable For (if applicable)
Wen Dan Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs
Er Chen Tang Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs

All "formulas that invigorate blood and dispel blood stagnation" recommended for acne

Formula Patterns Suitable For (if applicable)
Dang Gui Shao Yao San Not applicable
Gui Zhi Fu Ling Wan Not applicable

Acupoints for Acne

TCM also incorporates acupuncture as a complementary therapy for acne, focusing on acupoints that correspond to the underlying patterns of disharmony. Quchi LI-11, located on the Large Intestine Channel, is a prime acupoint used in acne treatment. Stimulating Quchi LI-11 can clear Heat, cool the Blood, resolve Dampness, and remove obstructions from the channel, offering a multifaceted approach to alleviating acne.

This integrated treatment strategy, combining acupuncture with herbal therapy, exemplifies TCM's comprehensive approach to health, aiming to restore harmony and well-being by addressing both the symptoms and root causes of acne.

See more details below about Quchi LI-11, an acupoint used to address acne.

  • By Meridian
  • Large Intestine Channel
Quchi LI-11

Quchi LI-11

When the elbow is flexed, Quchi LI-11 is in the depression at the lateral end of the cubital crease, midway between Chize LU-5 and the lateral epicondyle of the humerus.