Turmeric teas. Turmeric sauces. Turmeric pills. Turmeric pastes. Turmeric masks??
Seems like the Web is chock-a-block with turmeric remedies for just about everything. If you can think of an ailment, the Web says (in its best Greek dad voice): “Put some turmeric on it!”
Well, people have been eating turmeric as a spice, especially in India, and using it in Ayurvedic medicine, for thousands of years.
Give people a few millennia and they’ll figure out a thing or two.
And one of the really interesting historical uses for turmeric?
That puts turmeric squarely on Clear Skin Forever’s radar, since we’re all about curing acne naturally, from the inside-out. We want to know more about this spice! Is it everything it’s cracked up to be?
As always, let’s see what the research has to say.
And there’s a ton of it.
Like a lot of herbs and spices in traditional medicine, turmeric is gaining growing recognition by researchers in the West. It’s so clinically successful, even compared to pharmaceuticals, it can no longer be dismissed as quack or “alternative” medicine.
This stuff really seems to work.
First off, let’s take a look at what turmeric is, then we’ll delve into some of the latest studies that show how it can help your acne.
What is Turmeric?
Turmeric is a herbaceous root related to ginger, native to southwest India. It can be eaten fresh, or dried and ground to a yellow spice used in curries, condiments, and even dyes. If you’ve ever eaten a yellow curry, chances are you’ve eaten turmeric.
The primary ingredient in turmeric that gives it that distinctive yellow color—and, as we shall see, the healing properties—is curcumin (pronounced ker-KYOO-min).
In fact, since most of the studies we’ll be looking at isolate and study curcumin, that’ll be our focus for now. We’ll have some stuff to say about turmeric as a food source of curcumin afterwards.
The Magic of Curcumin
Okay, we’re letting our nerdiness show here, but… remember healing potions in Zelda? Or the kingsfoil plant in Lord of the Rings?
A panacea is supposed to be a thing of magic or fantasy, but curcumin comes pretty darn close in real life. By one count of the existing literature , curcumin may have over six hundred therapeutic applications.
And that’s just the existing research. There’s probably a lot more coming!
Curcumin has antiseptic, anti-cancer, anti-viral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even pain-relieving properties. It’s been shown to improve and even reverse brain damage from Alzheimer’s, stroke, and Parkinson’s. It protects against heavy metal toxicity.
It’s one of those substances that seems to do a little bit of everything —a fairy-tale cure-all, taking pain and disease (and acne?) away like a magic “health” potion.
Better Than Pharma!
Just how powerful is curcumin?
A few studies have shown curcumin to be more effective than pharmaceuticals for treating certain ailments. For instance, a common side effect of cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy is radiodermatitis—essentially radiation burns on the skin. One study showed the topical application of a curcumin-based cream was more effective in preventing radiodermatitis than the pharmaceutical counterpart.
So, if you’re one of those people who think natural remedies are “nice” but not as effective as pharmaceuticals, the research on curcumin says: Think again, bub.
Also, a substance that makes the skin stronger and more resistant to inflammation and damage? Sounds promising for us acne-sufferers…
…and it is! Read on.
Curcumin is Anti-inflammatory
We’ve talked about it before: reducing inflammation is a big deal for folks with acne. Acne would be bad enough by itself, but as Devin and Sonia put it in their comprehensive guide to clearing acne: “inflammation pours on gasoline and lights a match.”
Of course, the CSF approach emphasizes reducing your exposure to inflammatory foods in the first place, including dairy, sugar, vegetable oils, and processed foods.
But avoidance only goes so far. There’s no such thing as a damage-free life. Which is okay—the body is designed to handle a certain amount of physical stress. That’s why we have an inflammatory response to begin with – to repair damage. But we’re also keen on helping the body whenever we can by consuming naturally anti-inflammatory foods.
Does curcumin fit the bill?
A study from earlier this year shows orally-administered curcumin leads to a dramatic reversal of arthritis symptoms in rats. Interestingly, the authors of the study believe curcumin works by inhibiting inflammation signals within the gut, suggesting that eating the stuff is the way to go.
Another study showed curcumin to be a far more potent anti-inflammatory than either aspirin or ibuprofen. (Not sure about you, but we found this shocking!) In fact, out of twelve compounds they measured, curcumin (along with resveratrol) was found to be near the most potent, and aspirin and ibuprofen the least (without any of the nasty cardiovascular side effects of either).
(Think about that next time you’re reaching for the Excedrin bottle: you’re opting for one of the least effective anti-inflammatories with the worst side effects. Hmmm…)
Honestly, we could list hundreds of similar studies.  Name a part of the body, from the brain , the cardiovascular system , the digestive system , the prostate , even the teeth and gums … if it shows markers for inflammation and oxidative stress, there’s a study showing how curcumin lowers or completely wipes them out.
Promising for sufferers of an inflammatory skin condition, for sure.
Speaking of oxidative stress…
Curcumin Fights Free Radicals Like a Champ
Studies show that acne patients have higher levels of systemic oxidative stress. Researchers now believe it’s not the acne that’s driving the oxidative stress—it’s the reverse.
Oxidative stress occurs when the body is overwhelmed with unstable molecules called free radicals. Again, a certain amount of free radicals are unavoidable, and are even a normal waste product of your body’s metabolic processes. The body is equipped to handle them. But when the body is continually overwhelmed by free radicals, hello oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. And that oxidative stress and inflammation can show up on your skin in the form of acne. If this condition goes on long enough, it leads to cell and tissue damage, altered DNA, tumor growth and proliferation, and hardened arteries.
At that point, damaged skin may seem like the least of your concerns, but (and we can’t stress this enough) pay attention to what your skin is telling you. Acne is a valuable indicator of the internal damage being wrought by free radicals.
Damaged skin is like your car’s check engine light coming on: it means there’s trouble under the hood, where you can’t see it.
Again, if you’re following the CSF approach, you’re avoiding the things that overexpose you to free radicals: processed food, vegetable oils, pharmaceuticals, stress, environmental toxins, smoke, etc.
You’re already way better off than most of the population when it comes to oxidative stress.
But why not help the body even further by consuming something naturally antioxidant?
Again, curcumin fits the bill nicely.
It’s like curcumin’s your big brother, coming to your defense, fighting off the bullies, but also teaching you how to fend for yourself, too. Thanks, bro!
Curcumin Kills Acne Bacteria, Too!
Not to be outdone in anything, curcumin also boasts powerful antimicrobial properties.
(Seriously, curcumin… now you’re just showing off.)
For instance, in one study researchers were able to reduce P. acnes bacteria growth in vitro by anywhere from 50% to 96%, depending on the concentration of curcumin used. (P. acnes bacteria lives on the skin and makes acne more inflamed.)
However, before you run out and start rubbing turmeric paste all over your face, let’s think about a few things first.
Did you know P. acnes bacteria are present even on healthy, acne-free human skin? Just like inflammation and free radicals, they really only become a problem when they overwhelm your skin, like when the underlying conditions of acne (excess sebum and dead skin cells clogging your follicles) make it favorable for the bacteria to flourish and reproduce. When P. acnes flourish they start to produce even more follicle-plugging waste, damaging the protective fat layer of the follicle itself, which leads to even further inflammation… and so on.
Modern dermatology, ever-focused on effects rather than causes, tries to get rid of the problem by making the bacteria go away. This is why dermatologists give you things like benzoyl peroxide, triclosan, and azelaic acid, which yes, might kill off the surface bacteria for a time (as well as damage your skin even further, kill off beneficial bacteria, and compromise your health with side effects).
But why, Doc, did the bacteria flourish in the first place, hmm? What about the underlying causes?
“Never mind what’s under the hood,” your dermatologist says. “We’ll just get that light turned off. This hand grenade should do the trick…”
Hmm. Yeah, no thanks.
Now, turmeric/curcumin might seem like a safer, natural alternative, and we’d agree.
But switching to a natural bacteria-killer still isn’t attacking the root of the problem.
Unless you address the inner health issues that gave rise to the microbial imbalance, killing off the microbes won’t help you. The same symptoms (excess sebum, redness, swelling, inflammation) will just reappear in a few weeks, or even days, and you’ll be right back where you started.
Sound like a familiar cycle?
Having said that, curcumin does address an inner microbial issue: the imbalance of pathogenic versus beneficial bacteria in the gut.  In other words, it’s good at killing bad bacteria in your gut, while preserving the good bacteria. And we know gut health is tightly linked to skin health – read more on that and how you can boost your gut health to get clear skin here.
So instead of slathering turmeric paste all over your face, use curcumin internally.
It makes sense, doesn’t it?
Fix problems on the inside before they ever show up on your skin. (Feeling smarter than your dermatologist, yet? It’s okay, go ahead. We do it all the time. :))
Is There Anything Not To Like?
Anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial.
Curcumin seems to have all the elements for a combination knockout of acne.
Promising, for sure.
But in the spirit of full scientific honesty, let’s also consider the…
Downsides of Curcumin
1. Curcumin is not very bioavailable.
It takes a ton of curcumin to have any noticeable clinical effect.
A lot of the studies we’ve looked at so far are either in vitro (meaning, using test tubes and petri dishes, not human subjects) or, where humans were used, they took massive clinical doses of isolated curcumin supplements, sometimes as much as 4000 mg at a time.
Just eating turmeric is not going to give you anywhere near these doses. Turmeric is about 2 percent curcumin by weight, so a tablespoon (7 grams) of turmeric contains a wee 136 mg of curcumin. .
Those mega doses are needed to get big results because curcumin is not water soluble. On its own, it doesn’t dissolve in your system very easily. Generally speaking, your body breaks it down and poops it out before most of it can be properly absorbed.
However, there are a few ways to work around this little hitch:
Hack #1: You can slow things down by consuming curcumin with black pepper, which contains piperine. Piperine promotes intestinal absorption for many nutrients, and has been shown to enhance the bioavailability of curcumin by a whopping 2,000%.
For some people, black pepper can irritate the digestive tract – so if that’s you, combine your curcumin with ginger instead. (Gingerols, found in ginger, are considered “bioenhancers” just like piperine.)
Hack #2: Simmer your turmeric. One study showed that the solubility of curcumin can be increased twelve-fold by boiling it in water for ten minutes.
Hack #3: Finally, curcumin is fat-soluble. That means it’s far better absorbed by the body when mixed with healthy fats. You can try dissolving turmeric powder in coconut milk, for example, or in a tablespoon of olive oil, or sprinkling it on an avocado, to boost its absorption.
2. Curcumin supplements… hmm. Maybe, maybe not.
You may be thinking: OK, if curcumin is that hard to absorb just by eating turmeric, then wouldn’t it be easier just to take curcumin supplements?
Well, here we have to be a bit cautious.
When we chemically isolate things and consume them in supplemental form, sometimes bad things follow. Vitamin E, for example, is needed by the body. But when we chemically isolate alpha-tocopherol from vitamin E, and consume it in supplemental form, we get an insane overdose that leads to all kinds of problems: e.g., abdominal cramping, nausea, fatigue, gastric distress, and increased bleeding and hemorrhaging, to name a few.
Some reviews suggest that curcumin seems to be safe even in large, clinical doses. But as a paper entitled “The Dark Side of Curcumin” points out, the fact that no toxicity has been found in short-term studies is not proof that long-term supplementation is good idea. Nor is the fact that many people eat curcumin (as turmeric) as a regular part of their diets a proof of safety of long-term curcumin supplementation. Other dietary staple foods have been found toxic when consumed as isolates in massive supplemental quantities. What is needed is a long-term toxicity study of supplementary curcumin.
This is one of those cases where we should exercise a little healthy skepticism. The research on long-term curcumin supplementation is scant. We just don’t know if it’s safe to consume as an extract yet, and have some reason to believe otherwise.
There’s evidence, for example, that massive quantities of curcumin may lead to gastric irritation, stomach upset, nausea, diarrhea, and (gulp)… allergic skin reaction.
Who wants a rash on top of their acne? Not us, thanks…
If you think about it, the fact that the body is so quick to process curcumin could be a clue: a little is good, too much, bad. Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of thinking that if something is deemed “good for you” in the science and nutrition media then you should start scarfing it down in massive quantities.
As they say, the dose makes the poison.
As a general policy, we think it’s safest to take things in food form, the way nature intended. You can scarf fistfuls of supplements, but you can only eat so much food. The body naturally puts on the brakes when it’s had enough. With food you’re getting things in the right proportions your body can handle, with all of the synergistic nutrients alongside.
Curcumin is fantastic stuff, and has a lot of potential for helping acne, but get it the form it occurs in nature: as turmeric. See below for some recipes and suggestions. Try adding some heat (pepper or ginger) and some oils or fats to increase the bioavailability. Your body can handle this, and it’s consistent with traditional Indian cooking.
If you truly are keen on trying supplemental curcumin, try to find a whole food turmeric supplement (instead of a chemical isolate of curcumin). Here’s one by Organic India: Organic India Turmeric, 90-Count*. We haven’t tried it, so exercise caution. If you experience any stomach upset, don’t force it. Take the clue your body is giving you and back off the curcumin!
*Note: This is an affiliate link, which means we receive compensation if you purchase a product through this link. Visit our disclaimer page for more information.
Where To Find Turmeric, and How To Use It!
If you’re a cloistered Westerner (like me) who grew up eating bland, unspiced food, who hadn’t the faintest idea what a “turmeric” was before reading this article (nor where to find it even if you did)… you’re in the right place.
Should you buy fresh turmeric or powdered? Should you try to make curry (potentially daunting to a someone unversed in Asian cooking), or is there some other way to take it?
Fresh turmeric can be hard to find in some grocery stores. It’s usually found right next to the other “rooty” things like ginger. If you have a Whole Foods in your town they usually have some. You may have to try a natural foods store, or farmer’s market.
If You Have A Juicer…
One great thing we like to do with fresh turmeric is juice it with some ginger and lemon. The ginger gives it some hotness and the lemon adds a flavor punch. You won’t need much of this concoction: pour a shot in a juice glass, pound it back, and wait for the kick. It’s a nasal-cavity-burning, see-your-deity-for-a-brief-second doozy. Experiment with the proportions. We like more ginger in ours, but you might want to tone down the hotness and have more of the smoothness of turmeric. However you take it, it’s a great alternative to coffee for a quick pick me up! (And well worth the tears.)
If You Have a Blender…
Blend some fresh turmeric, ginger, and pepper into your bone broth. (You are regularly drinking bone broth, aren’t you? You should be—the health benefits abound.) This takes an already-nourishing, healthy drink and makes it doubly so. (And we defy you to find anything more delicious and satisfying on a cold winter day!)
Other Options for Using Turmeric
You can pretty much add fresh turmeric to any dish where you would normally use ginger (e.g., a stir fry), either instead of, or in addition to. Just peel it, then mince or grate the turmeric exactly as you would ginger, cook it up, and enjoy the subtle variation on flavor.
Of course, turmeric is much easier to find dried, and that’s fine too. There’s just as much healing power. You can add turmeric powder to all kinds of dishes. We make a pretty regular breakfast dish consisting of ground pork, shallots, mushrooms, avocado, and whatever spices we’re in the mood for. Turmeric makes a great addition, and maybe even steals the show a little bit.
Warning: turmeric will modify the color of your dish (and likely your cooking surface and clothing, too.) The yellow stain is a powerful one. But we’re happy to eat yellow food and walk around with weird, yellow smudges. It’s a badge of healthiness, alright? 😉
Try these easy and delicious recipes featuring turmeric: turmeric chicken drumsticks, Burmese chicken stew, and turmeric-cinnamon roasted cauliflower. (In the two recipes that use ghee, sub coconut oil or red palm oil to avoid the acne-provoking effects of dairy.)
If those recipes don’t whet your appetite for turmeric, nothing will.
And yes, turmeric really shines in a chicken curry.
Try turmeric for a few weeks, see if it makes a difference with your skin. And tell us what you think about all the research behind this seemingly-miraculous spice in the comments below. (We were pretty surprised by a few of the findings!)
And remember, trying one food ingredient in isolation is not going to miraculously solve your skin problems. This is just another small weapon in what should be a massive and growing arsenal in your fight against acne.
For details on the rest of that arsenal (shameless plug warning), be sure to check out Clear Skin Forever, the complete guide to curing acne with simple and powerful diet and lifestyle changes!
- Turmeric (and its powerful compound, curcumin) is far from “alternative” medicine these days: there are now hundreds of scientific papers and clinical studies on this fascinating spice.
- The proof is in: curcumin has been shown to have far more potent therapeutic and healing properties than dozens of pharmaceuticals on the market (with none of the side effects). Tell your skeptical, pharma-touting friends to stick that in their pill box!
- Curcumin has demonstrable and powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties. All extremely promising for acne sufferers.
- The research suggests eating curcumin is the way to go. Topical remedies don’t address the problems giving rise to acne in the first place. Find out what’s going wrong “under the hood” and fix the lifestyle problems that led you there.
- Use supplemental curcumin with caution: not enough research exists on the long-term toxicity, and we know other chemical isolates lead to overdose symptoms. Better to take your curcumin as turmeric. It’s tastier to do so, anyway!
- Experiment with juicing or cooking with turmeric, try some of the recipes we linked, and tell us if you notice any difference in your skin. This doesn’t mean forget everything else you should be doing, too: avoiding acne trigger foods, eating nutrient-dense foods that boost your skin health, avoiding toxicity, reducing stress, and getting good sleep. It’s just one more piece of the puzzle in your increasingly healthy lifestyle!
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