Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum as it is known scientifically, is a popular herbal supplement among acne patients. This purple and spiky plant originally grew in Southern Europe and Asia but the species has since spread across the whole world.
Humans have been using milk thistle since at least 2000 years ago, when it was used as an antidote to snake bites and poisonous mushrooms. These days the extract from milk thistle is most famous as a liver support, since it has the power to regenerate your liver cells and improve many liver diseases like cirrhosis, fatty liver disease, and hepatitis B and C. Bodybuilders even use milk thistle for detoxification support when blasting their bodies with oral steroids, which are notoriously hard on the liver.
Not surprisingly with any herb that boosts your detoxification, there’s a ton of acne patients who believe that milk thistle can remove excess toxins from the bloodstream. Many posts on acne boards swear by milk thistle and there are plenty of positive stories.
You also hear many unverified tales of milk thistle helping to soften and moisten, cure dry and cracking skin totally, and reduce all manner of skin conditions like acne rosacea, acne vulgaris, psoriasis and eczema. The common testimonial is that milk thistle breaks you out badly during the first two weeks of supplementation, but this acne quickly vanishes and what you’re left with is a face clearer than it’s been in years.
Milk thistle antioxidant slashes acne severity by 50%
Firstly, the two active medicinal compounds in milk thistle are Silymarin and Silbinin.
You might see those compounds sold or discussed on acne boards as isolated supplements, because it’s them that accelerate your detoxification systems.
Most milk thistle extracts you buy from the internet are actually extracted from the seed, which is 4-6% Silymarin by weight. The extract contains between 65-80% Silymarin, so it’s Silymarin which works most of milk thistle’s magic.
Here’s why that matters. A recent 2012 study by a team of scientists led by Dr Ahmed Sahib wanted to examine the effect of oral antioxidants on the severity of acne.
Hence 56 patients were divided up into four different groups. They received either 200mcg of selenium, 1200mg of n-acetyl-cysteine, 210mg of silymarin from milk thistle, and one group received a placebo.
What happened next? Not surprisingly, acne hardly fell at all in the placebo group. Total acne lesion count in the selenium receiving patients fell by nearly 40%, which is pretty respectable…
…but it was the silymarin/milk thistle group where the most astonishing drop in acne occurred. In both the silymarin and NAC groups, total acne lesion counts fell by a massive 50%.
Seeing as silymarin is the main active component of milk thistle and there’s no issue with its absorption into the body, that’s rock solid evidence that milk thistle can treat acne right there.
Milk thistle boosts your glutathione production
There’s a good explanation for how milk thistle works these acne miracles – its ability to increase glutathione production.
The study above also analysed levels of serum antioxidant levels and what they did they find? Blood glutathione levels increased three fold, by 271%. A separate study found that milk thistle boosts glutathione by 35%.
Glutathione is the most important out of all the antioxidants which your body manufactures itself. Acne patients have been shown repeatedly to have lower levels than average.
Increasing gluthathione production is also how milk thistle helps your liver, since glutathione is also your body’s most important detoxification agent.
Alcoholics, for example, are widely prescribed milk thistle to deal with their symptoms of liver failure. Why? When alcohol is metabolised in the liver, it produces an unhealthy by-product called acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself. It’s this acetaldehyde which causes the headaches and fatigue of a bad hangover and it’s also responsible for scarring and weakening liver cells long-term.
Glutathione is the main detoxification agent responsible for removing this acetaldehyde and that’s why milk thistle helps alcoholics.
Glutathione can help your body to detoxify all sorts of contaminants and this has another implication – milk thistle can protect you from acne-causing heavy metals and chemicals.
The real role of toxins in acne
There’s a lot of hype and nonsense about toxins and their effect on acne; for example, you should never believe any stories about a weak liver diverting toxins to your skin, where they get forced out through your pores and then collect in your pores. Nor should you believe that toxins get stored in the liver itself and that to cure acne, you have to perform a liver cleanse with an insane acne diet like eating nothing but kale for two weeks.
Nevertheless, improving your detoxification systems and providing more resources does allow you to remove acne-causing and otherwise harmful chemicals. For example, glutathione is responsible for detoxifying the heavy metals mercury and arsenic by transferring a molecule to them and preventing them from reacting with cells.
Mercury causes acne through massive inflammation and arsenic is notorious for increasing keratin and dead skin cell turnover.
If you don’t have enough glutathione, these metals as well as many other chemical contaminants like herbicides or BPA can be recycled endlessly back into the bloodstream. They continue to cause acne over and over. Other chemicals, like inflammatory phthalates found in cheap plastics, can be stored long-term in your fat cells.
Possibly the biggest problem is glutathione’s dual function – it functions both as a detoxification agent and an antioxidant. You need glutathione’s antioxidants to keep your skin strong, but if it’s side-tracked with detoxifying toxin after toxin flooding in, your levels get depleted. You won’t have enough to defend against acne from air pollution and cigarette smoke.
By supplementing with milk thistle or any other glutathione boosting agent, you can ensure that your supplies are plentiful enough both to detoxify harmful chemicals and directly keep acne at bay.
In the 21st century, we are exposed to more acne-causing chemicals in cosmetics, herbicides, heavy metals, pesticides, and food additives than ever. There’s a whole chapter in my eBook about how they’re a massive cause of acne. We acne-prone people need more glutathione than ever and that’s why milk thistle can work wonders for acne.
Milk thistle was found to boost glutathione in the lungs by 50% in yet another study, and this study found that severe acne patients have 20% less glutathione in their skin. Milk thistle can also boost your red blood cells’ levels of superoxide dismutase, another homemade antioxidant that’s useful for curing acne.
All in all, the evidence is very strong that milk thistle and the silymarin within it can reduce acne.
Why milk thistle isn’t at all necessary
You might be surprised to hear me say then, that I don’t automatically recommend milk thistle/silymarin for the vast majority of acne patients. When it comes to achieving any improvement in health, the golden rule is that any supplement which works superbly is still not automatically necessary.
There are other strategies for increasing glutathione which are far more important. Selenium was found to slash acne lesions in nearly all patients and in this study selenium caused a slow but strong rise in glutathione activity. Selenium (a dietary mineral) is one of the main ingredients of glutathione as it is a precursor to 5 out of 8 forms: GPX-1, GPX-2, GPX-3, GPX-4 and GPX-6.
If you want to increase glutathione synthesis then you’ve got to optimise selenium first. The chance you’ll benefit is huge because acne patients have much lower selenium levels than average.
It’s extremely easy to either 1) read the full article and learn how to arrange a diet of selenium rich foods, or 2) take the nuclear option and eat two of these Certified Organic Brazil Nuts per day. Two 5 gram Brazil nuts per day (each contain 137% of the RDA) increases blood selenium levels just as effectively as an actual supplement, according to this study.
You also have to optimise zinc, which is another key glutathione precursor. This study analysed the effect of zinc on antioxidant levels in rats. The first group received zinc supplements and easily had the highest serum glutathione levels, while the second group received nothing and had glutathione levels at rock bottom. One study on acne found that 54.1% of acne patients were zinc deficient, whereas in clear-skinned people the rate was just 10%.
The truth is that silymarin won’t get you far if your diet is lacking in minerals. Milk thistle provides a big bonus but selenium, zinc, and also magnesium are fundamental.
Then you have the endless other strategies. You don’t need to bother taking milk thistle, when you can try whey protein, NAC and gelatin. Whey protein contains high amounts of the amino acids cysteine, glycine, and l-glutamine, which are the main precursors to glutathione. It also protects the liver in other ways; one study found that overweight women who consumed 60 grams of whey protein for several weeks had a 20% reduction in liver fat by the end.
Great Lakes Pasture-Raised Gelatin is packed with glycine, rare in the modern human diet; n-acetyl-cysteine was demonstrated in the study above to slash acne by an equal 50% and it also works through glutathione synthesis.
Raw milk and eggs are also terrific and are packed with other acne nutrients. Again, one dead easy strategy is to simply eat two Brazil nuts per day; this provides over 200% of the recommended daily allowance for selenium and many other acne benefits such as lowered inflammation. A good product is this bulk bag of Certified Organic Brazil Nuts.
Good old vitamin C was demonstrated in one study to boost glutathione more effectively than silymarin. Vitamin C can also clear cortisol from your bloodstream and accelerate the healing of your old acne. Glutathione is a sulphurous compound, and eating sulphurous foods like garlic (terrific for acne in other ways) or onions or even plain old broccoli can provide the building blocks.
The key point is this – milk thistle does increase your glutathione supplies and it does clear acne, but numerous other foods do the same.
Side effects – not guaranteed, but possible
Furthermore, milk thistle also has a risk of side effects, which are quite hard to predict. They include uncomfortable ones like nausea, bloating and abdominal pain. Loss of appetite is also frequent.
One especially common report is insomnia. One guy said that he “used to be able to sleep 8 hours a night easily; now I wake up after four hours and can’t get back to sleep”. Insomnia is not a good condition for acne at all because sleep deprivation can worsen insulin resistance. He also noticed hair loss, and later he filed an update and said “my hair loss has accelerated at a crazy rate”.
Contrary to what some websites are saying, milk thistle does not give you breast cancer. Milk thistle contains natural estrogens as potent at activating estrogen receptors as the dreaded soy isoflavones. However, these are counteracted by milk thistle’s beneficial effect on your hormone metabolization; this study found that milk thistle led to increased clearance of estrogen overall.
Now that we’ve cleared that myth up, milk thistle still has numerous other side effects unrelated to acne and one is reduced sex drive. One user said his “libido and sexual function generally declined” and apparently milk thistle can both block androgen receptors (study) and raise prolactin, which has anti-testosterone effects.
It’s important to note that while one man might lose his interest in sex, others have reported a surging increase in libido. Likewise, some users enjoy a ravenous appetite. Individual reactions vary hugely with milk thistle. It depends on your bodily circumstances.
Nevertheless, the side effects are prevalent enough that when prescribing milk thistle to alcoholics or patients with cirrhosis, doctors nearly always recommend taking it in two or three week cycles. Milk thistle can actually increase your liver enzymes when taken for too long.
Overall, milk thistle and isolated silymarin are effective supplements, but nowhere near your top priority. They have tremendous acne clearing powers, but so does selenium, and it has less side effects. A selenium overdose occurs based on dosage, but a milk thistle overdose occurs at random.
Milk thistle has two extra weapons against acne which are quite promising. Firstly, this study found that milk thistle supplementation reduced the activity of the inflammatory master molecule NF-KappaB, which controls the release of many pro-inflammatory chemicals behind acne. That’s a good power to have, but it’s also found elsewhere, in sweet potatoes, garlic, bananas, resveratrol and vitamin D.
Secondly, the aforementioned improved metabolization of hormones could help to reduce unhealthy estrogen metabolites like 4-hydroxy and 16-hydroxy estrogen. Those villains can cause acne through oxidative stress and inflammation…
…but if you want to sort your estrogen out you’d be far wiser to experiment with indole-3-carbinol/DIM, which has a much better track record for hormonal acne.
Both powers are identical to the glutathione increase: promising, but common enough that milk thistle is relegated to a mere experimental supplement.
If you do want to be the one who discovers whether milk thistle clears acne or not, this Pure Synergy Milk Thistle Extract (links to Bio Health for UK readers) is the best brand available.
There’s no doubt that milk thistle can be great for your liver health. Silymarin and Silbinin increase protein recruitment and accelerate the birth of healthy new liver cells, even in conditions where the liver is scarred like cirrhosis. One human study demonstrated that milk thistle was excellent at protecting human livers against damage from solvents, paints and glues, and decreasing total liver enzyme levels. In total there has been over 450 studies praising milk thistle’s effect on the liver.
The problem is that the one such benefit which helps your acne, the increase in glutathione synthesis, can be found elsewhere easily. I would never recommend milk thistle before selenium or zinc. Those minerals are proven to clear acne (by 49.8% in zinc’s case) and they’re also essential nutrients.
That said, there’s also a chance that silymarin affects certain glutathione production pathways which selenium doesn’t. The overall verdict is clear: milk thistle is an unnecessary but promising experimental supplement.
There’s a broader message you need to take from this article: don’t start with the secret weapons until you’ve dealt with the acne basics.
There is a ton of simple dietary and lifestyle strategies for clearing acne. You can minimise your sugar intake, eat less wheat, get more sleep, optimise vitamin D, and lower stress. For the price of milk thistle you could buy a vitamin E supplement, a box of organic strawberries, and a pack of Brazil nuts for selenium.
Remember this message: don’t treat milk thistle like the solution to your acne. It’s merely an extra tool.
Thanks for reading!