It’s often believed by acne-clearing enthusiasts that any food or herb that’s packed with nutritious antioxidants and phytonutrients when eaten will automatically be just as strong when applied topically to the skin.
However, in many cases that belief is a fatal mistake. Olive oil is the classic example. Adding olive oil to salad can prevent your arteries from clogging up, provide you with vitamin E, and lower inflammation due to the compound oleocanthal. Eating olive oil is a fantastic strategy for acne.
Topically, however, olive oil can disrupt your skin’s barrier function, increase your sensitivity to UV rays, and increase inflammation. It’s mainly down to one complex fatty acid with a double life, oleic acid, 70% of olive oil. With grapeseed oil the opposite is true; the linoleic acid (69%) can have all sorts of benefits topically (not common knowledge, get in on the secret here), but linoleic acid from vegetable oils is one of the main dietary acne villains in the Western hemisphere.
Then there’s the fruits and vegetables which are all-round great. Pomegranate has an ORAC score of 10500 since it’s full of rare antioxidants like punicalagin. There’s nothing that backfires when you place those antioxidants on the skin and leave them to absorb instead. This study found that pomegranate extract had potent antibacterial properties against p.acnes bacteria.
That said, the rule is, don’t blindly assume that any nutritious food will automatically clear acne topically, it could be your downfall…
…which brings us to turmeric. Turmeric, the gold-coloured powder made from the rhizome of the turmeric root and favoured in India, is great at reducing inflammation due to the compound curcumin, which is now a booming supplement.
However it’s usage as a topical treatment is far more controversial, with some experiencing miracles and some people’s skin lying in ruins. There’s also people who dismiss turmeric outright for the sole reason that it’s Ayurvedic voodoo medicine.
Hence, we have this article, which will clear up the confusion once and for all.
Does topical turmeric end oily skin?
The first piece of evidence to put the doubters to bed is this study which analysed turmeric’s effects on acne directly. This study has only emerged over the last few years, in 2013, while turmeric has been popular outside of Asia for roughly ten years.
The goal – to evaluate the effect of a turmeric-containing cream on sebum secretion in human volunteers.
The methods – the scientists prepared two creams. One containing 5% extract from the rhizome of the turmeric plant, or in other words, plenty of turmeric power. Then another which in their words was extremely similar to the turmeric cream, except for the fact that it contained no turmeric (so in other words, not similar at all). This served as a control.
The antioxidant activity of the extract was assessed and both formulations were tested on 13 human volunteers for 3 months. Their sebum levels were evaluated every two weeks of the experiment, and also prior to the experiment.
The results – the results were shocking. Due to the oily nature of the cream, according to the scientists, a minor increase in sebum production was observed after week six in the control group, culminating in a maximum increase of 6.2% at the study’s end. The turmeric group meanwhile, enjoyed a significant decrease in sebum from the fourth week onwards, and this culminated in a huge decrease of 24.76%.
The conclusion said it all: “extract obtained from the rhizomes of turmeric plant can be used in skin preparations to regulate excessive sebum secretion in persons suffering from acne”.
The scientists seemed unsure about the exact causes and didn’t offer much in the way of juicy details in the discussion section. However they did mention that two natural plant compounds, beta-sitosterol and stigmasterol, have anti-androgenic effects in humans. Androgens such as DHT are some of the main stimulators of sebum production, and turmeric is rich in both the aforementioned compounds.
Also there’s a piece of truly great news in there – there was no colour change whatsoever. There was no yellow skin, so turmeric isn’t guaranteed to make you look like Homer Simpson. This is only one study, but it’s on humans, and lasted for a lengthy period of time.
What’s interesting is that the famous benefits of turmeric when consumed are not related to oily skin. Most of turmeric powder’s medicinal benefits are attributed to the curcumin, which is anti-inflammatory, and the numerous minor compounds which have strong antioxidant properties.
Turmeric one – doubters nil.
The nutritional goodness works well on the face
First is the bountiful supply of antioxidants. To summarise, turmeric powder has one of the highest antioxidant counts of any food in existence, thrashing fruits like pomegranate or berries, with a score of 127,068.
Curcumin is one of the biggest antioxidant beasts although it creates its effects in large part by increasing glutathione by 16-80%, and glutathione increases inside the body. But there’s also tumerone, ar-tumerone, and tons of other polyphenols each with potent antioxidant powers themselves.
This study and this study found that turmeric could protect against the acne-creating lipid peroxides, a power which is likely to translate to the skin. The reason why turmeric is so concentrated in antioxidants is its manufacturing process; turmeric begins life as the root of the turmeric plant, only to be roasted for lengthy periods of time in an oven. That removes the moisture and leaves the nutrition highly concentrated.
You can detect the antioxidant using your own tongue, you don’t need to waste time with science; the strong woody flavour is a sign of their presence.
Curcumin is most famous for its anti-inflammatory properties, being able to treat arthritis and the brain inflammation behind dementia successfully. It’s not guaranteed that curcumin has a similar anti-inflammatory effect when applied to the skin; it might lower bodily inflammation indirectly by altering certain immune system actors…
…but many anti-inflammatory chemicals in other foods work equally well when applied to the skin, such as ECGC in green tea. Anyway, curcumin is reported to affect over 700 genes in the human body, compared to 2000 for vitamin D, so its mechanism of action is broad. Curcumin is 3-6% of turmeric by weight; it’s the main compound used in supplement forms. Not to mention that turmeric is widely used in India as a topical ointment for the treatment of inflammation.
Antibacterial properties are also a power which turmeric may have which it isn’t famous for in the body. The powers are specifically targeted against p.acnes bacteria; this study found that curcumin had antibacterial activities against p.acnes 36 times stronger than azelaic acid, one of the pride and joys of commercial skincare.
The study was in vitro, so the benefits aren’t proven on a living human; p.acnes living on human skin may be stronger, the curcumin may not impact them as strongly, other bacteria may defend p.acnes – who knows. But this is still good evidence. Depending on the concentration of curcumin used, curcumin was able to inhibit p.acnes bacteria growth by anything from 50% to 96%.
There’s a high likelihood that the well-known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers of turmeric will work when applied topically. With antibacterial benefits we already have the evidence in our possession.
Turmeric two – turmeric doubters nil.
The downfall of turmeric… or is it?
…but it’s not them that’s in dispute – the controversy lies in turmeric’s possible photosensitizing effect. It was demonstrated in this study where combining UVB radiation with curcumin led to massively increased apoptosis (programmed cell death) compared to UVB alone.
The scientists lauded this for its promise in reducing cancer, but it’s bad news for us. Photosensitisation is the death knell if you want clear skin while still surfing, walking, climbing or having fun with whatever activity you like. Skin which is more vulnerable to UV radiation will become more inflamed in sunlight, free radicals will spread more efficiently through its surfaces and your skin pores are more likely to be blocked.
If true this would be sufficient reason to reject turmeric completely…
…but the good news is that it isn’t true, at least for the vast majority of people.
Many studies since and before have disproved the theory, particularly this big one on 30 volunteers (21 males and 9 females) aged between 21 and 67 years from last year. The subject was fresh turmeric powder converted into a turmeric paste, and the assessment was of the minimal erythema dose, the minimum dose of UV radiation skin cells can withstand before they start to irritate.
The great news is that the fears were totally dispelled. Turmeric increased the MED in 83.33% of the patients, only decreasing the MED in 13.34%. They concluded that “our study has shown that turmeric as available does not offer significant photoprotection”, but that’s irrelevant; what matters is that we’ve discredited the old fears.
The studies we have are a great faceoff between isolated curcumin and turmeric itself. What’s almost certainly responsible is the fact that turmeric is far more complicated than just one compound; other antioxidants and phytonutrients are almost certainly counteracting the negative effect.
As we can see, turmeric has a photosensitizing effect in a small number of people. However, the study indicated how uncommon this is. Make no mistake that turmeric causes harm in many, you can tell by the following testimonials:
- “Be cautious using turmeric, I had a strong allergic reaction”.
- “I am observing several new painful zits popping out of my skin”.
- “Turmeric only worked well for the first few days”.
But there’s just as many good testimonials:
- “Turmeric reduces redness and I have noticed my acne go away somewhat.”
- “I used to get inflamed acne all over my face, but now I only get the occasional small ones”.
- “No new pimples and the old ones are shrinking and healing fast”.
The patients didn’t mention the sun, so it could have been a standard allergic reaction. Sensitivities are more common than with treatments like aloe vera, so this is a minor chink in turmeric’s armour.
Turmeric 2½ – doubters ½.
Does turmeric paste heal acne scars?
Among acne patients, this is another area where turmeric has acquired a decent reputation.
According to some people, turmeric can reduce the appearance of old acne marks, but it’s all a smokescreen. People who have evened out their skin tone with a turmeric mask or paste have achieved nothing but dying their skin yellow. There’s been no real improvement at all, and once it comes off in the wash, you’ll wake up and realise that you’re back to square one.
Is this story true? No – the yellowing isn’t guaranteed, you won’t end up the colour of a rubber duck, turmeric does have wound healing powers, and they have been confirmed in numerous studies.
First we have a 1999 study on 96 albino (who knows why) rats, where the wound healing power of turmeric was compared to coconut oil and a placebo. Surprisingly, turmeric thrashed both the placebo and the coconut oil; turmeric had a “significant” effect on small wounds inflicted on the rats while with the other two it was insignificant.
Next there’s this 2005 study where turmeric was compared to honey for healing wounds on rabbits. Again, turmeric was by far the fastest. That’s surprising once again, because raw honey has been used for wound healing since the Roman times.
Instead of whole turmeric, this 2011 study analysed the wound healing effects of isolated curcumin. It was found to be equally effective as the standard pharmaceutical drug silver sulfadiazine for treating burns.
Finally, this 2012 study used curcumin as well. There were numerous interesting results; curcumin increased the wounds’ rate of healing, the quality of healing, collagen formation, and soft tissue formation. The collagen increase is particularly interesting, since it’s the king of all acne proteins.
These studies aren’t directly on acne scars, so the ability to fade away acne scars is not fully proven. Hence, the scoreboard now reads…
Turmeric 3 – doubters ½.
The science has spoken, topical turmeric is a pretty good topical acne treatment.
I wouldn’t put it in the same league as raw honey since the 24.8% reduction in oily skin took 3 months, and the risk of an allergic reaction is higher than other topical treatments judging by the many testimonials.
There’s also a practical problem; turmeric is a powder and must be mixed with a carrier like grapeseed oil or yoghurt, or converted into a paste which is then left on the face. If you have no time or inclination to do that, then many plants and oils are far superior.
Then there’s the small risk of yellow skin; the stains don’t show up every time and can be washed off with water, but it gets reported on by frustrated acne patients. If you eat too much turmeric your sweat actually starts turning yellow, which can stain your bedsheets and clothes. Unless you actually want to become a yellow human, then that’s another minor downside.
Overall however, turmeric does not fall victim to the curse of olive oil. It’s almost as great topically as it is as a food.
Thanks for reading!