Herbs for Skin

Ireland AM - Herbal Medicine Slot - Wed 13th January 2010

Medical Herbalist, Cork, Ireland - Kelli O'Halloran - kelliohalloran.com

This is the time of year when the skin can suffer most. The excesses of the Christmas season coupled with the recent prolonged cold snap will almost certainly exacerbate an existing skin problem and can even challenge the most resilient of skin.

Herbalist Kelli O’Halloran trained in the dermatology department of the NHS Whipps Cross hospital in London, where western herbal medicine has been integrated into the orthodox medical regime for many years. There, she had first hand experience in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions and in treating both complementary to and independently, with a holistic herbal approach.

If you suffer from a chronic skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis, acne, warts or fungal infection or you have recently developed symptoms lasting more than a couple of days, it is best to consult a medical herbalist for comprehensive and individually tailored treatment.

For further information on Kelli O’Halloran, the herbal therapeutic approach and her practice in Midleton, East Cork, please visit kelliohalloran.com or contact her at 087 965 2822

What are the Causes of Skin Problems?

  1. Genetic predisposition
  2. Hormonal Imbalances
  3. Altered immune response
  4. Stress
  5. Digestive disturbance
  6. Poor diet
  7. Fungal, bacterial, parasitic & viral infections
  8. Stress

What are the typical symptoms?

  1. Inflammation
  2. Itching
  3. Redness
  4. Hardened or thickened skin
  5. Dry, chapped or flaked skin
  6. Bleeding
  7. Oozing
  8. Infection
  9. Pain
  10. Disturbed sleep
  11. Anxiety

Skin Food!

Get Fishy!

Eat plenty of oily fish (2-3 times per week). Tuna, sardines, herring, mackerel, salmon(organic) and halibut are all sources but mackerel are my preferred choice in season as they are plentiful and are lower down the food chain and so are less likely to accumulate toxins such as mercury. Oily fish are the best source of omega-3, essential fatty acids (EFA’s), which are essential and responsible for skin repair, moisture content and overall flexibility.

The correct balance between omega 3, 6 &9 in our diet is essential to benefit from the EFA’s anti-inflammatory effects. The Irish diet is overabundant in omega 6 and 9 (found mainly in baked goods and grains), therefore increasing your intake of oily fish or taking an omega 3 (only) fish supplement will help to restore balance. Vegetarians can supplement with flaxseed, walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts.
Furthermore, many types of fish are rich in vitamin D which most of us are deficient in due to low sunshine levels and avoidance of over-exposure.

Evening Primrose oil

Another EFA is Gamma Linolenic acid or GLA and is found in the seeds of the evening primrose plant. GLA can specifically reduce the effects of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body. The supplement should have at least 8% GLA and I recommend taking 2000-3000mg daily. EPO has proven effective in clinical trials as a treatment for atopic eczema.

Go for a Spring Forage

As a little spring warmth comes into the day, the first of the wild spring greens will become available for you to choose from natures free and nutrient-rich larder and medicine chest! Add the first spring greens to your salads and vegetable plate or make cleansing teas to detoxify the system and therefore your skin! These wild herbs are all rich in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, something we find increasingly difficult to get from our supermarket diet. Always be absolutely certain of identification and if you are a beginner look out for wild food and medicinal foraging walks offered in your area. For further tips see kelliohalloran.com

  1. Fresh young nettle tops – cook as for spinach, make a soup or a fresh nettle tea.
  2. Cleavers (sticky backs), a powerful lymphatic cleanser (see website for recipe).
  3. Fresh young dandelion leaves and hawthorn buds and leaves are a delicious nutritious, cleansing and antioxidant addition to your salad bowl.
  4. Look out for the first of the wild purple violets in your garden and hedgerow. Make a tea with leaves and flowers for a wonderful cleansing action on the skin.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)

Give your Skin a Springtime Cleanse!

Cleavers is essentially a lymphatic cleanser with useful diuretic and skin healing effects. Internally it is useful for swollen lymph nodes, especially the cervical lymh (neck glands). It also helps dry eczema and psoriasis. It can help to lower the blood pressure and is anti-inflammatory and can be useful in generalised fluid retention. Externally the juice or an infusion is cooling for burns and helps to stop bleeding in abrasions. Springtime is traditionally the cleansing time; nettles for the blood and cleavers for the lymh. An over night cold infusion of the fresh herb is best.


Cleavers Cleanse

2 handfuls fresh cleavers

Cold water


Quickly wash the just picked cleavers, roughly chop them and place in a bowel. Add enough cold water to just cover the herb, cover and leave to soak over night. The next day strain, and drink the liquid throughout the day (about 2 glasses).


Eat as many seasonal fruits and vegetables as possible, especially dark red/blue and purple coloured ones for their antioxidant benefits. These foods are packed with vital vitamins and minerals to ‘feed’ the skin and help mop up free radicals and repair damage.
 When it comes to boosting skin's defenses against aging, inflammation, and even skin cancer, antioxidants are so important that I'm going to add another to my list: A handful of almonds every day boosts your levels of vitamin E, one of the most important antioxidants for skin health. Studies also suggest that consuming vitamin E orally can increase the levels of this moisturizing vitamin on your skin's surface†- great news for anyone prone to dry skin.

Rich in vitamins A, C, and K (among many other nutrients), this veggie does more than its fair share of nutritional work. Vitamin A decreases oil production (so great for oily skin and acne), vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, and vitamin K can help prevent bruises. So whatever ails you, this green wonderfood might be just what the doctor (or herbalist!) ordered.


Silica is a trace mineral that strengthens the body's connective tissues - muscles, tendons, hair, ligaments, nails, cartilage, and bone - and is vital for healthy skin. Silica deficiency can result in reduced skin elasticity and can hamper the body's ability to heal wounds.
 Food sources of silica include leeks, green beans, garbanzo beans, strawberries, cucumber, mango, celery, asparagus and rhubarb.
In its natural form, silica is found in the horsetail herb. Drink as a tea or you can buy horsetail juice at your local health food store.
Silica is also available as a supplement.

The mineral zinc is an important component of healthy skin, especially for acne sufferers. In fact, acne itself may be a symptom of zinc deficiency. Zinc acts by controlling the production of oil in the skin, and may also help control some of the hormones that create acne. Zinc is also required for proper immune system function, as well as for the maintenance of vision, taste, and smell.
Foods rich in zinc include fresh oysters, pumpkin seeds, ginger, pecans, Brazil nuts, oats, and eggs.
Zinc can also be taken in supplement form.
Handy Tip!
When choosing foods for their mineral content, buy organic and of course seasonally and locally, or even better if you can forage for them, as minerals have to be taken up by the plant directly from the soil that they are grown in.


Modulate the allergic inflammatory immune response and help prevent and/or fight infection by taking Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia/purpurea).

Herbal Teas

Try Nettle (avoid in very hot and dry conditions), Dandelion, Heartsease, Red Clover and Heartsease to help cleanse and eliminate toxins.


Dry and Inflammed Skin Conditions

Have a Soothing Oaty Bath
An oatmeal bath will help to soothe any irritated, inflamed and itchy skin and is especially suitable for infants and children with eczema. Oats will help to keep the skin pH in balance and act as a natural emollient. You will immediately notice of smooth and soft your skin feels after an oat bath.

  1. Add 2 cupfuls of organic fine or regular porridge oats to a clean pop sock, cut off tight or sock.
  2. Tie off the top and add to the bath water as it is filling. Allow it to soak in the hot water for about 10 minutes to soften.
  3.  Then slip into your relaxing bath and gently squeeze the sock to release the soothing milky contents.
  4. Do not rinse the oaty water from the skin, just simply pat dry.

Handy Tip!
I add Calendula a handful of chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita) to the sock for their anti-inflammatory quality and if the skin is a little infected, a handful of calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) will help heal and combat the infection due to the herbs antibacterial action, especially against the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.
These herbs are wonderfully easy to grow in a window box or your garden and calendula will flower for most of the year, giving you an almost constant fresh supply!


This is a wonderful healing and antibacterial herb suitable for irritated, inflamed dry, chapped or broken skin. Use as a cream for nappy and beard rash and as a salve or ointment for very dry skin. Commercial formulations are available at your health food store or why not make your own homemade salve, free from all additives and preservatives.

Kelli’s Dry Skin Salve
150ml Calendula infused oil
15g beeswax (finely chopped)
5 drops Chamomile essential oil

Make a bain marie by placing a bowel over a simmering pot of water.
Add the oil and beeswax and and allow to heat gently until all the oil is fully dissolved.
Add 5 drops of chamomile oil, give a quick stir and pour into glass jars. Label and store in a cool dry place. These will keep for ready use throughout the year.

Handy Tips!

  • Buy Calendula (Calendula officinalis) infused oil from your local health food store, herbalist or online.
  • You can substitute sweet almond oil (available from your local pharmacy or health food store) for calendula oil although you will miss out on the extra antibacterial and healing qualities of the calendula herb.
  • Just finely chop or shave wax from a 100% pure beeswax candle.
  • To make your own lip balm for dry and chapped lips, just add an additional 3 drops of peppermint essential oil for a fresh flavour. If you suffer from cold sores, add 5 drops of pure lemon balm (Mellissa officinalis) essential oil for its ant-viral qualities.

Oily Skin

This is more commonly found in young adults and can often have a hormonal cause. Where hormones (usually androgens- the masculinising sex hormone, found in men and women) are responsible, the underlying balance should be addressed and is best treated by a medical herbalist.

Witchazel Toner
Some symptomatic relief can be found by using a witchazel toner. Witchazel water is best as it is alcohol-free but distilled witchazel is readily available from your pharmacist or health food store. Dilute with water and using some cotton wool apply to the skin after cleansing. It contains tannins, which have an astringent and so drying effect on the skin. It will also help to reduce inflammation. This is particularly useful where excess production of sebum (the skins natural oil) has led to blocked pores and spot formation.

Rose Water
Rosewater also has an astringent effect on the skin and is particularly suited to sensitive and aging skin. It is quite cooling and its gentle fragrance will help to lift the spirits. It is a lovely one to keep in a little spray bottle for a little facial spritz and many women find it pleasantly cooling for the relief of menopausal flushing. It has some anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties which can also make it useful for inflammatory conditions like acne rosacea.

Treating Acne

Acne vulgaris
This is a chronic inflammatory sebacaceous skin disease characterized by eruptions on the chest, back and shoulders and can manifest in blackheads, whiteheads, pustules, cysts and can lead to scarring in some circumstances.

Hormonal shifts during puberty and general imbalance can be an underlying factor as well as poor intestinal health. The medical herbalist will always treat the underlying issues using internal medication and will also help to treat the skin topically.

I recommend taking Oregon grape (Berberris aquifolium), a bitter liver herb which will help to detoxify the skin by improving liver function. This herb can also be of benefit in the treatment of eczema and psoriasis. Heartsease (Viola tricolor) is a wonderful skin cleansing herb and in times gone by it was said that if a maiden drank this tea every day for a month, her skin would be so beautiful that every man would fall instantly in love!

Acne Skin Cleanser and Moisturiser
Just mix equal parts of simple emollient cream with aloe vera gel and add 6-8 drops of Blue Chamomile essential oil to every 30g of cream/gel base.
Use this to cleanse the face. The chamomile has gentle antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and the aloe vera will help to cool and soothe inflamed skin, enhance healing and reduce the clogging of pores.