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Gua sha for Acne: A Holistic Approach to Treating Spots

Friday, October 27, 2023

The Gua sha Journal - A Blog About Everything Gua sha by Clive Witham/Gua sha for Acne: A Holistic Approach to Treating Spots

In this episode of the Gua sha Show, Clive explains how Gua sha can have a great effect on acne vulgaris. It does this through its anti-inflammatory effect on the body and he shows how treatments on your back can make changes on your face and upper body. He takes excerpts from his first book on Oriental medicine and explains them so you can get a fuller understanding of the approach of Chinese medicine to acne and how it is usually seen more as an internal problem than a surface skin problem.


Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Gua sha show! This week we’re going to look at a problem that can be very visible on the face and also the body and I’m going to show you how you can use the wisdom of Gua sha to help relieve it.

Introduction: Gua sha and Acne Vulgaris

And we’re looking at the red spots on your face, neck, chest and upper back known as acne vulgaris. Almost all of us have had spots especially going through those difficult adolescence years - remember those ones - all that pent up anger, emotion and hormones - it’s got to come out somewhere - but for some people it becomes a chronic condition and it manifests in symmetrical pimples, papules, pustules, nodules, cysts and post inflammatory scaring on the face, chest, and back. So whether it’s mild or severe the good news is that the principle behind it, is the same and yes, Gua sha is a good treatment choice.

Understanding Acne: An Internal Disorder

The first thing you need to get your head around is that while it clearly is a surface skin condition, its causes are usually a long way from the surface of the face. Certainly in traditional Chinese medicine it has always been seen as an internal disorder which manifests on the skin.

I’ve come across up to eight types of causes: wind-heat in the lung channel, inflammation of heart fire, stagnation of blood heat, accumulation of damp-heat, stagnation of heat in the liver channel, phlegm and blood stasis, spleen deficiency and phlegm dampness, and liver and kidney yin deficiency. And these can be attributed to allergies, diet irregularities, emotional imbalance, internal injuries, and overwork. And internal disorders of this kind are often treated by making changes internally with herbal medicine.

The Role of Gua sha in Treating Acne

But what I’ll explain today is how the effect of Gua sha can have a great impact on the severity and progression of acne.

It’s one of the many conditions I wrote about in the book of Oriental Medicine - 10 years ago now. Wow. It’s been 10 years since I wrote that book. And so in that book (and there are many other books which do this) I explain this internal cause. Hang on. It’s over here. It’s easy to spot as the English version is orange. I remember I wasn’t too keen on the colour but my publisher insisted that it had to stand out on a bookshelf. So orange it was.

Personal Experiences with Gua sha and Acne

If I get all the versions of my books together, it looks deceptively impressive as they’re all different colours and some of them look heavy. I did that once to get a tenancy in a flat in Germany. For anyone not familiar with getting a flat in Germany, you go to a viewing with other competing potential renters and you hand your details over to the owner or agent. And then they pick the one they prefer based on whatever requirements they have - presumably the one that they think is going to pay the rent every month! So my version of this was bring a small suitcase and at the moment I presented my papers, to make a big song and dance of lifting out my books and dropping them on the table with a purposeful thud. It’s an authors way of handing a CV. Well, the technique worked and we got the flat. And some of those books are really useful for keeping doors open.

So anyway. Here we are. Chapter 28. Skin conditions. An explanation. Okay here it goes. I’m going to read this section to you and then you’re going to get two explanations - the one from the text I wrote from past Clive - the younger, long-haired, fresh-faced author about to get his first publishing contract - and you get the explanation of present Clive - the more distinguished, greyer version of that younger man, comfortably riding the roller-coaster of life no matter where it leads.

OK. Let’s start with heat. I’m reading the text now.

“Acne is a very visible manifestation of internal heat in the body. The redder it is, the more heat is being generated from within.”

Yep. Younger Clive had it there. It’s a pretty obvious thing. It’s clearly heat. Of all those causes in Chinese medicine they’re all connected in that they cause heat. But where’s the heat coming from? Is the heat just under the skin where the acne is or is it somewhere else?

The ancient Chinese understood the body through the lens of nature so let’s use a basic principle from the natural world. Heat rises, right? If something gets hot, there’s a rising motion which lifts the heat. So let’s suppose there’s some heat in the body. Where’s it going to go? It’s going to go upwards. And when the heat reaches the head and face, there’s no where else to go.

“The lungs have a major influence over the skin and often too much heat in the lungs can cause lesions on the forehead and nose area.”

Okay so this takes a bit of explaining. Look I’m on page 231. All that stuff to tell you why the lungs and skin are connected are in those pages before this one. But let me just tell you this - each of your major organs has a connection with the structural pieces of your body. For example, your heart with the blood vessels, your kidney with bones and your lungs with the skin. There’s nothing crazy or wacky about it. It actually blindingly obvious if you go through it. Have you heard of the dermatological event called the atopic march? One aspect of this is the transformation of atopic dermatitis when you’re a baby or toddler to airway disease like asthma later on. So this connection with the skin and the lungs is well established.

“Lesions around the mouth, in front of the ears, in the corners of the forehead, and on the chest and upper back are more likely to be caused by heat in the stomach”

Yep. This is the big one. Your stomach. That heat is coming straight up like rocket from your digestion.

“This can often be the result of a highly processed, junk food diet, with too many fried and oily foods. It can often be accompanied by an almost insatiable hunger, a craving for spicy or oily foods, and thirst.”

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone with acne but it’s common especially within adolescence. This is when dietary changes are useful.

“The pus that often accompanies the lesions is quite literally damp and phlegm.”

So yes. These are some of the things that your body produces which you don’t really want accumulating because when they accumulate, they cause problems.

“If the stomach and spleen (pancreas) have been damaged by an inappropriate diet, there is usually an excess of these substances rising with the heat. This gets lodged in the space between the skin and muscles and oozes its way out.”

That doesn’t sound too pleasant, does it?

“If the condition is particularly severe, with deep, inflamed spots and possible scarring, the heat has transformed into ‘toxic’ heat, and the blood has become stuck.”

That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? It means the blood flow is restricted in the tissue and that might be causing this rather nasty heat called toxic heat. And is a much deeper problem than the previous ones.

Gua sha Techniques for Acne

If you listened to season 1 episode 4 of the Gua sha show ‘What are the benefits of Gua sha?’, you’ll know. We’re using both the anti-inflammatory and the increase in the immune response effect that Gua sha has and check out that episode for an explanation. And we’re combining it with knowledge of Chinese medicine circulation system.

So first of all. You’re not going to do Gua sha over the affected area. Don’t go near any of these spots with your Gua sha tool. That’s not how we can reduce the heat and inflammation. Remember, you’re treating the cause of the spots, not the spots themselves. Sure, you can treat the face, but just not the area of the spots. Treat the unaffected areas. Do those and as more of the face clears up, more areas will be available. Use the mid-line of the face as the starting point, and scrape outwards following the contours of the face. So for example, going around the cheek bone not straight across it. But it all depends on where the acne is.

Comparing Gua sha with Other Acne Treatments

And this is where various studies on acne and Gua sha have concentrated on, along with direct treatment of the face. So on the back you should scrape in a downwards direction along the Governor or Du channel and the bladder channel. What that really means is down your spine and in the large muscles outwards from your spine. Comparison studies were done on herbal medicine and acupuncture to see if Gua sha could compare and in one study in 2016 Gua sha showed a faster improvement in damp-heat (hot and puss-y) acne than herbal medicine and in the other was just as effective as acupuncture. I would also include your shoulders and neck if they aren’t part of the affected area.

You can’t actually do this yourself unless you have a gymnastic ability to contort your body. So if it’s you being treated, someone else has to do it.

But if the acne is on your back and you can’t scrape there. Gua sha on the chest - on the sternum - is an option - and another common area to treat is the lung channel or actually between the lung channel and the large intestine channel on the arm. This the thumb side of your lower arm and towards the outside of your upper arm. Look for tight areas and press and scrape them with the tool. And the stomach channel in the muscle lateral to the tibia bone on the lower leg and the front of the thigh on the upper leg. Scrape down. You can do these areas on yourself.

Comparing Gua sha with Other Acne Treatments

So what you’re doing is making a change in the pattern which is causing heat to rise up to your upper body and encouraging your body to reduce the intensity of the spots by reducing inflammation. And then, of course, you can also deal with any allergy, dietary, emotional, physical or work-related causes that may be present and which are leading to this pattern being there in the first place. But make no mistake, Gua sha has a great role to play with acne.

Quick Questions on Gua sha & Acne

Q1: How does Gua sha help in treating acne?

A1: Gua sha offers a holistic approach to treating acne. By gently scraping the skin with a smooth-edged tool, Gua sha enhances blood circulation and releases heat. It also helps reduce inflammation and promote healing, which is crucial for acne-prone skin.

Q3: Can Gua sha reduce the appearance of acne scars?

A3: Gua sha may help in reducing the appearance of acne scars over time. By promoting blood flow and facilitating natural detoxification, as explained in "Holographic Gua Sha," the skin's healing process is supported, which can gradually improve the appearance of scars. Consistent and gentle Gua sha practice is essential for seeing noticeable results in scar reduction.

Q2: Is Gua sha safe for sensitive acne-prone skin?

A2: Yes, Gua sha can be safely performed on acne-prone skin, but it requires a gentle touch. As outlined in "Facial Gua Sha: A Step-by-step Guide to a Natural Facelift," using light, careful strokes is key to avoid further irritating the skin. It's important to use a clean Gua sha tool and to avoid directly scraping over active acne lesions to prevent aggravation.

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Hi, It's Clive

Director of Komorebi Institute

Hi, It's Clive

From researching underfunded healthcare in Uganda, to running a thriving chronic illness clinic in North Africa, to collaborating with hospitals in Sri Lanka to train staff and empower communities - My journey has been dedicated to democratizing access to beauty and health.

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