TCM skincare treatments for acne, eczema and other common skin conditions

As the clean beauty movement continues to gain momentum, more skincare brands are looking to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to source natural ingredients that are chemical-free and effective.

Big names such as Fresh, Sulwhasoo and Shiseido continue to incorporate popular herbs used in TCM into their formulations, while others such as Wei Beauty, the first Chinese skincare band available at beauty chain Sephora in the United States, have based their entire range on its principles and techniques.

For those looking for a more bespoke offering, a visit to your local TCM practitioner may be the answer.

A registered Chinese medical practitioner and fellow of the Hong Kong College of Family Physicians, Dr David Lee Hung Fai opened his practice in Hong Kong's Central district two years ago, offering topical skincare solutions that combine the best of Eastern and Western medicine.

Dr David Lee uses use both Western and Chinese systems when diagnosing and treating patients. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

"Medicine is borderless, and I didn't want to limit myself by just practising Western medicine. Although I am a family doctor, I noticed more people coming to me for skincare problems, and it made sense to combine the best of both worlds in a more integrative way.

Nowadays the trend is towards products that are more organic, so TCM is a good complement. It has been used for centuries to treat a variety of skincare conditions," he says.

Although Lee studied Western medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, it was during his TCM studies in Guangdong province, southern China, that he noticed herbs being used on the skin in addition to being taken internally.

Now he offers scientifically backed procedures and medications such as Botox and IPL (intense pulse laser) therapy, along with complementary TCM treatments.

"When a patient comes to me with a skincare problem, I will use both Western and Chinese systems and diagnostic knowledge to advise them of treatment options … In addition to methods like ingesting herbs, moxibustion and acupuncture, I offer topical skincare. Many skin brands are already using TCM ingredients, but there aren't many that are based entirely on TCM," he says.

Lee's formulations are made by reputable TCM suppliers based in Hong Kong and China. He offers around 10 topical creams that target common skincare conditions such as acne, eczema, rosacea and hyperpigmentation.

He can create tailor-made formulas on site or order them direct from the laboratory, depending on the specifications (patients need to wait around one to two weeks).

Although the Chinese Medical Council of Hong Kong oversees quality control when it comes to TCM ingredients, Lee is stringent about his suppliers and their sources. Preservatives are kept to a minimum and most formulas come as a serum, gel or cream to keep them fresh.

Prices are similar to over-the-counter skincare brands and can range from a few hundred Hong Kong dollars to HK$1,000 (S$180), although he can customise formulas to suit specific budgets.

I can't say TCM is superior to Western medicine when it comes to skincare problems, as there have not been any clinical studies that support this. For example, IPL and some other laser machines have been scientifically proven to work on rosacea; TCM hasn't.

"At the same time this condition is very broad so we don't need to confine ourselves to one scientifically proven method. It also has many causes and many triggering factors that we can't control.

"TCM is great because it can target the whole body. From my own experience, I have seen good results using topical TCM formulas with sufferers of acne, rosacea and eczema," he says.


"Dryness in TCM terms is rooted in blood stagnation. This will help improve blood circulation, giving more nutrition to the skin."

"This herb is commonly used to reduce the heat. New scientific studies show it has anti-inflammatory properties, which is why it has been used on cold sores and wounds."

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"This herb is ideal for rosacea and other inflammatory skin disorders as it can reduce topical heat, according to TCM theory. Modern pharmacology also proves anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and antiviral properties."

"The use of the wild chrysanthemum has many applications in TCM, including the removal of toxins from the body. TCM believes that chi stagnation in the liver meridian can produce heat, thereby causing skin issues such as pigmentation."

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.