Getting to the real cause of Acne – Andrea Murphy, Licensed Acupuncturist

Most of us have experienced a break-out here and there. Men and women alike have looked in the mirror and noticed a little red volcano surfacing and poked its tender peak while wondering, should I squeeze it? Its location decides just how concerned you are about its existence. Right in the middle of your forehead vs tucked discreetly under your jawline – two entirely different ball games.


Regular breakouts that worsen each month that goes by is a sign that something is going on internally and although acne is commonly dealt with using topical remedies, the result is often temporary.


Conventional medicine recognizes acne as a hormonal imbalance, which is most certainly is, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Androgens in the body control sebum production which if overproduced causes oily skin and acne. So, under what circumstances does the body overproduce androgens thus increasing oil production?


  • Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome – A complex hormonal and metabolic condition where excess androgen production is one defining feature.
  • Post birth control pill androgen rebound – After years on the pill the brain and ovaries stop communicating, so for some women when they come off the pill their ovaries jump for joy by pumping out way too much testosterone thereby increasing sebum production.
  • Teenage acne – Puberty is full on! Young bodies take a hit of hormones for the first time and if gut health is poor, stress is a factor and diet isn’t great then these can be precursors to acne.
  • Steroid use or use of body-building supplements that have ingredients that mimic androgens – Men or women who take supplements with ingredients that mimic testosterone can overload the body and create an imbalance of androgens causing oily skin, acne and hair loss.
  • Poor gut health – Your gut is responsible for absorbing nutrients from your food, which in turn help you make hormones you need to break down and eliminate the ones you don’t. Put simply, your gut is what helps you detoxify. If it’s not in good shape, then all hell breaks loose.
  • Other hormonal imbalances – Often if there’s one hormonal imbalance others will follow. Hormones are like lemmings, they follow each other around and communicate to keep your hormonal cycles flowing smoothly. If one hormone has gone rogue and goes untreated others may follow. For example, it’s not uncommon to see estrogen dominance and androgen excess in one person.


In terms of treatment, conventional medicine offers birth control, antibiotics and if it just won’t clear, Roaccutane. All of which are band-aid treatments! Not to mention ALL have side-effects that will leave you worse off. This is where Chinese medicine comes in handy as it treats the root cause of the issue. It’s a long-game kind of medicine that dives deep to address what went wrong in the first place. From a Chinese medicine perspective acne comes from several different patterns of internal imbalance.


Stagnation = Congestion

How many times have you heard someone with acne say, “My skin feels congested”?

Stagnation begins deep in the body, in the blood and fluid systems and may surface as tiny hard bumps.


Blood Stagnation = Blood that has slowed down and become stagnant

Think of those pimples that leave dark hued spots for ages after they’re gone.

Begins as dark red/purple pimples that are painful and coincide with painful periods.


Phlegm stagnation = Stagnant fluid that has congealed

Think about the inside of a pimple that’s just dying to be popped!

Fluids in body, just like blood, are meant to flow like a stream but when there’s an issue with fluid circulation it can slow and cause dense marshy conditions and then finally become stuck. Stagnation of fluids often begins deep in the body but can eventually make its way to the surface. For example, ovarian cysts are viewed as phlegm stagnation in TCM and we often see cystic acne along with PCOS.


Damp heat = Inflammation + widespread collection of fluids (ie. All over oily skin)

Dampness can be understood as the “marshy conditions” when body fluids are impaired and have started to slow down. This shows up as greasy skin. Add in some heat and you’ve got acne in the form of pus-filled nodules.


Excess internal heat = Excess heat in the body

Excess heat in the body is basically inflammation. Most cases of acne are from excess internal heat. Just think of how hot and inflamed pimples can feel. Saying there’s too much heat in the body isn’t specific enough for TCM though, we must decipher where the heat is coming from! Heat comes from: poor diet, stress, overwork, extreme emotions and hormonal fluctuations. These variables most commonly affect the lung and stomach. So, what does that look like?

Lung heat: Acne will be located on the forehead, around nose and may be slightly itchy. This kind of acne is often worsened by environmental factors. Possibly with flushed cheeks easily reddened by the wind.

Stomach heat: Located around mouth, on chest, shoulders and back and will often flare-up with greasy foods. May be accompanied by a large appetite and constipation.


Just to seem complicated, acne can be some combination of all the above and they often overlap.


As a Chinese medicine practitioner, I’ve studied and trained to identify these patterns in my patients and treat accordingly. By doing so I get right to the root of the problem! Acne isn’t as complex as you might think it is, but often requires persistence. Working with an experienced healthcare practitioner can make all the difference. Contact me through Mornington Chinese Medicine if you would like to get to the bottom of your break outs.


Andrea is available for consultation at Mornington Chinese Medicine on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

To book your appointment please call ph: 5973 6886.