Turmeric – or rather, the active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin – is a very popular health supplement used around the world. To quote from "From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine" by Sahdeo Prasad and Bharat B. Aggarwal:
"Turmeric is a plant that has a very long history of medicinal use, dating back nearly 4000 years. In Southeast Asia, turmeric is used not only as a principal spice but also as a component in religious ceremonies. Because of its brilliant yellow color, turmeric is also known as "Indian saffron." Modern medicine has begun to recognize its importance, as indicated by the over 3000 publications dealing with turmeric that came out within the last 25 years."
While its culinary uses are widespread, medicinal uses are growing in popularity. Originally part of traditional ayurvedic medicine, it likely spread from India to China and Africa, and from there to Jamaica and the rest of North America. Marco Polo even commented on it. Its popularity is not a new thing, but scientific study into it certainly is.
Curcumin is known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It's well-studied as a dietary supplement, but what about as a skin treatment?
Using Turmeric on the Skin
Relatively few studies have been performed into the efficacy of turmeric as a skin treatment. There are a few reasons for this.
- Turmeric, at times, could be ineffective when taken orally; it tends to bind into sulfate metabolites, which don't react well or get digested into the body in the gastrointestinal tract. Much effort has been made to make turmeric more bioavailable, but it's focused on digestion rather than on skin absorption.
- Turmeric is bright yellow, and as anyone who has cooked with it knows, it stains. It's even occasionally used as a dye! Even if turmeric can be absorbed into the skin, it might need to be heavily processed to remove the color first, which could introduce other negative side effects.
- The skin barrier is notoriously picky about what it lets pass. After all, it's the only barrier between you and environmental toxins, infections, and pollutants. If it let just anything in, you'd have way more negative stuff breaching the walls than positive treatments.
That said, some study is ongoing, and there are some potentially promising results. The thing is, they aren't specifically for beauty treatments; they're for skin disorders.
The primary evidence we're basing this article on comes from this journal. It's a detailed study of the topical use of curcumin for the treatment of various skin injuries and disorders. To quote:
"We found topical curcumin to be effective in a number of conditions associated particularly with skin injury and inflammation. We believe that the most likely mechanism responsible for these results is related to the unique ability of curcumin to inhibit the enzyme, phosphorylase kinase. In addition, topical preparations can be more easily formulated to increase penetration of the hydrophobic curcumin through the skin, unlike the problems encountered with curcumin bioavailability in the gut. Skin penetration of topical curcumin may also be enhanced in dermatologic disorders because of inflammation and loss of the normal skin barrier function."
Essentially, this segment tells us three things:
- Curcumin reacts with an enzyme found in the skin rather than in the gut and can inhibit that enzyme.
- Curcumin can be formulated to penetrate the skin more readily than it can be formulated to be digested by the gut.
- Curcumin has a better chance at treating skin disorders because the skin barrier is already either breached or weakened in those areas.
Two of these are simple, so let's look into that enzyme. What is phosphorylase kinase, and what does it do?
First of all, this is an enzyme that was discovered 70 years ago but is still under study, because its mechanisms and effects are not well understood. What we do know is that the enzyme stimulates muscle tissue into breaking down glycogen and using the resulting sugar for energy.
If "breaking down sugar for energy" made you excited about the weight loss properties of curcumin, unfortunately, you're going to be disappointed. Curcumin inhibits this enzyme from functioning, which means muscles need to draw on another energy source. However, the effects are so minor that they are likely not even measurable in tangible terms.
You can read more about how the enzyme works in the linked Wikipedia article above, but we're going to admit; it's a lot of complicated advanced biology discussion, and it more or less went over our heads. If you're a biologist and want to explain more in the comments, though, feel free!
Now, back to that original study. What they discovered is that if the enzyme in question is released within five minutes after an injury and that among other things, it helps cause inflammation. The inhibition of this enzyme is how curcumin helps reduce inflammation.
Another way curcumin helps the skin is in the treatment of burns and sunburns. Turmeric has been observed to induce apoptosis of damaged cells. That means it stimulates damaged cells to die, be consumed, and be replaced by the body. In other words, it stimulates healing and can accelerate recovery from burns and sunburns. The journal explains more of the details, of course, but we don't need to reproduce those here.
Luckily, the journal authors presented their specific findings more readily.
- In the case of acute burn injury, when applied topically, turmeric was able to accelerate the healing of burned skin and reduce the amount of scarring left over after the affected area is healed.
- In the case of a kitchen injury where a fingertip was cut off with a knife, a week of healing left the tissue without feeling and healing poorly. Curcumin gels were applied and the fingertip then healed without loss of sensation or deformity.
- In the case of a crush injury of the hand, the application of turmeric gels dramatically reduced inflammation and led to normal fingers with bruising, no swelling.
- Curcumin gel application was shown to reduce the severity and appearance of rosacea caused by underlying lactose intolerance. This led to a more pleasing appearance to the skin.
- Curcumin gel and Vitamin A gel applied in conjunction helped reduce acne and reduce the scarring it caused. The additional medication was used to control pustules on the skin itself.
- A combination of treatments, including trigger avoidance and curcumin gel applications, reduced and treated psoriasis. This case is quite complex, so we recommend looking into the section in the journal about it.
While these studies have individual results pictured with specific people, it's unclear how many people took part in the study and if any of them experienced either no results or negative results. Without digging deeper into it, we can't definitively prove one way or the other how representative these cases may be.
Overall, there are some promising results here, but there are a few things you should consider first.
The Drawbacks of Current Studies
First of all, the major study we're citing above was performed by a doctor who himself has shares in a company that makes curcumin gel. Now, is this simply a motivating factor for him to study the gel, or is he incentivized to cherry-pick results that show the gel's effectiveness and attempt to increase its value? It's impossible for us to say, but it's something to be aware of in terms of a conflict of interest.
Secondly, these studies use a concentrated form of curcumin gel, which has been processed and isolated as medical grade. This means it's a very different substance than your typical turmeric you find in the spice aisle at the grocery store. You're not going to be able to just mix up a paste out of turmeric, apply it to a burn, and hope it helps. It might, but it might not, and it still has those stain-inducing compounds present to make it obvious what you've done.
Third, as always, this is just a single study, even if it's relatively robust. A lot more study needs to go into the subject before results can be declared definitively one way or another.
Using Turmeric for Skin
If you're interested in using turmeric for skin, you have a few options.
First of all, we're not going to recommend that you use it as a simple skin cream. It should not be part of your every-day rotation, and it won't do much to healthy skin. That said, if you have a skin condition such as acne or psoriasis, then you can definitely consider a turmeric-based treatment.
While the studies we've seen isolate curcumin rather than using turmeric in its whole form, that doesn't mean turmeric is ineffective as a home treatment. If you suffer from acne, psoriasis, or another skin condition, here's what we would recommend:
- Obtain a turmeric-infused treatment such as a soap or a cream to use specifically on the affected skin. No need to use it on healthy skin.
- When dealing with sunburns or burns, consider using an aloe preparation instead of a turmeric preparation. Alternatively, use one on part of your burn and one on the other, and report back with the results.
Some people recommend a turmeric face mask for a healthy glow to your skin. As far as we've seen, in terms of scientific research, the only glow you'll get from turmeric is the slight staining of the skin, which could be considered a glow in the right lighting, but isn't biological in origin. Rather, it's akin to a spray tan.
Cautions and Warnings
Is turmeric dangerous to use on your skin? No, not really. However, you should always exercise an appropriate amount of caution whenever you're using a medication, prescribed or otherwise.
Consult your doctor before using it. If you have any specific considerations, they should be able to tell you. In particular, some medications can be disrupted by turmeric, though they are few and far between, and the interaction is usually in terms of oral ingestion rather than topical treatment. Still, it's better to use a medicated prescription than to use a home turmeric treatment if you're forced to choose.
Before using any topical cream, be sure to test it in a small area first. We recommend the space just inside your wrist; it's sensitive enough to tell you whether or not your skin is going to have any irritation or allergic reactions to the turmeric, but it's out of the way enough that it won't be obvious or a huge nuisance if you do. At most, you may have to bandage it while it heals to avoid scratching at a rash and making it worse.
Likewise, if you're using turmeric as a treatment for acne, psoriasis, rosacea, dermatitis, or another skin condition, use it in moderation at first. Your goal is to prove it won't hurt you before it is to prove it will help you.
Additionally, be sure to watch your skin for possible dryness and other issues. A turmeric soap like the one we linked above also includes moisturizers and vitamins to help fight that issue, but if you make a turmeric mask or paste at home, it won't have those benefits unless you include them.
Finally, there's a tiny chance that turmeric you buy from an India-based source could be contaminated with lead. Lead-infused turmeric has been found from time to time in studies of unregulated supplements. To avoid this, make sure to get your turmeric from a reputable source. Don't worry too much about it, though; lead isn't going to do much on topical contact, it's more of a treat if you ingest it.
All of that said, turmeric is generally safe for everyone who isn't allergic to it. The majority of the time, you won't experience issues using it, and you may find that your skin conditions look and feel better, or even recede or heal completely. If that's the case, please report back, we'd love to hear your story.