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Many people suffer from dry skin and there are lots of reasons for it, both internal and external.
If you understand yin and yang you can often work out the cause yourself. I’ve put some explanations in the text to help or, for more guidance, read one of our pages specifically on this such as yin and yang.
For students, or if you want to go into this more deeply, you’ll need to read up on the most common syndromes causing dry skin.
In Chinese medicine the most common chronic ‘dry skin’-causing syndromes are
Where would we be without the sun? Answer: we wouldn’t exist. The sun is very yang.
Yang creates yin, but only when circumstances allow.
To grow plants, you need good soil and water (yin factors), but you also need yang in some form.
Ideally this is the sun, but even lesser forms such as from electric light may be enough.
The power for electric light also comes from the sun, the energy of which was either trapped in fossil fuels millions of years ago, or from solar panels, wind and wave power generated now.
Or, of course from nuclear power, like the reactions powering the sun.
But too much sun (yang) heating and drying, is not good. If you’re suffering from dry skin, perhaps you’re getting too much sun?
If so, your skin will probably also be inflamed and sore. That’s perhaps because you didn’t apply enough sun-factor cream (cream – yin). Or perhaps you wore too little. Or perhaps you weren’t in direct sun but in warm, dry air or wind, which is also drying.
So if it’s the sun in one form or another, to avoid dry skin, cover up in some way.
For example, central heating in winter warms air and often dries it too. Air-conditioning also dries air, whilst cooling it. You usually notice this first, or most, on yang body surfaces, which are more exposed to the outside, such as the backs of your hands and the fronts of your legs: sometimes your neck and throat, and of course your face.
What to do if the cause is dry air?
The healthiest solution for your body, if the cause is warm, dry air – or at least for most otherwise healthy bodies! – is to turn down the thermostat for the rooms you occupy, and to wear more.
This way, after a week or two of shivering (make sure you eat warm food and take more exercise to keep warm) you’ll adapt to the cooler rooms.
Soon you’ll notice your fuel bill is lower.
That makes you richer, too! And your skin will be moister.
You could also explore taking cold showers on rising in the morning. Yes, you read that right – cold showers have many benefits BUT you need to take them the right way. Read how to take a Cold Shower the right way here!
This solution (cooler rooms) reduces the amount of yang in your life. We all need both yin and yang, but too much yang is drying.
If your skin is dry because of air-conditioning then perhaps you need to adjust the setting to be less cool, again saving money on bills, and use added moisture, see below.
Another cause of dryness is that you are sweating too much, perhaps from over-exertion or from warm air.
You need to drink more – see below – but some people just don’t have bodies that adapt well to heat. They need to live somewhere cooler.
And some people use purging as a frequent health treatment, perhaps via colonic irrigation.
Purging removes fluids from your body, usually as an effective way of clearing a condition caused by Heat. But done too often, it gives no time for your body to absorb fluids, leading to dryness. The solution? Purge much less often – or don’t purge!
The same applies to people who habitually vomit food they’ve eaten to stay thin. Along with thinness come many long-term health problems (including mental issues), and quite often, dryness. Vomiting the food you’ve just eaten is bad practice and not recommended for a healthy life.
The next solution, moisture, increases yin in your life. Yin has many forms, regular habits being one of them, which you’re about to read about …
The best way to add moisture is to put potted plants round the house and learn how to keep them moist. Plants add many benefits to your life (including oxygen, colour and a gentle and pleasant pastime and habit) but also moisture to the air.
I admit they also attract spiders and a few other creepy-crawlies but the former keep down the latter, and anyway they teach you about nature!
Or you could simply put bowls of water on your central heating radiators. You still have to refill these periodically, so why not do it with potted plants?
Drink more water – it may be as simple as that. Fluids add yin to your body. In the form of vegetables and fruit, they increase the quality of your Blood. (See the short list above for the causes in Chinese medicine of dry skin, and you’ll notice for example that Liver Blood deficiency and Kidney Yin deficiency are listed.)
But you can overdo it, as do many young people – some older, too. Drinking too much water or similar fluids can overload your kidneys (even if perfectly balanced for electrolytes etc). In Chinese medicine, this can deplete your Kidney energy (not a concept willingly embraced by many sports scientists).
If you reduce Yang the wrong way you’ll end up with comparatively Excess Yin, for example oedema and chilliness. This can happen to people who over-exercise and exhaust themselves, causing Kidney Yang deficiency. Drinking too much fluid can do it too, in time.
How do you know how much to drink? The simplest way is to check the colour of your urine. Ideally it should be very slightly yellow (it will usually be more yellow first thing in the morning so don’t worry about that). If there is no colour in it you may be drinking too much or eating too much juicy fruit.
Of course, when considering the colour of your urine, remember that what you eat, including any supplements you take, colours your urine. Beetroot and Vitamin B supplements turn it darker, for instance. So check your urine colour when you haven’t recently taken anything that discolours your urine.
By the way, if your urine is habitually dark, there may be other reasons, including living in a hot environment where your body perspires heavily, losing moisture that way, and kidney disease, which you would need to get checked by your doctor. But if it’s kidney or bladder disease, you’d probably be feeling ill anyway.
In Scotland and many other countries, tap water is treated to reduce impurities and poisons, so is perfect (though the treatments introduce other substances like chlorine, and may not filter out all substances considered noxious by some). You can also buy all sorts of more expensive varieties, many of them packed in plastic bottles, not always a good idea for your health.
I suggest you avoid carbonated water (containing bubbles of carbon dioxide), which can upset your digestion and make you burp. However, perversely, some people can only take carbonated water! This is probably because carbonating water makes it slightly acidic, so these people probably lack Stomach acid.
Other factors that reduce fluid intake or increase fluid loss include excessive physical exertion, too many spicy foods, and fluid loss (including purging, see above), haemorrhage, diarrhoea, exhausting fevers with perspiration and in some cases even childbirth.
I include here coffee and too much strong Indian or even Chinese tea.
We’ve got a page on coffee. It’s predominantly a yang drink, increasing yang, and depleting yin. So if you suffer from dry skin, too much coffee is bad for you. Many drugs, including social drugs, also have this effect.
Smoking tobacco heats, and so dries out your lungs. In Chinese medicine, your Lungs manage the health of your skin. Look carefully at the skin of confirmed smokers and you’ll notice it is dried out, almost leathery, often with many lines.
Don’t smoke unless you want dry skin!
I suspect that E-Vapes have a similar effect but haven’t seen enough e-vapers to be sure.
Age and Dry Skin
Remember what Lord Derby said – something along the lines of … ‘you can spend time keeping fit or you can spend the time being ill!’. You choose.
How to stay fit? Lots of ways! Most boil down to working on maintaining good relationships, eating a healthy diet, getting good sleep and taking regular exercise.
Having someone to love; something to do; and something to hope for – are famously beneficial.
In particular, keeping busy – having something to do – keeps you active and interested in life. That makes yang and yin interact and maintains health.
Ageing also reduces the efficiency of your oil and sweat glands. Exercise that gets you regularly out of breath and warm helps your body stay efficient, assuming you also eat the right foods.
The right foods include enough fats and oils, (you need both saturated and unsaturated fats for health) and green and coloured vegetables. These help your body create healthy blood. Read our page on Blood-Building Foods.
Taking no exercise leads to many problems, including what Chinese medicine calls Blood stasis. You don’t want that! It leads to sluggish blood circulation which means enzymes and hormones don’t circulate as they should, leading to yin deficiency in your body tissues, which you experience as dryness.
Read that page on Blood Stasis to understand more about this but here’s an analogy which may help you make sense of it.
Have you ever been in one of those restaurants where the food dishes are placed on a conveyor belt that passes every table? You remove the dish you want to eat and eventually your bill is based on the empty plates, each designating the food eaten, on your table.
In a new restaurant of this kind, the owners make sure the dishes are plentiful and moving round at a good rate, so there is ample choice. They want you to eat lots so they get well paid!
In an older such restaurant, the owners seldom show up and the chef gets lazy. In particular, he feels out of sorts because he doesn’t get the recognition, or the pay-rise he feels entitled to. So he doesn’t oil and maintain the machinery that powers the conveyor belt. So it goes much more slowly.
The result is that people on the tables nearest the kitchen, from which the conveyor belt emerges, take most of the dishes off leaving big gaps as the belt proceeds further ‘out’. That means that if you’re sitting far from the kitchen you’ll snap up whatever dishes remain on the belt, even if you don’t like them, rather than go hungry. It won’t matter how nutritious and well cooked they are, there’s still not enough of them.
So you, at your distant table, end up feeling under-nourished and unsatisfied.
That’s like Blood stasis. The parts of the body that suffer most from it initially tend to be distant parts, like the skin on your hands and feet, which not enough healthy blood reaches. The skin there loses its quality and elasticity, the healthy ‘bloom’ it had in youth. You may also see, through the skin, other signs of Blood stasis, such as thickened or more obvious veins, some varicosed, again indicating poor movement of blood. Probably your feet will be colder, especially when you are tired, say at night. The skin may be darker too, possibly dark-blue or purple.
Probably you’ll also notice the flesh under your nails goes dark too, worse in the cold or when tired. Since good blood isn’t feeding the nails, their quality will also suffer and may crack or grow in distorted shapes.
There are lots of other symptoms helping to confirm this syndrome. Again, I suggest you read it up at Blood Stasis. I doubt if you’ll have all the symptoms, but the more you have, the more likely it is as a cause of your dry skin. Blood stasis has many causes, not just from ageing.
If Blood stasis is the cause of your dry skin, what can you do about it? Well, read that page on Blood Stasis, where there’s lots of advice, detailing exercise, the wrong and right foods, massage and the many strategies developed over 2500 years of Chinese medicine!
Going back to the analogy of the frustrated chef and the conveyor belt … If in addition to not maintaining the conveyor belt, the chef can’t be bothered to buy healthy ingredients for the dishes, nor cook them properly, then you’ll have not just Blood stasis but also Blood deficiency, a double whammy. That’s what happens if you eat the wrong foods and don’t change to better foods, because even if the conveyor gets the dishes (blood) to your feet in good time, the skin there still won’t benefit.
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It’s not just a couple of pins stuck in you! Take the advice you’re offered about diet and exercise: it’s part of the package!
Indeed, sometimes eating the wrong foods or taking the wrong exercise can undo the benefits of your acupuncture treatment. Equally, not eating anything before your treatment may make it much less effective. You need at least some food in you – and please don’t make it coffee.
There are many ways acupuncture can improve your health. By helping to balance yin and yang in your body, it automatically leads to less dryness and more flexibility, more energy and a happier outlook.
There are acupuncture treatments to boost energy, improve Blood quality and to undo or at least help any tendency to Blood stasis.
First, reduce foods that make it worse. These are, generally, foods without balanced nutrition, often high in carbohydrates (flour, sugars, sweeteners) and low in vegetables, or containing hot spices or meat and other forms of heating food, including Omega 6 and omega 9 oils which can have an inflammatory or drying effect on your skin.
(For much, much more on which oils help and which don’t help your skin, read ‘Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill – the complete guide to Fats, Oils, Cholesterol and Human Health’ by Udo Erasmus.)
Unfortunately, these foods often taste delicious! Too much pasta, deep-fried or battered food, chips and so on are often underlying causes of dry skin.
Then learn to like salads, olive oil, vegetables and lightly cooked oily fish. With fruit. Really, it’s almost that simple! You just have to keep it up.
If you do stick with this ‘diet’, you can then enjoy the occasional pasta or deep-fried, battered fish and chips without problems. Your body seems to have acquired the genes, over millions of years, to enable you to eat the occasional garbage and survive! But too much garbage and you’ll get ill, dry skin being just one form of illness.
Derived originally from kitchen medicine, now a major medical therapy. Using it takes skill. It doesn’t suit everyone. Prescriptions are not sold on taste!
For more, read Chinese Herbs. Chinese herbal medicine has many prescriptions for dry skin, some in the form of creams, but more importantly taken in the form of herbal teas, to get your body working better and mending itself from the inside.
For example, one famous formula, which must be tailored to your particular symptoms, contains herbs that:
Why should one adapt this formula for your condition? Because in its original form, it deals with a host of other conditions that often come with dry skin, including coughing up viscid phlegm, wheezing, shortness of breath and gastritis.
This formula addresses problems with your Lung yin energy and with your Stomach yin energy – which is where I expect your eyeballs start circulating from too much yin-yangery! (I sympathise, but 2,500 years of thinking about health from the point of view of yin and yang has made Chinese medicine quite sophisticated, which is why practitioners take years to master it.)
As you’ve read above, in Chinese medicine dry skin mostly derives from Liver Blood deficiency etc, but this formula is good for making the blood in the first place and clearing away other problems. In its original form it might not make much difference to your skin. It must be adapted.
And anyway, it still won’t work properly if you eat the wrong foods!
Remember the story of the three pigs? They each built a house, the first pig using just straw, the second twigs and the third bricks. Not surprisingly the straw house didn’t last long. The second house lasted a little longer but only the brick house could withstand the wolf as he tried to blow it down, or the storm.
However, the brick house also took longer to build.
What to learn from this story? That the right foods make a huge difference, and that producing better skin using the right foods doesn’t happen overnight. You have to keep at it. So herbs alone won’t mend your skin! They supply the knowhow your body needs, but it still depends on the right nutrition to work.
As mentioned above, the right nutrition also means avoiding the wrong foods, which are harmful to your skin.
Therapeutic touch has great qualities and applying it in scientific ways has helped people enjoy health for thousands of years. You should try it!
The patches may lie along acupuncture channels that are under or over functioning – usually under-functioning. Plotting them out may indicate which channel(s) is(are) the problem. Knowing that, an acupuncturist may be able to re-balance that channel(s). Even then, remember that it takes a few days for your body to correct itself, just as bruises last a few days as your body repairs the underlying tissues.
Too much yang and not enough yin. Either the effect of too much sun or dry or windy air, or your body may have got into the habit of reacting to circumstances and foods with inflammation: a kind of over-reaction. This may become an allergic reaction or it may just be over-sensitivity, which often acupuncture can calm.
Meantime, reduce the input of yang influences (the sun, heat, hot foods, many drugs, including coffee, stress, cigarettes) and increase yin factors (rest, quiet, sleep, relaxation, moisturising fluids, and time).
Eczema is the ‘old’ name for what we now call Dermatitis.
Dermatitis (ie eczema) takes many forms.
If chronic, it often began in childhood, even as a baby, when there may have been a vesicular rash, with a kind of wet or damp ‘leakage’ on hands and face. In due course, by the age of two, this moves to the elbow and knee creases which become red (erythema) and itchy, worse when hot. Scratching excoriates it and the skin may thicken.
When older the hands are often worse though it can cover the whole body. Heat and stress make the symptoms worse.
Usually with dermatitis there is a red or pale-red papular rash, vesicles, leakage (called an ‘exudate’) or weeping of the skin, and itching. Where affected, the skin may get thick, partly from repeated scratching.
Two thousand or more years ago, the Chinese doctors noticed that with eczema there was often a leakage or weeping of the skin, which they diagnosed as a form of Damp-Heat. The more Heat there was in the Damp-Heat, the faster the pulse.
Damp in your body acts like a thick mist, stopping things moving around. Often with Damp you feel thirsty but aren’t interested in drinking fluids.
Eczema, its causes and how to diagnose and treat it in Chinese medicine are a big subject, not the subject of this page. On that page on Damp-Heat you’ll much more about this condition which produces all sorts of symptoms, not just of dermatitis.
If you have Damp-Heat, check that page for which foods to avoid.
See previous answer for more. However, that your skin is flaking suggests it is old skin, peeling off to make space for younger, hopefully healthier skin growing up underneath to replace it.
But if it continues flaking, then your body is reacting with yang too strongly. This may be because of stress, hot foods, too many spices, tobacco, other drugs or heat from outside, like from the sun, or because you don’t eat enough yin-moisturising foods to nourish your skin.
Sometimes your body gets into a bad habit from which it cannot extricate itself, and then needs external treatment to help.
That might be anything from counselling to anger-management, but don’t overlook acupuncture and herbs, which Chinese medicine has used for thousands of years to good effect.
Rather like previous answers above, your body lacks internal moisture and may have got out of the good habits which help it maintain balance between yin and yang energies.
Probably, to start with, you need some good treatment to help your body restore better habits. Acupuncture is really good here.
Then you need to reduce yang factors – stress, anger, spicy or heating foods, too much sun, coffee, dry air (see article above) – and increase yin factors, such as quiet, rest, healthy exercise that helps your body stabilise itself and burn off heat and toxins beneficially, sleep and different moisturising creams, and don’t forget more fluids to drink.
Then you need time for your body to mend itself: it probably didn’t get like this overnight and it won’t get better overnight.
What, you ask, if only application of steroid creams can calm your skin?
Same answer, I’m afraid, but the treatment you need must go on for longer to restore good house-keeping in your body, with eating the right foods as well, of course.
For more, see above article, but cutting out the wrong foods and eating more of the right foods is where to begin.
The wrong foods supply no yin moisturising nourishing fluids and oils. Often the wrong foods are yang, which heat and supply just quick energy. These include pasta, many breakfast-type cereals, pizza, dried or dry foods, spicy foods and drugs that stimulate you – like caffeine.
Often these foods contain not much moisture: even though you drink fluids with them Chinese medicine suggests the moisture is absorbed better when it is actually in the food, not added on top when eating.
See our recipe for Clogstoun Congee.
Also avoid chips and deep-fried food, and roasted meat, including in the form of burgers. These foods have a heating effect on you. You’ll see a much more complete list here.
Then you need to increase yin-type nourishing moisturising foods like green vegetables, olive oil, salads (lettuce, tomato, radish, cucumber) and oils both saturated and unsaturated, and to reduce oils that contain high quantities of omega 6 and 9, which your body uses when it needs to react to something with inflammation.
Check our page on hot foods, most of which you should reduce or avoid. Then read our pages on Blood Building foods and Cold Foods – but don’t eat Cold foods cold! Warm or cook them first, then eat them when still warm.
This doesn’t mean that all the foods listed on those last two pages will be right for you, because your body needs the attention your mind is designed to give it, to study all this and take informed decisions. Or go and see an experienced acupuncturist who can help guide you.
This is usually because of poor circulation, insufficient yang energy from tiredness, not able to push nourishing blood round your extremities. When your leg skin lacks nourishment, like a tired, hungry child it easily becomes stroppy and restless. The equivalent for your legs is itchiness.
A frequent cause is Blood stasis, described in the page above.
So itchy legs in winter at night are mostly caused by yin deficiency arising from yang deficiency and blood not moving fast enough. You need to eat the right foods, but make sure they are warm foods, and that you give yourself time to digest them before bed. Then, take enough exercise during the preceding day to generate warmth and movement of your blood round the system. Avoid cold foods. Eat more oily fish, lightly cooked. Go to bed earlier and sleep well, long and deep. Keep doing this for a week and, for most people, itchy leg skin will improve.
Of course, too much hot spicy food can make it worse, because they are too yang. So on that page on Hot foods, avoid the spicy foods.
And drinking too little warm fluid, or drinking too much cold fluid, upsets your system, inclining it towards being too yin meaning you get signs of yin excess. (YES! You can have both yin deficiency (such as dry skin) and yin excess (oedema and chilliness) at the same time!
You’ll need to monitor what helps and what worsens your condition.
First, avoid the wrong foods – really important. See above, for lots about this.
Second, eat the right foods. See above.
That means FOOD is your best moisturiser.
You may need treatment to accustom your body and digestion to better foods.
Only thirdly, and way down the list, come creams and lotions. Lotions and creams are temporary solutions, and just so last-year!
What should they contain, even if ‘last-year’?
Let’s assume you don’t have signs of heat and inflammation – because if you do, that takes us down another pathway and it all gets too complicated and long for this page.
So you just get skin dryness? And you’ve looked after the right nutrition? Because if you haven’t, whatever creams and lotions you apply won’t work for long, and you’ll have to keep buying them – expensive!
Let’s look at moisturising herbs and substances that might help. Of course, herbalists may mix and adapt them for your particular condition but – yes! I understand! – you want to know how to do it yourself!
Both of the following herbs are warming so work better if you tend to feel cold. If you tend to be too hot, they may make things worse. (By the way, Sulphur powder – liu huang – is often used directly on the skin but is very heating and can be highly suppressive, which you don’t want, no matter how effective in the short term! Read up Suppression to understand why.)
Powder made from turmeric – rhizome curcumae longae – jiang huang. For more on this, read our page on how to take turmeric. Usually the powder would be mixed with something to bind and keep it in place, like honey or beeswax, sesame oil or salad oil.
But really, I suggest you don’t waste time and money doing it yourself!
It’s cheaper and more economical in the long run to get someone else to use their knowledge to put together the herbal preparation that suits you.
Dry Skin – how to understand it with yin and yang. It takes healthy Blood to make healthy skin, and a way to get that healthy blood where it’s needed!