(Originally published for The Dragontree)

In light of the risks of suppressing skin problems, which I discussed in Skin: The Final Frontier, I present to you some healthy alternatives to steroid creams and topical antibiotics.

  1. Baking Soda: Baking soda is one of the cheapest and easiest things to try for itchy skin. I’ve prescribed it many times to people with hives and bug bites and it almost always helps in a big way. For overall itchiness, you can pour an entire box of baking soda into your bath (best to add to hot water and then add cooler water after it’s dissolved) and hang out in it for a while. (It’s also a good idea to keep the bath a bit on the cool side.) For spot treatment, you can make a paste with baking soda and water. Baking soda is also nice in a home foot bath for sore and/or stinky feet.

Some people swear by baking soda as a treatment for acne, but the reviews are mixed. It can be highly drying, so if you use it, it’s recommended to keep the treatment brief – like 30 seconds of baking soda paste applied to pimples – and then wash off and apply an appropriate toner to restore your skin’s optimal pH.

  1. Lavender Essential Oil: Lavender is excellent for soothing a wide array of skin irritations. Research has shown that it calms allergic skin reactions; it reduces redness after an episiotomy; it promotes wound healing; it reduces pain; and it inhibits numerous bacteria and fungi that cause skin problems. One study suggested that regular use of lavender oil may protect against the damaging (aging) effects of sun exposure. I regularly recommend it for rashes, sunburn and other burns, insect bites and stings, pimples and boils, and wounds.

Although it can be applied undiluted to most people’s skin, there’s rarely a need to use it in such a concentrated way. I find that essential oils are often overused. Most of the studies on lavender oil have utilized it in concentrations ranging from 0.5% to 10%. You can dilute it in a bit of olive oil, coconut oil, water, or whatever else you wish.

  1. Calendula: Calendula is an orange flower in the marigold family. I used to love seeing it bloom throughout the winter in Portland. It is anti-inflammatory and promotes wound healing. One great thing about calendula is how gentle it is. I don’t hesitate to use it on babies with sore, raw, or itchy skin. It’s great for cuts, scrapes, chapping, skin ulcers, burns, bed sores, rashes, bruises, hemorrhoids, sometimes acne, and it may even help with varicose veins. Depending on your preference, you can get calendula in an oil base (such as olive oil), a cream, or a gel. For chapped and cracked skin, it’s best in a moisturizing base.
  2. Ching Wan Hung: This Chinese herbal ointment belongs in every home. It is the most excellent burn remedy I’ve ever found. I don’t see it becoming popular in hospitals because it looks and smells a bit weird for Westerners, but honestly, it should be. I have applied this stuff to first and second degree burns dozens of times and it always leads to a quick resolution of the damage. Of course, in second degree burns there is considerable damage, so I recommend getting medical care, but on the way, put some of this on it.

Ching Wan Hung also works well for about half the rashes I’ve prescribed it for, and it’s usually helpful for bug bites and stings, too. It smells strongly of sesame oil, so that part can take a bit of getting used to, but if you use it immediately after getting a burn, you’ll be sold. I’ve used it on all kinds of burns, from steam to fire, to chemicals, to sunburns, to radiation burns. I had a patient with severe skin damage from radiation treatments for breast cancer, and after applying this ointment for a couple months, the skin was completely back to normal.

This is the one item on this list that’s not widely available in stores, but it’s easy to find online, or we can order it for you at The Dragontree.

  1. Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar (ACV) has some very zealous supporters. I usually shy away from zealotry and fads, but in the case of ACV, much of the praise is well deserved. First, to be clear, I’m not talking about just any apple cider vinegar, but specifically Bragg ACV, which you can find in most grocery stores. Like the other items in this list, ACV is useful for many kinds of skin issues (and, internally, for some non-skin issues, too).

First, you can use diluted ACV on the skin for acne, or just as a good skin toner, acid exfoliant, and restorer of the skin’s optimal pH. Mix one part ACV with 2 to 3 parts water or tea (chamomile or rooibos teas are good), and apply to the face with a cotton ball. You don’t need to wash it off unless it causes irritation. I recommend for facial application that you start with a rather weak ACV solution and only work up to a less diluted mixture if your skin can handle it.

The same can be applied to eczema, yeast infections, fungal skin infections, and other rashes. Again, while there may be a little tingling, we don’t want burning. Vinegar is a strong acid and it can harm the skin if used too much or too concentrated.

Apple cider vinegar is also great for the hair and scalp. Most cases of dandruff will benefit or resolve completely with several applications of ACV. Mix 1 part ACV with 2 or 3 parts water. It’s best to put it in a squeeze bottle with a pointed tip so that it can be squirted directly onto the scalp. Leave it on for a few minutes, then rinse. It can be used in the same dilution as a hair rinse to remove the residue of hair care products.

At the more hardcore end of the spectrum, I know people who have used ACV undiluted to remove moles, warts, and skin tags. In these cases, we’re relying on its strength as an acid, and there is risk of collateral skin burns, so please proceed with caution and proper guidance in this arena.

Natural remedies aren’t always better or safer than the alternatives, but I believe the items on this list are pretty special. And I believe they can provide relief and/or promote healing without being suppressive. Give them a try and share your experience with us in the comments section. Have other home remedies for skin that you love? We want to hear about those, too!

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten