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4 Ways Milk Thistle Can Help Treat Acne Breakouts

Milk thistle has long been used throughout history for various ailments, and due to its potent anti-inflammatory properties, it’s now being studied for its potential in treating inflammatory skin conditions such as acne.

Now, we all know that acne is a skin condition that can be triggered by many factors, one of which is a prolonged state of inflammation in the body.

However, can herbal medicines like milk thistle improve long-term damage and yield satisfactory results when treating this persistent inflammatory condition?

In this article, we will examine milk thistle as a potential acne remedy, what are some ways milk thistle can help soothe acne breakouts, and what the science says as of right now.

Let’s begin by listing four ways in which milk thistle can soothe active inflammation and reduce the severity of acne:

1. Milk Thistle is Anti-Inflammatory

Milk thistle, scientifically known as Silybum marianum, is a plant native to Mediterranean countries that has historically been used in traditional medicine thanks to its potent anti-inflammatory properties.

The plant contains an active compound known as silymarin, a complex mixture of flavonolignans, which are phenols that inhibit arachidonic acid metabolism in the body, resulting in the reduced formation of pro-inflammatory mediators.

Notably, silymarin has been observed to inhibit the activation of NF-kB, a protein complex that plays a key role in regulating the immune system’s response to inflammation.

In fact, silymarin is such a potent inhibitor of pro-inflammatory proteins that it has been shown to suppress lung cancer growth in mice, a study shows.

Additionally, silymarin also suppresses cytokines, which are small proteins that signal the cells to produce inflammatory components that help our body fight against pathogens.

By suppressing these cytokines, silymarin can help reduce the body’s aggressive reaction to pathogens and help soothe symptoms of inflammation, such as swelling and pain.

The potential to soothe inflammation may make silymarin an effective component in soothing inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, which is why it’s becoming a popular ingredient in high-end skincare products for acne.

2. Milk Thistle Contains Antioxidants

Milk thistle is packed with antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals (harmful molecules with missing electrons) by donating electrons to them.

This action will reduce the oxidative stress free radicals cause in the body, thus soothing symptoms of inflammation and improving irregular cell function.

A few potent antioxidants found in milk thistle include:

  • Silybin – the most active component of milk thistle’s active component silymarin, silybin exhibits potent liver-protecting properties by stabilizing membrane permeability and preventing harmful substances from entering the liver cells and causing damage.
  • Silydianin – besides being known for its antioxidant and liver-protecting properties, silydianin has also been suggested to have anti-cancer potential; however, more studies are needed to confirm these observations.
  • Silychristin – similarly to the other antioxidant components, silychristin has also been observed to have anti-inflammatory and liver-protecting properties and exhibit anti-viral activities, particularly against the hepatitis C virus.

By reducing oxidative stress and soothing inflammation in the body, these antioxidant components may help improve the severity of acne.

3. Milk Thistle Helps Regulate Blood Sugar

Milk thistle’s ability to improve inflammatory skin conditions such as acne may lie in regulating blood sugar.

This is because spikes in blood sugar cause an increase in insulin production, which is needed to regulate the spikes in blood sugar.

However, excess insulin production will trigger the increase in another, similar hormone known as insulin growth factor or IGF-1, which can have a direct effect on the severity of acne due to its ability to cause inflammation in the body and stimulate androgens, the hormones that signal the oil-producing glands to produce more oil.

When increased activity occurs, the overproduction of oil will cause some of the excess to get stuck inside the pores, attracting bacteria and other forms of cellular debris and forming a swollen, red pimple.

However, milk thistle has been noted to regulate blood sugar by containing a substance that can activate a specific receptor in the body, known as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma or PPARγ.

This receptor is the same one targeted by certain medications used to treat type 2 diabetes, which work by making the body more sensitive to insulin and helping lower blood sugar levels.

This may make milk thistle effective in lowering the severity of inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne; however, more studies are needed to confirm this potential effect.

4. Milk Thistle Helps With Liver Detoxification

The liver plays a crucial role in detoxification, a process where harmful substances are broken down and removed from the body.

One of the liver’s functions is to break down excess hormones, including androgens, which are the male hormones that can become imbalanced or elevated by various factors, including inflammatory diet, conditions such as PCOS, and a poorly functioning adrenal gland, which is responsible for producing these hormones.

High levels of androgens are directly linked with conditions such as acne because they directly stimulate the oil-producing glands into producing more oil than our skin needs.

This oil will then get stuck inside the pores and stiffen, creating a plug that will attract bacteria to feed on it and the cellular debris that attaches to it, resulting in an inflammatory reaction and symptoms such as red, swollen pimples on the surface.

Therefore, if the liver isn’t functioning optimally, it may not effectively break down and eliminate the excess androgens, potentially contributing to acne.

Furthermore, the liver also helps regulate blood sugar levels by storing and releasing glucose as needed. As we already mentioned, imbalances in blood sugar can lead to increased insulin and IGF-1 hormone production, which can further exacerbate acne.

Finally, a poorly functioning liver might also have difficulty clearing various toxins that, when not eliminated, can continue causing inflammation through oxidative stress and further contribute to or exacerbate acne.

Therefore, it’s safe to say that an optimally functioning liver is crucial in treating acne.

So, here’s how milk thistle can help boost liver function and improve the health of this organ:

  • Liver Regeneration – the main active component in milk thistle, silymarin, has been found to help regenerate the liver by blocking toxins from entering and causing harm through oxidation and inflammation.
  • Protein Synthesis – milk thistle is packed with antioxidants that help promote protein synthesis in the liver and help speed up the growth of new liver cells.
  • Reducing Elevated Liver Enzymesmilk thistle has been shown to reduce elevated liver enzymes, which are a common sign of inflammation and liver damage. This can be especially useful for heavy drinkers suffering liver damage from overconsumption of alcohol for prolonged periods.
  • Stabilizing Liver Cell Membranes – silymarin, the active component in milk thistle, has also been found to stabilize liver cell membranes, which strengthens the liver and improves its function in protecting itself against toxic overload.

Should Milk Thistle be Used As an Acne Treatment?

Due to its active components that reduce inflammation and promote antioxidant activity in the body, milk thistle could potentially reduce the severity of inflammatory skin conditions such as acne.

However, acne is a condition that is caused by multiple factors, including inflammatory diet, hormonal imbalance, health conditions, environmental factors, and the use of unsuitable cosmetic products.

Therefore, to get rid of acne, you will likely have to target multiple possible causes and triggers, which can take time, patience, dedication, and experimenting with cutting out potential triggers while introducing new habits into your daily life.

This is why simply taking milk thistle will not be nearly as effective in targeting acne as doing a thorough audit of your diet, incorporating a suitable skincare regimen for your skin needs and concerns, and cutting out harmful lifestyle habits, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, would be.

Additionally, while many popular acne supplements contain milk thistle seed extracts, this component is usually not a primary ingredient in the blend, and you may not be receiving nearly enough to help soothe the severe inflammation that has led to acne formation.

Should Milk Thistle be Taken Orally or Topically?

Milk thistle is usually taken orally, through supplements and teas; however, some studies are coming out that show it can be effective in soothing superficial redness and the severity of acne when applied topically.

A study involving 22 acne patients who used 0.5% silymarin serum, the main active component of milk thistle, showed that the severity of their acne improved after four weeks.

However, the study also mentions that the participants continued to use their prescribed acne medication along with the silymarin serum, so we can’t tell whether the serum alone made a huge difference in the result.

In any case, silymarin is definitely an ingredient that will continue to be explored for its potential benefits in reducing the severity of acne, and since we are already seeing interest in the component being used in skincare products, we will likely have more information on its effect in the future.

What is Milk Thistle?

Milk thistle, scientifically known as Silybum marianum, is a flowering herb native to Mediterranean countries and related to the daisy and ragweed family.

It is recognized by its purple-to-pink flowers and glossy green leaves with white veins.

Used in traditional medicine for over 2,000 years, dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who recognized its benefits for various ailments, particularly liver, kidney, and gall bladder problems, milk thistle is one of nature’s best-documented remedies.

Today, milk thistle has been observed for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and hepatoprotective benefits, which mitigate injuries to the liver caused by hepatotoxic agents.

What Are Potential Side Effects of Using Milk Thistle?

While generally considered safe, milk thistle can potentially cause some side effects, including gastrointestinal issues, diarrhea, bloating, and stomach pain.

Additionally, allergic reactions are also possible from ingesting milk thistle.

While it is unclear what exactly causes the allergic reaction, it has been noted that those who are allergic to other plants in the same family, such as daisies, chrysanthemums, ragweed, etc., are more likely to experience an allergic reaction to milk thistle due to the shared proteins some of these plants contain.

Finally, as an herbal remedy, milk thistle can potentially interfere with medications and their efficacy, so if you are currently taking any medications, especially liver, allergy, and high cholesterol medications, it’s best to avoid experimenting with this plant or consult with your doctor before you do.

What Is The Best Way to Treat Acne Breakouts?

The best way to treat acne is to start by changing your diet and including more anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods in your daily menu while cutting out known acne triggers, such as dairy, sugar, and processed foods that cause inflammation in the body.

Following a low-inflammation diet can help reduce the body’s overall inflammation levels, which in turn can decrease acne breakouts.

You also want to make sure the cosmetics you use only contain non-comedogenic skincare products.

A complete skincare routine should consist of a gentle cleanser, an active ingredient such as exfoliating acids or retinoids that will work to reduce the severity of acne, a moisturizer to strengthen your skin barrier, and sunscreen to protect your skin from environmental aggressors such as UV rays that can cause cell damage.

Additionally, environmental factors, such as air pollution, temperature, humidity, and sun exposure, can all cause oxidative stress to your skin, so being mindful of these can help you target the root cause of your acne.

These combined strategies can significantly reduce the occurrence of acne and improve skin health.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Much Milk Thistle Should You Be Taking for Acne?

Most people take 200mg of milk thistle in the morning and night, but age, height, weight, and genetics could alter the optimal dose. Never take more of a supplement than what is recommended in the bottle.

Does Milk Thistle Alter Hormone Levels?

Milk thistle helps the liver metabolize hormones in the body, so if you have liver issues, milk thistle could alter hormone levels as a secondary effect. There are also a few small studies that claim milk thistle is estrogenic, but more research is needed before anything can be stated as a fact.

Is It Possible to Be Allergic to Milk Thistle?

Although rare (less than 1% of the population), some people can be allergic to milk thistle. Common allergic reactions include itchy skin, hives, and swelling of the face. If you are considering taking milk thistle, it may make sense to take an allergy test before you begin supplementation.

is Milk Thistle Safe to Take During Pregnancy?

Milk thistle should be avoided during pregnancy due to its ability to potentially alter hormone levels.

Is It Possible to Overdose on Milk Thistle?

Yes, it is possible to overdose on milk thistle, along with pretty much anything else you ingest. If you begin supplementing with milk thistle, never take more than the recommended dosage on the bottle.

Originally Published: August 31, 2023

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Analyzed by Simone Sydel

Hi, I’m Simone Sydel, a licensed esthetician and acne expert dedicated to helping others solve their skin issues including acne, eczema, and UV damage. I specialize in testing and reviewing the latest acne treatments and beauty products, offering honest, practical advice for skincare. I’ve helped hundreds of clients clear their skin and my skincare product reviews have been read by several hundred thousand people. Thanks for visiting!

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