Written by Meghan Rhodes MCPP MAPA
What's the closest your body can come to writing you a letter you can read in black and white in order to send you a message about what's out of balance and what needs support? Your skin.
Itchiness, eczema, breakouts, rashes, visible blood vessels, redness, sallowness, boils, the lot. Each and every one of these 'conditions' or 'symptoms' is a loud, unignorable message from your body shouting - Can you hear me? Need a bit of help in here!
Did you know your skin is one of the exits through which toxins can leave your body?
That's right! We tend to think of natural waste products from our body's usual processes and other toxins leaving the body through the urinary tract or bowels, but the skin is one of the other primary pathways of elimination - where the internal world of your body meets the external world.
You know that bit at the beginning of a flight where the crew point out the exits? They're usually at the rear, over the wings and at the front. Now imagine you've landed safely at your destination, but the rear and over wing exits are blocked. For whatever reason, those doors just won't open. Everyone will have to exit out the front.
It's a similar scenario in your body. If one or two exits are blocked (think constipation or pain and difficulty urinating), that which your body does not want lingering inside it must come out somewhere - which means it may just exit via the skin.
Does your skin go dry or rashy or spotty when you've eaten something you know (or perhaps don't yet realise) doesn't suit you (e.g. dairy, gluten, sugar)? Do you find painful, cystic acne crops up alongside a sluggish, heavy, uncomfortable menstrual cycle (another exit point of the body)? This is your body trying to tell you the exits are blocked.
The approach and herbs will depend on which exits are blocked and why (e.g. you may also need to make some changes to your diet or you may want to have a scan to check for cysts or fibroids), but as a general starting point, bitter herbs like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock (Arctium lappa) (*the real herbs, not the sugary fizzy drink) will help pull the toxins back into the bloodstream, guide them towards the liver for processing, and then direct them smoothly and calmly towards the now unblocked exits with their diuretic and laxative properties.
As a basic guiding principle, if your skin isn't looking its best, check in with your bowels. They'll likely be somewhere between slightly sluggish and rather bunged up, so look at what foods might be blocking the exits so you can remove them, swapping them for food based fibres (think green leafy veg) and plenty of hydration with filtered water. Then add in those gentle laxative and diuretic herbs for additional support.
Don't forget the skin is the largest organ of them all.
Not only is it the largest organ, it absorbs whatever we put on it directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the digestive tract. This is why well-loved American herbalist Rosemary Gladstar says, 'Don't put anything on your skin you wouldn't eat' - anything going on your skin starts circulating round the body faster than anything you put in your mouth.
This makes it even more imperative to eliminate chemicals from your toiletries, your clothes, your household cleaners, your self care rituals and so on. Not only can they be powerful surface irritants, making your skin itch and go red on contact (and very quick and clear message from your body it's not happy with what you've just put on it), but they are also potent body system irritants. Their effect on the myriad of delicate balances within the body depends on the compound, but many of them are endocrine disruptors. This means they interfere with the balance of hormones in your body, their ability to perform their vital functions and how they're able to send further messages around the body. One of the most common ways this hits the headlines (as it hits bodies) is their negative impact on women's reproductive systems. From early puberty and menarche to fertility challenges to intensely uncomfortable journeys through the menopause, endocrine disruptors do nothing positive for our bodies. That fruity shampoo, those seemingly luxurious creams, that purportedly 'fresh linen' laundry smell - none of them are worth it when it comes to such serious and wide reaching impacts on your lifelong health.
Personally, I grew up thinking I had 'sensitive skin'. I would react to anything fragranced, anything that seemed to be 'normal' or 'nice' or 'pretty' or 'popular' that plenty of other people around me seemed to be fine with. I remember going to a birthday party as a little girl where we all got pedicures and then had a sleepover at the birthday girl's house. I was in excruciating pain itching all night with bright red bumps up to my knees because the finishing touch of the treatment was being massaged with some sort of lotion from feet to knees - definitely not the relaxing effect that was intended!
But as I developed my understanding of toxins, of chemicals, of natural health, of herbs and how the body works, I realised what I actually had was skin that was clear and confident in its communication with me about what was absolutely not supporting my body or my health. My body was unequivocal with me - Get rid of that stuff!
Now, I'm incredibly grateful my skin is so upfront and honest with me. It's saved me from a decade of putting chemicals on my body and has never steered me wrong. So if you, too, have 'sensitive skin', perhaps it's time to reframe the way you think about the messages its sending you and start acting on them.
If you're feeling uncomfortable in your skin for topical reasons, then the first step is of course to figure out and stop using whatever is irritating it. To soothe these kinds of rashes and irritations topically after exposure, chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a brilliant, yet gentle soother, suitable for all ages, as is - of all things - nettle (Urtica dioica). Make them as a strong tea, then soak a clean cloth in the tea and gently place it on the skin for at least 15 minutes. You can also add a strong tea of these herbs to your bath water if you need a full body soak, or slow infuse them in oil using Kami McBride's method and massage into the irritated skin. (N.B. This is the method I use in my practice and personally, which is why I am an affiliate for her brilliant online course. Herb infused oils form the foundation of the majority of my homemade toiletries for myself and my family, as well as any healing balms I make for us.)
Thank the messenger!
The longer you ignore your body's messages, the louder it will have to shout. When it comes to your skin, this can get very uncomfortable, as well as erode the structure and appearance of the skin over time. So when your body writes you a letter on your skin, thank it and reply as swiftly and thoroughly as you can.
If you want to be able to respond in a supportive and constructive way with herbal remedies, but don't have the time to make them yourself, take a moment to learn more about The Members' Apothecary, where I've formulated and curated a wide range of home herbal medicine cabinet go tos available to members, including herbal balms and slow infused oils I make from scratch in very small batches ready for skin soothing.
And if it's something more complex you can't seem to get on top of on your own, get in touch to work with me 1:1 to get support with your skin health.
Remember, our body gives us messages of what it needs support with on our skin - listen and resolve them at their root.