Understanding Breakouts from a Chinese Medicine Perspective

Ah, pimples. Those dreaded spots that arise once adolescence hits and seem to follow us throughout our 20’s, 30’s and even late 40’s. Much has been written, researched and theorized regarding the cause behind their development – hormonal changes, genetics, poor food choices, lack of hygiene, stress, etc.

Of the above causative factors, hormones, stress and diet are predominantly involved in acne development. What we know for sure is that all acne and skin breakouts have a systemic inflammatory process behind them. There is also a link between the inflammation involved in the formation of breakouts and sugar intake. Research now supports the link between the two, making it clear: hormonal imbalances caused by our diet trigger acne. When consuming inflammatory sugar in the diet, insulin (a hormone that is released by the pancreas to maintain glucose equilibrium within our body) is disturbed. This in turn interferes with sex hormones such as testosterone and androgen, as well as pro-inflammatory sequences in the body, all of which are involved in the formation of acne.

(Learn more about how to treat or reduce breakout naturally: 7 Acne Treatments from a Naturopath Who Gets the Occasional Breakout.)

Your skin’s appearance indicates quiet a lot about your internal health condition. In Chinese Medicine, we practitioners gain much insight by examining the shape of our patient’s face, the colour of their complexion and where lines, marks, lesions and breakouts are located.

Chinese Medicine views the skin as an extension of the lungs. The lungs provide nourishment to the skin and hair via its function of dispersing Qi (our vital energy) and spreading fluids to the skin. Lungs also regulate the opening and closing of the pores and sweating. Examples of the connection between skin and our vital organs are as follows, based on where you are getting breakouts:

Upper Forehead

The forehead corresponds to the lungs in Chinese Medicine. Heat of the lungs manifesting as breakouts on the forehead can be caused by one’s emotional state, the emotions of sadness & grief in particular. Heat in the lungs is also caused by smoking or/and a respiratory issue. If breakouts are occurring into the hairline (lets say above the brows), Acupuncturists look at the Gall Bladder, which is related and paired with the liver (more on the liver below).


The Kidneys manifest in the ears in TCM. When kidney health isn’t optional, you may get large, painful pimples in and around the ears. Be sure to drink lots of water (1.5 to 2 litres) to flush out impurities and also be mindful not to consume too much sodium i.e. salt. Other bad habits which impact on the kidneys include:
– Not emptying out the bladder when required
– Consuming too much alcohol and coffee which cause internal heat and most importantly dehydration
– Not allowing enough rest time, especially too many late nights, impacts kidney health.

Eyes, Orbital Bone, Between Brows

This area relates predominately to the liver. Oiliness, redness, flakiness and breakouts between the eyebrows can indicate that your liver is in need of some TLC. Eliminating fried, greasy foods and decreasing dairy (or eliminating it altogether) is very useful. Obviously, the elimination (or at minimum, cutting back) of Alcohol consumption is very important, as it has such an impact on Liver health. Look at consuming lots of greens, in particular bitter greens, and drinking dandelion tea or taking milk thistle tablets, as both are great at supporting the detoxification role of the liver. Drinking warm water and lemon first thing in the morning is also helpful for this organ. The emotion related to the Liver is anger and one may find that after an emotional period, be it involving anger, irritation or frustration, skin breakouts occur. In this case its important to take some time out and go for a walk, run, or do a yoga class which focuses on relaxation of the heart and soul.

Upper Cheeks

This area corresponds to the stomach, as the stomach meridian runs through here in Chinese Medicine. Obviously, diet plays a huge role here. Consuming heating foods in excess (such as chili), too much animal protein (meat), alcohol, coffee, and greasy or oily foods all cause heat within the stomach. Therefore, being mindful of the amount of these foods you are eating is important. Overeating and not metabolising food well are also causal factors here, as this can lead to damp formation. Lower portion of the cheeks also relates to lung health. 

Jaw Line

Once again, here we look at stomach issues as well as teeth or gum issues. 


Skin issues in this area often are a reflection of hormonal imbalances, particularly in the case of women. This can be due to menstruation, birth control and in some cases, allergies or intolerance to soy, which have been shown to have an impact on hormones. Emotional or physical stress can cause hormonal imbalances, which manifest on the skin – Chinese Medicine focus on emotions strongly. Get plenty of sleep and make a habit of doing a relaxing form of exercise, which really focuses on the mind-body connection. Also it’s important to look at elimination here, as the center of the chin is related to the small intestine and large intestine. If we are not eliminating every day, wastes build up in our body and eventually start to show in our face as it breakouts, puffiness and edema.

In summary, Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture theory views skin breakouts and the development of acne as related to the lungs, stomach, intestines (heat, damp, stasis) and blood conditions specifically of heat and stasis. Following a consultation, which involves discussion of symptoms and signs, observation, tongue diagnosis and diet assessment, a diagnosis can be reached, and a resultant combination of Acupuncture, herbs, vitamins and diet recommendations are carried out. The course of treatment depends on whether the condition is acute or chronic (long standing).



About the Author:

Sabrina D’Andrea is a registered Acupuncturist practicing for 11 years, a recent graduate of IIN – Certified Health Coach and a passionate Skin Therapist for over 17 years. She runs her own practice in Melbourne Australia (Wellness Philosophy Acupuncture & Skin Clinic) where her focus is to treat her patients and clients holistically allowing them to achieve their best health and wellness. She is very passionate about nourishing herself with nutritious foods as she believes in food is her first point of medicine and enjoys baking healthy delicious treats! She is extremely passionate about educating people on health and wellbeing through her blog.

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