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Turmeric is a long-loved botanical ingredient that has been popular in Asian recipes for centuries, touting benefits that go far beyond flavor and nutrition. This antioxidant-rich and antibacterial spice claims to reverse UV damage, clear up acne and do much more for your skin, and brands like Sunday Riley and Clarins are putting turmeric in their products to help consumers reap the benefits of this ancient ingredient.
But does it really work as a topical treatment? And what are the actual benefits? We spoke to dermatologists to get to the root of beauty’s current obsession with this ancient spice, and find out if there’s any scientific evidence that taking turmeric topically or by ingestion can actually heal your skin care woes.
How does turmeric claim to improve your skin?
In Eastern medicine, turmeric is known for its antimicrobial and antioxidant-rich healing properties, both of which can be extremely beneficial when dealing with many common skin care problems.
Azadeh Shirazi, a board-certified dermatologist in La Jolla, California, who specializes in cosmetic dermatology, told HuffPost that turmeric has been known for its medicinal uses for centuries, specifically because it contains the active compound curcumin.
“Curcumin is grabbing attention in the medical community because we’re identifying some novel low-cost, effective ways of using it to treat inflammatory skin conditions.”
Tanya Kormeili, a board-certified dermatologist in Santa Monica, California, said that “because curcumin is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components, it has been shown to be helpful in treating a variety of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, as well as vitiligo. It has been used as a brightening agent for skin discoloration, as well.”
According to Calvin Williams, a board-certified dermatologist in Bedford, Texas, the healing properties extend to wound healing, including severe acne, hypertrophic scarring (thick, raised scars following skin trauma, burns or surgical incisions), and proinflammatory conditions like rosacea.
Of all the claims about the beauty benefits of turmeric, Williams said that perhaps the most exciting beauty benefit is “turmeric’s potential ability to help keep our skin appearing younger,” pointing to a 2014 in vitro study that demonstrated turmeric’s abilities to reduce the expression matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) and reactive oxygen species, both of which play a huge role in how we lose our youthful appearance.
Are these claims backed by science?
Williams cited a 2009 study conducted on hairless mice which demonstrated that turmeric extract helped to prevent wrinkles, discoloration and loss of elasticity in skin, all changes typically seen in chronic UVB-exposure; and a 2014 study by the Wound Healing Society which found that curcumin significantly reduced hypertrophic scarring in rabbit ear wounds. It’s important to note that studies done on animals don’t always translate to being effective on humans, but he thinks the study shows promise.
Kormeili pointed to a 2019 study on the effects of turmeric on skin health, which examined conditions such as acne, alopecia, atopic dermatitis (eczema), psoriasis and vitiligo, and found early evidence that turmeric/curcumin may provide therapeutic benefits for skin health when ingested or taken by topical application.
Even though studies offer support to these claims, dermatologists are a bit skeptical due to their limitations.
“Turmeric is known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, so it makes sense that it would be useful in skin care concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation and anti-aging,” said Maryann Mikahil, a board-certified dermatologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “However, to truly be backed by science, there needs to be a certain type of study done ― a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.”
“As exciting as these findings are, it is important to note that these studies have mostly been performed in laboratory settings with animal models, and human studies are severely lacking,” Williams added. He believes the findings from these studies “demonstrate the need for more conclusive research.”
Here’s how to use turmeric in skin care.
The experts say that turmeric as a skin care agent is equally effective when taken topically or ingested, and regardless of which method you choose, you’ll have several options.
Kormeili is a fan of both topical application and ingestion. “I used to compound it in skin care products,” she said, adding, “I often recommend it in food and as a supplement to my patients. For a tasty treat you can cook it into your favorite recipes including smoothies, soups, golden milk ice cream, lattes and curry dishes.”
For an at-home treatment, Shirazi suggested making a DIY beauty mask by combining turmeric with yogurt and distilled white vinegar.
As much as she loves a homemade mask, Shirazi says to be careful of how easily turmeric tends to stain. If you’re worried about the pigment lingering on your face or hands, Shirazi suggests trying Kasturi turmeric, which doesn’t stain, and blending it with flour and milk to make an exfoliating mask.
Of course, if whipping up recipes isn’t for you, thankfully some brands have already done the work.
Shirazi likes Sunday Riley’s C.E.O. Glow Vitamin C + Turmeric Face Oil, an instantly absorbing face oil that brightens, hydrates and leaves skin glowing. She’s also a fan of the antioxidant-rich Verso Antioxidant Turmeric Booster face serum, which has a turmeric base.