The explosive growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has led to a resurgence of interest in the use of natural remedies, many of which have a rich history of use by our ancestors.
Read on for six ways to treat a skin infection naturally using medicinal herbs, honey, essential oils, and probiotics. I’ve also included three recipes you can try at home to start feeling better.
The Emergence of Drug-Resistant Infections
More and more adults are struggling with skin infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. (1, 2, 3) And, perhaps because antibiotics are routinely prescribed by some pediatricians or because “antibacterial” soaps and other products are so widely used in homes and schools, this trend is also on the rise in children younger than 15 years of age. (4)
Drug-resistant skin infections pose a significant health risk at any age because they increase a person’s susceptibility to systemic infection. The growing problem of antibiotic resistance is causing many people to turn to natural substances for the treatment of skin infections.
Excitingly, an emerging body of research indicates that natural compounds, including botanical medicines, honey, and topical probiotics, have significant therapeutic value in the treatment of skin infections without the potential to cause antibiotic resistance. And these treatments don’t just work for MRSA. People with acne, ringworm, cutaneous Candida infections, and a host of other bacterial infections could also see positive results.
If you’re struggling with a skin infection—whether it’s acne, ringworm, or a bacterial infection—you can take your treatment into your own hands. Check out this article for six ways to treat it naturally, and get recipes for remedies you can make at home.
Six Ways You Can Treat a Skin Infection Naturally
While there are many natural compounds that have antimicrobial properties, a few stand out from the rest in their ability to combat antibiotic-resistant skin infections:
Cannabis has received no shortage of attention from the medical community in recent years. A growing body of research indicates that it has an incredibly wide variety of health applications, including the treatment of skin infections. Cannabinoids may be a powerful ally in neutralizing the difficult-to-treat MRSA superbug, which often affects the skin. (5)
Cannabinoids may also make the skin more resistant to infection in the first place by upregulating the endocannabinoid system, a network of molecules and receptors that influences immunity, among many other effects. (6)
Honey, a sweet, viscous food derived from the nectar of flowers and produced most commonly by the European honey bee Apis mellifera, is truly “liquid gold” in the treatment of skin infections.
Manuka honey, a special type of honey produced in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the native manuka bush, has a broad spectrum of action, unlike any other known natural antimicrobial. It inhibits pathogenic bacteria that colonize the skin and wounds, including MRSA and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. (10) The powerful antimicrobial effects of manuka honey are due primarily to the presence of methylglyoxal (MGO), a naturally occurring phytochemical found in the nectar of Leptospermum flowers that damages bacterial DNA, RNA, and proteins.
When selecting manuka honey for medicinal uses, you need to consider the UMF, a quality trademark and grading system that rates the strength of the honey. (UMF stands for “unique manuka factor” and is an official designation granted only to authentic manuka honey produced and jarred in New Zealand.) (11) UMF 10+ is the minimum strength honey recommended for medicinal use; it is best for less serious infections such as acne. For more stubborn infections, I recommend UMF 15+ or 20+.
Cryptolepis is a shrubby plant native to Africa that has traditionally been used to treat malaria. However, this plant also works as a broad-spectrum antimicrobial against pathogens implicated in skin infections, including MRSA, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Candida albicans. (12, 13)
Cryptolepis is best used as a salve. I recommend this salve from Woodland Essence.
Sida acuta is a species of flowering plant in the mallow family that grows around the world and is often considered to be an invasive species or weed. Despite its lowly reputation, Sida acuta is a powerful treatment for skin infections. According to herbalist and author Stephen Harrod Buhner, it is active against Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Candida skin infections. (14)
Essential oils are made by distilling the volatile oils from plants. They can be applied directly to the skin, either straight or diluted in a carrier oil (such as coconut or olive oil).
A wide variety of essential oils have antimicrobial properties that may neutralize skin pathogens, including:
- Juniper berry
- Tea tree
Essential oils are often combined to produce synergistic effects. (15) One oil, for example, may be an effective antiseptic, while another works as an anti-inflammatory. Your best bet may be using a premade blend of essential oils intended for topical use in skin conditions.
The health benefits of probiotics are not limited to the gut; they also have applications in the treatment of skin infections.
Lactobacilli have antimicrobial activity against skin pathogens and prevent the formation of biofilm (a stubborn surface build-up of bacteria that is difficult to eradicate) when applied topically. (16) Lactobacillus plantarum also inhibits Pseudomonas aeruginosa colonization on the skin and enhances tissue repair in burn wounds. (17)
While a variety of probiotic-containing skincare products are emerging on the market, I am unaware of any that are explicitly intended for treating skin infections. However, one product line that may be worth a shot is Mother Dirt. The ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) in Mother Dirt skin care products replace essential bacteria lost by modern hygiene and lifestyles and may fortify the skin’s natural defenses against infection.
Why Natural Skin Infection Treatments Make Sense
Antibiotics have long reigned supreme in the field of dermatology, forming the cornerstone of treatment for skin infections. The practice of using one type of therapy to treat a disease, such as an antibiotic for a skin infection, is referred to as “monotherapy.”
Pathogens that successfully evade the impact of antibiotics pass their antibiotic resistance genes down to subsequent generations. Considering that some bacteria can go through a single generation in as little as 20 minutes, it is no surprise that antibiotic resistance has skyrocketed in our modern-day society!
Using natural compounds to treat a skin infection is an effective way to avoid the pitfalls of antibiotic monotherapy. In contrast to antibiotics, which contain a single active antimicrobial compound, botanical medicines and other natural substances contain many active compounds all in one package. The presence of multiple antimicrobial compounds makes it difficult for pathogens to adapt and evade the effects of the intervention, which reduces the risk of antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, in traditional herbal medicine, several plants are often administered together to treat infections. The synergistic effects produced by a combination of botanicals enhance the antimicrobial effects of the intervention and further reduce the risk of bacterial resistance. Using a natural remedy to treat your skin infection allows you to take a Functional Medicine approach to the problem—by addressing the root cause—without contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Ready to Try It Yourself? Here Are Three Recipes to Get You Started
You don’t need to spend a lot of money to treat a skin infection naturally. In fact, you can make an herbal antibacterial wash, wound powder, and herbal oil for skin infections right in your kitchen. The recipes featured below are courtesy of Stephen Harrod Buhner’s excellent book Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria.
If you’ve never made your own herbal oil before, don’t worry. These recipes are easy to follow, and you can find supplies at a number of online retailers. Look for a vendor that sells organic herbs.
General Antibacterial Wash
- 2 ounces antibacterial herbs such as Artemisia absinthium, Cryptolepis, or Sida acuta
- 2 ounces echinacea (if you’re using Echinacea angustifolia, use the root; if it’s Echinacea purpurea, use the flowers or seeds)
- 2 ounces dried evergreen needles (any species)
- 1 quart water, either filtered or distilled
Combine the herbs with water. Cover, bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Let cool and strain. Rinse the affected skin liberally with the decoction four times daily.
- 1 ounce Berberis root or bark
- 1 ounce Cryptolepis root or Sida acuta, Bidens, or Alchornea leaf
- 1 ounce echinacea root or seed
- 1 ounce juniper leaf
- 1 ounce Lomatium root
- 1 ounce Usnea lichen
Powder all herbs as finely as possible. (Stephen recommends using a high-powered blender or food processor to get a semi-small grind and then transferring the blend to a nut or coffee grinder to make a finer powder.) Strain powder through a sieve. Use as needed. This formula can be sprinkled onto feet or into shoes and socks to treat athlete’s foot. It may also be used on babies for diaper rash.
Herbal Oil for Skin Infections
- 1 ounce dried Artemisia leaf (any species of Artemisia will work)
- 1 ounce dried Berberis plant (such as barberry or Oregon grape)
- 1 ounce dried Cryptolepis (or Sida acuta)
- 1 ounce dried echinacea root or seed
- 1 ounce dried evergreen needles (any species)
- 1 quart extra virgin olive oil
Grind herbs as finely as possible with a high-powered blender or coffee grinder. Place ground herbs in a small, ovenproof glass dish or ceramic pot than can be covered; do not use a metal pot. Pour in enough olive oil to saturate the herbs, stir well, and then add extra oil to cover the herbs by one quarter inch. Heat the mixture, with the lid on, overnight in the oven for eight hours at a low temperature, between 150 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Let the mixture cool and then press the mixture through a cloth to extract the oil. Store the oil in a sealed glass container out of the sun.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Would you consider using any of these natural remedies to treat a skin infection? What natural products have you found useful for treating skin ailments? Let me know in the comments below!