In the skin care world, it seems all and everything can be used, nothing is off-limits. The most commonly used ingredients seem to belong to your spice cabinet. That’s especially true with turmeric. It’s a must-have space when you’re making a yellow curry from scratch. And it’s worth its weight in gold for your skin.

Really, what’s not to like? It seems turmeric can heal almost everything: Hangover? Digestion issues? Memory problems? Fever? Dull or irritated skin? Breakouts? For all of these and more, turmeric promises to help.

A little bit about the spice

The official scientific name of turmeric is Curcuma longa. It belongs to the same family as ginger and is native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Turmeric rhizome and powder, photo by Formulate Health

The Latin name Curcurma is derived from the Arabic word al-kurkum which was the original word for saffron. Due to its golden yellow colour, it’s also called Indian saffron or poor man’s saffron.

The plant grows to about 1 metre tall. Its leaves are dark green on the upper surface, pale green beneath. It produces tall, white flowers on a spike-like stalk.

Turmeric plant, photo by Edsel Little

The flowers don’t produce seeds but the plant propagates through its rhizomes (what is commonly referred to as roots). The rhizomes are underground stems that grow horizontally. They support the plant because they’re rich in starch.

It’s also these rhizomes that are used inc cooking Traditional Asian Medicine, and now in skin care. The rhizomes are harvested about 9 to 10 months after planting. Signs that harvest time is here is when you see the lower leaves turning yell or the stems drying and falling over.

Characteristics and properties

Turmeric powder is made from the rhizomes of the plant. The flesh of the rhizome is yellow, reddish-yellow, to orange-brown.

The ground powder has a bright yellow-orange colour hence its name Indian saffron. It has a musty, woody, bitter flavour. And it has its distinct turmeric smell. It has a slight ginger-like bite and when you add too much, it makes the food unpleasantly bitter.

Even if its name suggests that turmeric can be a replacement for saffron, they taste totally different. The only way you can use it as an alternative is if you want to use it purely as a food dye.


Turmeric has been used for over 4000 years in India. Pots discovered near New Delhi with a residue of turmeric, ginger, and garlic were dated to 2500 BC. Around 500 BC, turmeric became an integral part of Ayurveda.

Aside from its uses in traditional medicine and as a spice, it also has religious significance in India. It’s auspicious and sacred. Indian brides are covered from head to toe in a mixture of turmeric, gram flour, sandalwood powder, and mustard oil. It’s an ancient wedding ritual to clean the body and give a golden glow.

The bright golden yellow colour of turmeric is used to dye clothing and thread. You surely have seen the bright yellow robes of Buddhist monks. The colour can be anything from red to yellow depending on whether you mix the dye with alkali or acid. It will turn red when it has alkali and if you neutralise it with acid then the colour will turn yellow.

Culinary uses

Turmeric is having its heyday in the West in anything from golden lattes to soups. It’s one of the key ingredients in many Asian dishes, probably the best known is yellow curry.

It’s the stuff that colours and flavours mustard and is an integral part of curry blends.

Traditional medicinal uses

It may not have been popular in Western herbal medicine, but it has long been used and continues to be used in Asian medicine both in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Turmeric has been valued in the East for its ability to protect the liver against toxic substances. Turmeric was ground down and made into a paste to relieve all sorts of skin conditions –from smallpox to blemishes.

The paste was even used to whiten teeth. Although it sounds contraituitive, since it’s famously used as cloth dye, but it really has whitening power as well. Basically, turmeric was used for all kinds of ailments such as sore muscles, joint pains, and indigestion.

Anecdotal, Traditional Asian Medicine, and (western) science all agree: it’s effective and a multi-tasking miracle worker.

Science-backed benefits of turmeric for your skin

Science has discovered what makes turmeric so powerful: It’s the bioactive components called curcuminoids and the most important one is curcurmin. It’s the substance that gives turmeric its unmistakable bright yellow colour. It’s also the substance that gives it its characteristic flavour. And lastly, it’s an antioxidant that also doubles and triples as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent.

When you hear people raving about turmeric, what really gives it its clout is curcumin. Certainly, if you take it with your food, is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. It can help angry, irritated, and sensitive skin. It can also help your skin repair from environmental stressors.

The curcurmin is also known to speed up wound healing. It helps by reducing inflammation and oxidation as well as lowering the response of your body to cutaneous wounds.


At the root of a lot of skin concerns are inflammation. The common thing of things like eczema, acne, and premature wrinkles is inflammation. That’s because inflammation harms your skin in many ways such as breaking down collagen and triggering spots.

Knowing this, if your goal is to maintain your skin healthy and supple, you want to reduce inflammation. And turmeric can indeed help relieve inflammation. It reduces swelling, puffiness, and redness. It’s also known to help prevent excessive dryness that often accompanies irritation.


Your body produces free radicals when it digests food. It’s a natural process but having too many of them may play havoc with your body. The free radicals are unstable molecules that harm healthy ones and cause a chain reaction that leads to oxidative damage in your body.

That’s certainly not something you want in your skin. Think of sagging, colour and texture changes. But also reduced barrier function and in general heightened sensitivity.

As an abundant source of antioxidants, taking turmeric not only boosts the antioxidants in your body, it also increases natural antioxidant capacity.


Turmeric is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. This means it can help your skin health in general, but it’s particularly beneficial for dealing with acne. One of the elements contributing to breakouts is acne-causing bacteria on the skin. Being antimicrobial, it prevents other infections from spreading.

Once you got zits, the skin can get inflamed and turmeric helps calm it down. The aftermath of a breakout is those pesky marks. Since turmeric is calming, it helps reduce the appearance of those marks. Since it helps speed up wound healing, it reduces scarring.

Improving skin tone

These pesky marks can turn dark with sun exposure. If you want to lift dark spots, turmeric is your friend thanks to its antioxidant properties. Using turmeric can break the cycle of getting dark spots after your skin gets inflamed.

Slow hair growth

OK, this doesn’t have to do with skin care, but it’s still worth mentioning. As a side effect, when you apply a turmeric mask, it can stunt the hair growth on the area where you applied it. You can apply it after shaving to reduce hair or slow its growth.

How to add turmeric into your routine

After reading about how turmeric can help your skin, are you itching to use it in your skin care? Maybe you’re still cautious because as a dye, it can make you look like a character of “The Simpsons”.

If you use food-grade turmeric, the spice that you can find in a grocery store, stains easily as you might have seen while cooking. Although it’s easy to find, it really does make you look like Lisa Simpson.

But the Indian brides surely won’t risk turning yellow just hours before their wedding, right? Turns out, they use another type called kasturi turmeric. This doesn’t stain but is hard to find. It’s great for clearing spots, lifting dark spots, and stunting hair growth. Just know that it’s not edible.

If DIY is not your thing, you surely can find a beauty product, as turmeric has its moment.

Closing words

Turmeric is great both when taken orally or applied to your skin. So much so that it’s used in many beauty rituals from Japan to Indonesia and India.

In closing I leave you with some DIY recipes to make your skin soft and smooth, making it glow, removing acne, and evening out dark spots.

Mix a tablespoon of turmeric powder with a few drops of milk or yogurt to make a smooth paste. Apply it to your skin and let it sit for 15 minutes, then rinse off. This will fight acne as well as prevent those vexing dark spots it leaves behind.

Mix a tablespoon of turmeric powder with a few drops of aloe vera or cucumber juice. Apply the paste to your skin and rinse off after 15 minutes. This face pack is a wrinkle buster.

The recipes are made with powder turmeric since this is probably more readily available. But you can also use the raw turmeric rhizome if you find it and don’t mind stains on your skin. These stains are easily removed, just use mix some water with sugar and use it to scrub the area where you applied the turmeric pack. This will make your skin super smooth and stain-free.

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