Forget facials, chemical peels, IPL and laser therapy. There’s a brew in Hollywood to keep A-listers’ skins fresh and glowing: milk thistle.
Jasmine Vico, a London-based skin health specialist, worked with the Barbie movie cast to ensure their skin was ‘doll-like’ before and during filming. In a British Vogue interview, she revealed that part of the skincare routine she established for the cast involved drinking milk thistle tea.
Originating from the Mediterranean, milk thistle has been used in herbal medicines for centuries. “What was once thought of as an invasive weed has tremendous therapeutic properties,” says Dr NavNirat Nibber, ND, senior medical advisor at AOR.
However, the active compounds are “concentrated in seeds, with some in fruits and leaves,” she explains. “So, tea should contain the seed — [and] the longer we steep, the more potent the actives are.”
The key to milk thistle’s skin-boosting powers are antioxidants — including a potent and unique antioxidant silymarin, “a flavonoid with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Dr Allison Leer, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Unity Skincare. Antioxidants “help reduce the negative effects of free radicals,” she adds. Free radicals are molecules that damage the body’s cells — and, when this occurs in the skin, signs of ageing begin to arise.
As well as acting as an antioxidant, silymarin “can increase the activity of superoxide dismutase and other enzymes in the body,” says Dr Naana Boakye, MPH, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist. Superoxide dismutase is found naturally in the body and works to target free radicals.
As for silymarin’s anti-inflammatory properties, these “help with certain skin conditions, such as redness or acne,” Leer notes.
One study found that taking silybin orally — albeit in supplement form rather than tea — for eight weeks significantly reduced signs of acne.
By helping restore and repair cells in the liver, silymarin can “indirectly impact the skin by improving cell turnover and supporting the health of skin cells,” says Dr Rahi Sarbaziha, an integrative aesthetics doctor based in Los Angeles.
Milk thistle also has essential fatty acids, including linoleic acid. These “can enhance the skin’s barrier function and improve moisture retention,” explains David Petrillo, a cosmetic beauty chemist and founder of Perfect Image. The result? “Well-hydrated skin that appears plump, smooth, and healthy,” he claims.
Zinc is another key player, says Petrillo. As well as helping lower inflammation, this nutrient aids “in wound healing and cell regeneration.”
Last but not least, there’s vitamin E, which “helps maintain the skin’s elasticity, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” Petrillo notes.
Milk thistle can be applied topically. “It may be present in products aimed at reducing inflammation, combating signs of ageing, and controlling acne,” says Sarbaziha. Some studies suggest it can significantly reduce signs and symptoms of rosacea and atopic dermatitis.
Research indicates that silymarin contains “photoprotective mechanisms”, which can aid in reducing the effects of UV rays on the skin — such as cell damage and oxidative stress. One study in mice found topical milk thistle to be as effective in preventing signs of UV-related skin ageing as vitamin C.
So which is best: in a cream or a cuppa?
“There isn’t definitive research as to whether one method is more effective than the other,” states Leer.
However, “both approaches can be beneficial,” says Sarbaziha. Taking it orally “is likely to have more comprehensive benefits for the skin and overall health. When ingested, the active compounds can work throughout the body, including the skin, providing hydration, anti-inflammatory effects, and supporting the skin’s health from within.” On the other hand, applying it topically might be better suited to “provide targeted effects for specific skin issues”, she notes.
“I very rarely see side effects with my clients who use milk thistle,” says Megan Lyons, a board-certified holistic and clinical nutritionist, functional nutrition expert, and founder of The Lyons’ Share Wellness. “The reported side effects are usually mild, such as nausea or digestive upset.” However, those on long-term medications such as “nitroglycerin, anticoagulants, or antiplatelet drugs may experience an increased risk of bleeding,” she notes. People taking anti-hypertensive drugs should also be wary because, when combined with milk thistle, these drugs may cause lowered blood pressure.
Those with liver concerns should have their liver enzymes monitored for significant fluctuations, says Nibber. Lindsay Malone, a registered dietitian and instructor at the nutrition department at Case Western Reserve University, says those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a healthcare provider before taking milk thistle. “While there are studies on these populations, there aren’t many large, long-term studies,” she adds.
Milk thistle — either orally or topically — can also cause an allergic reaction, including rashes or redness, sneezing, and watery eyes. Finally, “People with certain skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis, should exercise caution when considering milk thistle,” says Petrillo.