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Milk Thistle: A Liver and Skin Protector

Supplementing with milk thistle offers more than one benefit. It protects liver cells on the body’s inside and skin cells on the outside.

Milk thistle is well known to protect liver cells from damaging toxins. Despite milk thistle’s frequent association with liver cell protection, the liver is not the only beneficiary of this popular supplement. Some relatively new studies have determined that the skin receives a similar protective benefit from milk thistle as the liver does.

Liver Protection

The human liver is capable of recovering from an injury, but chronic liver disease repeatedly challenges this ability. When the rate of liver cell injury outpaces the liver’s regenerative capacity, scars form. Unfortunately, scarring in the liver can block blood flow – a problem that fosters even more damage to liver tissue. If this damaging cycle persists, severe scarring can render the liver no longer capable of performing all its duties. Thus, those who either have liver scarring or are at high risk of liver damage due to fat accumulation, hepatitis, excessive exposure to alcohol or toxins, or another liver disadvantage are encouraged to take action against further liver injury.

Milk thistle seed extract has been used for centuries to add a layer of protection to vulnerable liver cells. Experts have found that milk thistle:

  • Strengthens the outer walls of liver cells to better resist injury
  • Promotes the growth of healthy liver cells
  • Fights oxidation – a process that damages liver cells

Decades of clinical trials indicate that silymarins, a group of potent antioxidants extracted from the seeds of milk thistle, are responsible for milk thistle’s therapeutic properties. Of the silymarins, silybin (also referred to as silibinin) has been shown to be the most effective constituent of silymarin for preserving liver health.

External Skin Protection

Guarding against ultraviolet radiation is the primary concern for keeping the skin healthy. To shield the skin from damage, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest:

  • seeking shade during the midday hours
  • wearing clothing over exposed skin
  • donning a wide-brimmed hat
  • wearing UVA and UVB blocking sunglasses
  • applying sunscreen
  • avoiding indoor tanning

Most recommended skin protectors come in the form of soaps, lotions or creams designed to keep skin clean and moist while deflecting harmful radiation. According to Tina Alster, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University, a regimen including the following topical products helps protect the skin:

  • Cream Cleanser – a cleanser that is not overly harsh or drying can help keep the skin stable and reduce the risk of irritation.
  • Moisturizer Containing Sunblock – The American Academy of Dermatology recommends daily use of a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Makeup or foundations containing sunscreen often are not applied thickly or evenly enough to provide adequate protection.
  • Anti-Aging Product at Night – Active ingredients to look for in an anti-aging cream include glycolic, ascorbic, or retinoic acid. Alster recommends using one or two of these products on an alternate night basis to help skin turnover more regularly. However, some anti-aging creams may increase skin sensitivity.

Internal Skin Protection

Skin is traditionally protected with topical creams or lotions, but researchers have found a non-traditional method that protects against skin damage as well. In addition to protecting liver cells, internal supplementation with milk thistle also seems to protect skin cells.

As published in the January 2013 edition of the journal Molecular Carcinogenesis, researchers from the University of Colorado Cancer Center found that silibinin:

  • protects against skin cancer-causing ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation by upping cell expression of a particular cell-repairing protein
  • kills cells that have undergone mutations due to ultraviolet-A (UVA) radiation (a process that potentially leads to skin cancer)

These results support previous findings that show silibinin promotes destruction of cells damaged by UVA, but not healthy cells. According to senior study author Rajesh Agarwal, “When you have a cell affected by UV radiation, you either want to repair it or kill it so that it cannot go on to cause cancer. We show that silibinin does both.”

Although a great deal more research will be needed before dermatologists suggest milk thistle supplementation for their patients to ward off skin cancer, the evidence is compelling. The traditional approach for protecting the skin (avoiding the hot sun, covering exposed skin, wearing sunscreen) is vital to preserving the skin’s vitality. But silibinin seems to add another safeguard. Likely to become the focus of future dermatological study, silibinin not only protects and helps in the repair of liver cells – it also appears to offer a similar type of protective and reparative assistance to skin cells., Milk Thistle for a Healthy Liver (and Skin?), Celeste Perron, Retrieved February 23, 2013, NBC Universal Inc, 2013., Skin Cancer Prevention, Retrieved February 24, 2013, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013., Top 10 Ways to Protect Your Liver, Retrieved February 24, 2013, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, 2013., Milk Thistle Extract, Silibinin, Could Help Protect Against Skin Cancer, Studies Show, Retrieved February 23, 2013,, Inc, 2013., Silibinin attenuates sulfur mustard analog-induced skin injury by targeting multiple pathways connecting oxidative stress and inflammation, Tewari-Singh N, et al, Retrieved February 23, 2013, PloS One, September 2012., Silibinin inhibits ultraviolet B radiation-induced DNA-damage and apoptosis by enhancing interleukin-12 expression in JB6 cells and SKH-1 hairless mouse skin, Narayanapillai S, et al, Retrieved February 23, 2013, Molecular Carcinogenesis, January 2013., p53-mediated autophagy adjustment is involved in the protection of silibinin against murine dermal inflammation and epidermal apoptosis induced by UVB irradiation, Wang Q, et al, Retrieved February 23, 2013, Journal of Asian Natural Products Research, February 2013., Milk thistle constituents shows promising skin protection properties, Helen Albert, February 23, 2013, News-Medical.Net, 2013., Prevent Skin Damage Before It Starts, Jennifer Warner, Retrieved February 24, 2013, WebMD, LLC, 2013.

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About the Author

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM is a long time advocate of integrating perspectives on health. With a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester and a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches Institute, Nicole has been a licensed acupuncturist since 2000. She has gathered acupuncture licenses in the states of California and New York, is a certified specialist with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, has earned diplomat status with the National Commission of Chinese and Oriental Medicine in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology and is a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology. In addition to her acupuncture practice that focuses on stress and pain relief, digestion, immunity and oncology, Nicole contributes to the integration of healthcare by writing articles for professional massage therapists and people living with liver disease.

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