Barberry and Acne

Also known as Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium or Berberis aquifolium), barberry grows wild in Europe and the Americas.1 It has been used in Japanese Kampo and other traditional natural medicine to treat skin conditions characterized by pus-filled lesions.2 Common homeopathic uses for barberry include both orally and topically for infection and psoriasis.3 Native Americans made extracts and herbal teas from barberry root to treat fever, diarrhea, acne, eczema, and cold sores.1

Berberine: An Alkaloid with Anti-Inflammatory, Antibacterial, and Hormonal Effects

Barberry’s main bioactive constituent is the alkaloid berberine.3 Berberine exhibits anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and androgen-inhibiting properties.3 Preliminary studies show that it can inhibit the skin cell processes that form comedones in acne, and in animal model research, berberine suppressed sebum production by over 60%.2,3 Laboratory studies show that two other barberry alkaloids, berine and jatrorrhizine, exert antibacterial effects against a number of different bacteria, including Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes).2


When used as recommended, berberine alkaloids from barberry are considered nontoxic. However, if consumed in large quantities they can cause severe, even fatal, poisoning.1

Pregnant or nursing women and newborn infants should not consume any herb that contains berberine because it can cause a severe, potentially fatal form of jaundice.3 Other herbs that contain berberine are goldenseal and yellowroot.4 Topical use of barberry can cause skin irritation, but creams containing berberine have been used for 20 days without adverse side effects.3

How to Use

Five grams of dried barberry herb per cup of water (either boiled or steeped) can be given in ½-1 cup doses three to six times a day for treatment purposes in adults.1

Topically look for a cream containing 10% of barberry bark extract. One pharmaceutical product, Reliéva®, is used 2-3 times daily for psoriasis.1,3

For chronic skin conditions in small animals, infuse five grams of the dried barberry herb per cup of water and prepare in ¼-½ cup doses per 20 lbs. of body weight. Divide the total dosage and administer three times a day.1

  1. Wynn, Susan G. and Fougère, Barbara. Veterinary herbal medicine. s.l. : Elsevier Health Sciences, 2007. ISBN 0323029981, 9780323029988.
  2. Reuter, Juliane, Merfort, Irmgard and Schempp, Christoph M. Am J Clin Dermatol. 11(4): Botanicals in Dermatology: An Evidence-Based Review. Medscape Today. [Online] 2010. [Cited: January 18, 2011.]
  3. Therapeutic Research Faculty. Oregon Grape (Barberry) Full Monograph. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. [Online] 2011. [Cited: January 22, 2011.]
  4. Yarnell, Eric and Abascal, Kathy. Alternative & Complementary Therapies: Herbal Medicine for Acne Vulgaris. Touro Institute. [Online] December 2006. [Cited: January 19, 2011.]
Other names include mountain or holy grape and creeping barberry.
Synonymous with Mahonia and Berberis species nervosa, repens, sonnei, and diversifolia.
Different than European barberry (Berberis jacquinii) or tree turmeric/Indian barberry (Berberis Aristata).
Androgen hormones can stimulate excess sebum production and lead to acne.
Specifically, kernicterus.
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