Recently I made a batch of Purple Cloud Ointment, one of the most famous topical remedies in traditional Asian medicine. Now that I have several bottles of the bright reddish-purple ointment for my patients, and having already smeared some of it on myself and some of it on my nine-month-old daughter, I thought I'd share some fun facts about what it is.
The Purple Cloud Ointment (a.k.a. Shiunko or Ziyungao) that I made is based on a few recipes from ancient Japan and China, all of which involve sesame oil, beeswax, and two special herbs: Dang Gui and Zi Cao. Let's talk about those two herbs -- understanding what they can do will help us understand what the Purple Cloud Ointment can do.
Dang Gui is the root of Angelica sinensis, and is one of Chinese medicine's most famous herbs for treating the blood. It is considered to nourish the blood as well as promote the movement of blood. Traditionally we herbalists say that it is "warm" in nature. It is used for a variety of conditions, including menstrual issues, postpartum issues, many types of skin issues, and much more.
Zi Cao is the root of Arnebia euchroma. In Chinese medicine we consider it to be "cold" in nature. It mainly cools the blood, and treats many types of skin conditions arising from "heat in the blood," and which often manifest as red, itchy skin.
Together, Dang Gui and Zi Cao are a classic combination for external treatment of the skin, dating back at least to the 1600's, and this combination is what makes Purple Cloud Ointment so useful and versatile. In Chinese medicine terms, Purple Cloud Ointment moistens the skin, cools and invigorates the blood, stops itching, eliminates swelling and putrefaction, and generates new flesh. Modern research has shown that Purple Cloud Ointment has the ability to control bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, as well as to reduce the swelling, redness and heat of inflammation. It has also been found to speed the healing of wounds.
Here are a few specific uses of Purple Cloud Ointment that have been documented:
- Skin that is dry, chapped or cracked, possibly even with pain and bleeding. There are numerous clinical reports on the successful use of Purple Cloud Ointment on this kind of skin. Purple Cloud Ointment also makes an excellent lip balm for chapped lips.
- Chilblains. This skin condition usually appears after exposure to cold weather, and involves red, swollen, uncomfortable skin. Purple Cloud Ointment has been found to be effective in both treatment and prevention of chilblains.
- Promoting healing of burns and wounds. Purple Cloud Ointment has been found to reduce wound infection and promote reepithelialization, angiogenesis, fibroblast activity and formation of granulation tissue.
- Certain types of eczema, especially in its "dry" stage.
- Blisters and peeling skin on the hands and feet, as in dyshidrosis (a.k.a. dyshidrotic eczema).
- Miscellaneous conditions: Chronic ulcerations of the skin, seborrheic dermatitis, certain types of hair loss, prickly heat, insect bites, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, etc.
In addition to the above conditions, which are all supported in the sources listed below, I would also suggest using it to help heal diaper rash. A similar preparation of Zi Cao has been documented extensively in the treatment of diaper rash, which I have used on my own baby with success. The simple addition of Dang Gui is perfectly fine in this case.
Purple Cloud Ointment is among the most popular and time-tested topical remedies out there, and is quite useful to keep in the medicine cabinet. However, I do have a few cautions for our readers: First, it is red and may stain clothing - but don't worry, after you rub it into the skin, it won't stain. Second, it is not appropriate for some skin conditions; for example, it is normally not to be used in conditions involving large blisters, exudate (weeping) or pus, and it's a good idea to consult an herbalist trained in traditional Chinese or Japanese medicine to determine if it is appropriate before using it. And third, a few of the symptoms listed above can sometimes be signs of a more serious illness, so don't just put Purple Cloud Ointment on without also getting your condition evaluated professionally.
Oh, why did I use it on my baby? She had a small patch of dry eczema on her neck. Why on myself? I had chapped lips.
Edit: Just 2 days later, I noticed that my daughter's eczema was almost completely gone. Now that's quick...if only every case of eczema were so easy!
白崇智，梁忠民. 神效紫云膏的临床运用. 陕西中医函授. 1985(1):40-41.
Huang KF et al. Shiunko promotes epithelization of wounded skin. Am J Chin Med. 2004;32(3):389-96.
Leung TS. Origins of Shiunko ointment in traditional Chinese medicine classic literature, and how it can be made. California Journal of Oriental Medicine. 2016;27(1):27-29.
Lu PJ et al. Shiunko and acetylshikonin promote reepithelialization, angiogenesis, and granulation tissue formation in wounded skin. Am J Chin Med. 2008;36(1):115-23.
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