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    The good, the bad, the ugly of alternative therapies

    Alternative and complementary therapies may be best known in medical fields other than dermatology, but patients concerned about their skin turn to these treatments too. Some can actually cause harm, like pure tea tree oil, which can be very irritating in its undiluted form. But dermatologists say others are helpful complements to pharmaceutical treatments and may even be preferable to traditional medications in certain situations.

    READ: Psychological problems impact skin disease

    “It’s important for the clinician to be open-minded to something that may not necessarily be a mainstream conventional treatment,” says Sarah Kasprowicz, M.D., one of several dermatologists who spoke about alternative and complementary treatments during a session at the 73rd annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in San Francisco earlier this year.

    It’s especially crucial to ask patients whether they’re taking any alternative treatments, she says, because they can contribute to potentially dangerous interactions just like mainstream medications. In some cases, she says, there’s actually more potential for risk because “we have few data on these compounds and how they interact with other compounds.”

    Dr. Kasprowicz, based in Skokie, Ill., cautioned that if patients aren’t asked directly, they will “very rarely disclose what they are using that may be considered ‘alternative.’”

    READ: Alternative treatment options for acne

    “Patients will often assume that because something is over the counter it doesn't count as a medicine,” she says. “However, when asked the question they will offer up things they have tried, or therapies they’ve read about and considered trying.”

    NEXT: Acne and rosacea

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga is a medical writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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