your connection to The Boston Globe

Skin balm spurs a rash of demand nationwide

Acupuncturist uses Chinese herbs

Mike Arsenault of Brookline developed a salve made of olive oil, beeswax, and three Chinese herbs after his daughter, Emily, now 18 months, came down with the skin condition eczema. Mike Arsenault of Brookline developed a salve made of olive oil, beeswax, and three Chinese herbs after his daughter, Emily, now 18 months, came down with the skin condition eczema. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

When Mike Arsenault saw the red bumps blooming across his 2-month-old daughter's cheeks, he felt immediate pangs of guilt.

Arsenault, an acupuncturist who lives in Brookline, has a tendency toward allergies and he suspected that Emily's baby eczema might have stemmed from the same sensitivity.

Not wanting to apply the harsh topical steroids usually prescribed for eczema on his daughter's skin, Arsenault turned to his training in Chinese traditional medicine.

"Chinese herbalism is four, five thousand years old," he said. "I just took herbal remedies for skin conditions, looked at the common denominators, and pared it down."

The result was a salve called Emily's Skin Soother, made of olive oil, beeswax, and three Chinese herbs. It's now sold in more than 35 stores across the country and has generated an invitation from Whole Foods Market to present at a buyers exposition next month.

The popularity of Arsenault's Chinese-medicine-inspired product reflects a growing demand for therapies beyond conventional medicine, said Corey Cloutier, manager of Cambridge Naturals, a health store that sells out of Emily's Skin Soother within two days of every order.

Customer feedback has been especially positive for the salve's results in helping with irritated skin on "flaky babies," but Cloutier added that customers with psoriasis (a skin condition) and chapped hands and feet also have reported good results.

Arsenault, 37, whose day job as an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist has him working part-time at Winchester Hospital and part time at his private practice in Ipswich, said this increased appetite for nonconventional or complementary therapies extends to acupuncture and massage therapies as well.

"It's on 'Oprah'; Dr. Oz is talking about it all the time. People are definitely more open to it. The fact that I'm at a hospital three days a week also lends credence to it. People come in and say, 'Because it's a part of Winchester Hospital, I've decided to come.' I tell them, 'The other three days, I'm the guy with the sign out front, no affiliation, and it's the same thing.' "

In Greater Boston, there are about a dozen hospital-based programs, including one at Children's Hospital Boston, involved in the research or provision of complementary therapies that focus on improving patients' quality of life. Such therapies include acupuncture, Reiki, and yoga.

Weidong Lu, who sees patients at the Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said that acupuncture is now considered a viable treatment for the fatigue, pain, and nausea that are common side effects of chemo-radiation therapy and cancer-treatment drugs.

"When we first started in 2000 at the Zakim Center, we only had a four-hour shift each week to do acupuncture, and we were not actually even filling this whole spot," Lu said. "But now we have five days a week."

"We're combining Eastern medicine or complementary therapies alongside the conventional medicine," said David Rosenthal, medical director of the Zakim Center and director of Harvard University Health Services.

According to Rosenthal, this change of perception has resulted in a concurrent change in terminology, from "alternative" therapies, which implies treatment that takes place outside of traditional cancer treatments, to "integrative" therapies, which are implemented with chemo-radiation and drugs.

Rosenthal added that a great deal of research is being conducted on the effects of not only acupuncture but of herbs. He warned, however, that such research is relatively new and has not yielded definitive results to back up many herbal remedies' claims. "This is a $45 billion industry," he said, "and it's an unregulated industry."

Arsenault, who used texts on traditional Chinese medicine to create Emily's Skin Soother, echoes this caution. "Unless you do scientific studies, it's not appropriate to say 'cure,' and I wouldn't claim a cure. The basic philosophy of the Skin Soother is to use the fewest ingredients possible and to use Chinese medicine to prompt the body to do what it can on its own. For a lot of people, they've been able to use less meds or to minimize their symptoms."

Since he incorporated in February and increased distribution of Emily's Skin Soother, which sells online for $14 for a 2-ounce jar, Arsenault has also added a lavender-scented version and created a soap with the same three Chinese herbs. While he no longer cooks the formula for the Skin Soother in his kitchen, Arsenault still measures out the herbs himself and boils them down before sending the product out for bottling.

He is struggling to keep up with the growing demand, which sometimes reaches hundreds of online orders a day, and just recently outsourced the shipping to Opportunity Works, an organization in Newburyport that employs individuals with developmental disabilities.

"It's been crazy," Arsenault said in a recent interview at his home, where he sat with the now 18-month-old Emily, wearing a pink sweater that matched the color of her smooth, rosy cheeks. "I never intended anything for the product except putting it on the baby so she wouldn't have to take medicine, but I'm also just glad it's helping people."

More from