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If you have acne and are looking for an alternative to drugstore and prescription acne treatments, you might consider essential oils. Essential oils are plant chemicals (usually extracted with steam but sometimes cold-pressed, as with citrus) from different parts of the plant, including:

  • stems
  • roots
  • leaves
  • seeds
  • flowers

Plant extracts have a long history in traditional folk medicine. They’re also studied in modern medicine for their benefits. This includes killing bacteria, one of the primary causes of acne.

Many people report that essential oils can help treat acne, and preliminary studies about these natural, botanical remedies support this information.

While more evidence is needed to fully understand the benefits of using essential oils as skin care, they’re generally safe to try (as long as you dilute them first) and you may see positive results. Of course, if you notice irritation or sensitivity on the skin after using essential oils, it’s best to discontinue use.

While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

What causes acne?

Acne starts when skin flakes and skin oil (sebum) clogs your pores. A plugged pore becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, especially Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) bacteria, which contributes to causing pimples. Applying a topical bacteria-killing agent to the surface of your skin is one of the treatments used for acne.

Several essential oils kill bacteria. One laboratory study found the most effective against P. acnes include:

  • thyme
  • cinnamon
  • rosemary

You can purchase the essential oils derived from these plants at a number of brick-and-mortar stores, including organic-focused grocery stores, health food stores, and herbal medicine stores. There are also many online retailers you can buy from, including Plant Therapy and GNC.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated natural extracts from leaves, flowers, roots, or stems. They’ve been found to have a wide range of medical and therapeutic properties, such as:

  • improving stress and anxiety
  • relieving headaches and migraine
  • helping with sleep and insomnia
  • reducing inflammation
  • aiding in aromatherapy

Some of the most common essential oils are:

  • peppermint, used to boost energy and aid digestion
  • lavender, used to relieve stress
  • sandalwood, used to calm nerves and help with focus
  • bergamot, used to reduce stress and improve skin conditions like eczema
  • rose, used to improve mood and reduce anxiety
  • chamomile, used to improve mood and relaxation
  • ylang-ylang, used to treat headaches, nausea, and skin conditions
  • tea tree, used to fight infections and boost immunity
  • jasmine, used to help with depression, childbirth, and libido
  • lemon, used to aid digestion, mood, headaches, and more

How to use essential oils

Essential oils aren’t meant to be ingested or swallowed. When they’re applied to the skin, some plant chemicals can be absorbed. They can also be mixed with carrier oils (which are most commonly used to dilute essential oils) and applied directly to the skin.

Because essential oils are concentrated plant chemicals, they can be very strong. Before applying any essential oil to your skin, always read the directions first. It’s also advised to do a patch test on your inner arm to make sure the oil doesn’t cause a rash or other irritation. Apply a small amount of oil and then wait 24 hours to be sure you don’t have a reaction.

When applying essential oil to acne, a little goes a long way. Wash your hands with soap and then use a cotton pad or Q-tip to gently dab the oil onto a blemish. It’s best to not use essential oil, or any topical products on popped blemishes. If you’re using other acne products (either over-the-counter or prescription medicine), talk with your dermatologist before applying essential oils to ensure there are no interactions.

You can also add essential oils to your favorite skin care products, like toners or serums.

Finally, never put essential oils in or near your eyes (even the vapors can be irritating). Also, keep them away from pets!

The best essential oils for acne

1. Thyme

In the kitchen, this herb’s delicate essence is often used to enhance pasta sauces and cooked potatoes. In the laboratory, thyme has been shown to be effective in fighting the bacteria that cause acne.

Researchers in the UK have tested the effects of thyme on acne when it’s used in a tincture, which is a concentrated solution that’s been steeped in alcohol. The data showed that the thyme tincture was more effective for soothing acne than popular topical treatments like benzoyl peroxide.

2. Rosemary

In lab tests, rosemary essential oil actually destroys acne-causing bacteria P. acnes, damaging the cell walls and ultimately killing the bacterial cells themselves. In addition to its antibacterial properties, rosemary can also be used to decrease redness and puffiness, which is helpful when treating cystic acne.

3. Cinnamon

It turns out cinnamon is good for more than just baking and sprinkling on your latte. This extensively studied tree bark product has been proven effective at fighting P. acnes. Ithas also been reported to reduce menstrual pain and cholesterol levels. And cinnamon has been shown to kill staphylococcal bacteria and E. coli.

4. Tea tree

Tea tree oil has antimicrobial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties, making it a popular essential oil for combatting acne. Research shows that tea tree is also effective for wound healing, which means that it can be used both to help fight acne and soothe pimples, especially if you’ve popped or picked at them (which we’ve all done from time to time).

A 2018 study found that combining tea tree oil with aloe vera and propolis (a compound created by bees) was more effective at combatting acne than topical antibiotic erythromycin cream.

5. Oregano

Oregano has been tested as an acne-fighting essential oil with promising results. A 2018 study found that oregano essential oil had the strongest antimicrobial activity against P. acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis, another major acne-associated bacteria. (Thyme was a close second.) Using oregano oil as a spot treatment can be an effective way to clear up pimples and prevent future breakouts.

6. Lavender

Research has shown that lavender is effective for soothing skin conditions, particularly reducing the symptoms of atopic dermatitis (eczema). When it comes to fighting acne, more research is needed, however, lavender can be useful for healing blemishes and helping to prevent acne scars.

2016 study found that lavender essential oil increases collagen production and tissue regeneration, particularly when used in the very beginning phase of scar treatment (right after the blemish starts to heal). By promoting wound closure and wound shrinking, lavender may lead to smoother skin.

7. Bergamot

Advocates of bright, citrus-scented bergamot say that this fruit’s essential oil can improve your mood as well as help your skin. It’s been suggested to be an anti-inflammatory, meaning that it may reduce swelling and shrink pimples. For this reason, bergamot can be an effective spot treatment for cystic acne and blackheads alike.

However, it shouldn’t be used in the daytime because it can make your skin sun-sensitive and it’s best tolerated by people without sensitive skin in general.

8. Rosehip

While not an essential oil, rosehip oil is a carrier oil that contains high amounts of three key nutrients that can help keep acne at bay. The first is linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that regulates your sebum production. When you have too little linoleic acid, sebum production goes up, causing oily skin and acne. The second key nutrient in rosehip oil is vitamin A, which helps minimize sebum production.

Finally, rosehip oil contains vitamin C, which has a number of helpful properties including reducing inflammation, boosting collagen and cell turnover, and counteracting hyperpigmentation to minimize the appearance of acne scars.

Safety considerations

People who shouldn’t use essential oils without a doctor’s recommendation include:

  • older adults
  • children younger than 12 years of age
  • women who are pregnant or breastfeeding

If you have pets in your home, be aware that some essential oils can be dangerous for some animals. You should also consult with a doctor or dermatologist if you take any medications or have any health concerns, like high blood pressure, low immunity, or epilepsy.

Essential oils do have the potential to aggravate the skin. Don’t apply them to broken, inflamed, or irritated skin, and stop using them if you experience any irritation.

Takeaway

Essential oils can be effective treatments for every stage of acne, from prevention to healing pimples to reducing the appearance of scars. Especially if you’re interested in natural remedies for skin care, these topicals can be a great option.

Before experimenting with any treatment for acne, however, it’s always a good idea to meet with your dermatologist to discuss your options. Together, you can create a plan that will benefit your skin.