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Many people report success using topical essential oils to help their acne. The FDA doesn’t regulate essential oils, but preliminary studies suggest they might be beneficial.

Essential oil in a vial, on a wooden plate with rosemary herbsShare on Pinterest
Getty Images/marrakeshh

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 distillation 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 — including 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 for 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. Essential oils are meant to be inhaled or diluted in a carrier oil and applied to the skin. Do not swallow essential oils.

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.

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 ones 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, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Eden Botanicals.

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 (to relieve stress)
  • sandalwood (to calm nerves and help with focus)
  • bergamot (good for reducing stress and improving skin conditions like eczema)
  • rose (to improve mood and reduce anxiety)
  • chamomile (for mood and relaxation)
  • ylang-ylang (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 (for digestion, mood, headaches, and more)

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 an essential oil to acne, a little goes a long way. First, mix one drop of your favorite essential oil with 10 drops of carrier oil (like jojoba or almond) or water.

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 medication), 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!

Essential oil vs. carrier oil

Carrier oils can be used directly on the skin while essential oils should not. Essential oils are highly concentrated and therefore too potent to directly apply to your skin.

Carrier oils have little to no scent. They’re made from the fattier parts of plants (such as seeds or nuts.) Common carrier oils include coconut oil, olive oil, almond oil, and jojoba oil. You can use carrier oils to dilute essential oils before applying them to your skin.

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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. It has 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 in 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.

A 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 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.

9. Eucalyptus

Known for its strong, refreshing scent, eucalyptus oil also has anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it ideal to use on inflamed, painful acne (as long as you dilute it with a carrier oil first).

It might be particularly good for dry skin. According to a 2012 study, eucalyptus could improve ceramide production, the skin’s water-holding capacity, and the resilience of the skin barrier. This is partly why many anti-dandruff shampoos include eucalyptus extract.

10. Lemongrass

Lemongrass has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Because acne is an inflammatory skin condition that is caused by bacteria, lemongrass essential oil might be good for acne. One 2014 study found that topical applications of lemongrass essential oil had powerful anti-inflammatory properties.

11. Peppermint

Because it has antibacterial properties, peppermint essential oil might be helpful for acne-prone skin.

Although its ability to treat acne hasn’t been studied yet, a 2019 study found that peppermint essential oil can fight against different kinds of harmful bacteria. It’s also often used to soothe itching on the skin, so if your skin tends to get irritable and rashy, peppermint essential oil might help.

If your acne is bothering you, it might be best to see a doctor about treatment options. Although many home remedies might soothe acne, some fixes can damage your skin and cause irritation. It’s an especially good option to see a doctor about acne if you:

  • constantly have acne, even as an adult
  • feel that your confidence and self-esteem are impacted by acne
  • think your acne might be linked to a medication you use
  • have painful pimples
  • have tried home remedies with no luck

A dermatologist will be able to suggest suitable treatments for your skin. This might include:

  • dietary changes
  • changes in your skincare routine
  • lifestyle changes (like cutting down on cigarettes or caffeine)
  • over-the-counter medication
  • prescription medication (oral or topical)

Although some prescription medications for acne can be expensive, they might be more cost-effective in the long run.

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

When infusing aromatherapy, be mindful of others who may be inhaling it. 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.

Although essential oils are natural, using essential oils for acne is not without its risks.

In many cases, essential oils can cause skin irritation, especially if they’re undiluted. This is because essential oils are very concentrated and highly potent.

To prevent this, it’s best to dilute essential oils with your favorite lotion or carrier oil. There are charts you can look at for reference on how to measure how many drops to add to your product so you don’t end up with a mixture that is too weak or too potent.

It might be best to do a patch test with this mixture before using it on your face or other sensitive areas. Apply it to your inner elbow, leave it on for as long as you’d usually leave the product on your skin, and monitor your skin’s reaction.

How do you mix essential oils for acne?

Use a noncomedogenic oil, like jojoba oil or rosehip oil, as a carrier oil. The general rule is to use 1 drop of essential oil for every 5 milliliters (ml) of carrier oil. However, some essential oils are less potent than others.

Is peppermint oil good for pimples?

It might be. Because peppermint has a cooling effect, it’s often used to soothe pain and inflammation. Peppermint oil also has antibacterial properties. If you have sore, swollen pimples, diluted peppermint oil might bring you some relief.

What oils are bad for acne-prone skin?

Generally, it might be wise to avoid comedogenic oils as these can clog your pores. Common comedogenic oils include coconut oil and olive oil.

While certain oils work well for one person’s acne, they might cause breakouts for the next person. It’s wise to keep an eye on your skin whenever you use a new product, as there’s no telling how it’ll react.

Can oils get rid of my acne scars?

Rosehip oil and lavender essential oil are said to help with scarring. Unfortunately, though, there’s a lack of clinical human research that looks at the effects of essential oils on acne scars.

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.