Can You Use Herbs to Treat Acne?

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on August 9, 2016Written by Annette McDermott

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The basics

Acne is caused by clogged pores and bacteria, and it’s often challenging to manage. Over-the-counter and prescription treatments may help, though some can cause serious side effects. If traditional treatments are unsuccessful, or if you prefer to try something more natural, you may decide to turn to herbal remedies.

Herbal remedies were used to clear up acne and other skin conditions well before modern treatments existed. Despite the lack of research on many herbal solutions, anecdotal evidence is plentiful.

Herbal remedies tend to have fewer side effects than modern treatments. Some herbs have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties. These properties may help reduce acne-causing bacteria and inflammation, and heal blemishes.

What the research says

Manjistha

Manjistha (rubia cordifolia) is a perennial herb popular in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s thought to support your lymphatic system, which is critical to healthy skin. Research shows that manjistha has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiandrogenic abilities that may help prevent and treat acne.

Neem

Neem (azadirachta indica) is another popular Ayurvedic herb. According to a 2010 study, neem oil contains compounds that are:

  • antibacterial
  • antifungal
  • antiseptic
  • antioxidant
  • anti-inflammatory

Traditional therapeutic uses of neem include treating skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. According to a 2001 study, neem has antibacterial activity against several micro-organisms. This includes Staphylococcus, a bacterium that’s linked to acne.

Tea tree

Tea tree (melaleuca alternifolia) is an herb used to treat skin problems and wounds. It has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory abilities that may reduce the number of acne lesions. In a 1990 study, a topical gel containing 5 percent tea tree oil was compared to a topical cream containing 5 percent benzoyl peroxide. Both preparations reduced the number of inflamed and noninflamed acne lesions. Though the tea tree oil took longer to work, it resulted in fewer side effects. These included dryness, itching, irritation, and redness.

Check out: Tea tree oil for acne »

Witch hazel and other herbs

Witch hazel contains astringent tannins, which may treat acne by removing excess skin oil. It also has anti-inflammatory effects and can reduce redness and bruising. Witch hazel is often used alone or as a base for homemade acne remedies.

Other antiseptic, anti-inflammatory herbs that may help heal acne are:

  • calendula
  • chamomile
  • lavender
  • rosemary

How to use herbs for acne

Witch hazel may be applied directly to your skin using a cotton swab or cotton ball. You can also combine it with a carrier oil and other acne herbal remedies. You should not drink or inject witch hazel.

You may use witch hazel as part of your skin care regimen to remove makeup and clean and freshen your skin. For best results, the Farmer’s Almanac recommends these steps to create your own witch hazel decoction:

  • Add witch hazel bark and twigs to a large, stainless steel pot.
  • Cover with distilled water.
  • Bring to a boil and simmer for at least 30 minutes.
  • Cool overnight.
  • Strain decoction and pour into a glass jar.
  • Store in the refrigerator.

Neem oil should be diluted with water or a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or olive oil, before application. Neem oil soap is a great way to try the herb. Look for it at your local natural health store. Be forewarned that neem oil has a strong odor that many people find unpleasant.

Manjistha is often used in powder form and combined with other herbs such as neem. It’s also found in capsules and soaps.

Risks and warnings

Risks

  1. Side effects can include allergic reaction and skin irritation.
  2. Tea tree oil may cause blistering rash.
  3. You shouldn’t ingest herbs.

Possible side effects associated with most herbal remedies for acne include allergic reaction and skin irritation. If you experience inflammation, itching, or burning, discontinue use and consult your doctor.

Tea tree oil has been known to cause blistering rashes. You shouldn’t use it if you have sensitive skin or are allergic to plants from the myrtle family. This includes eucalyptus, allspice, and clove.

Pregnant women, breast-feeding women, and children shouldn’t use herbs to treat acne unless under the supervision of a trained practitioner.

Some people take herbs internally in an effort to treat acne systemically. You shouldn’t do this unless you’re under the supervision of a trained practitioner. Many herbs are fine to use on the skin but are toxic when consumed, especially in large amounts.

Tea tree oil is poisonous when swallowed. You shouldn’t use it on the skin around your mouth where it may be accidentally ingested.

Other treatments for acne

Acne treatments depend on severity. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), there are four grades of acne. Grade 1 is mild and grade 4 is severe. In the case of grade 1 acne, products containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid may work.

More severe acne may require:

  • prescription-strength topical cream containing benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, salicylic acid, or antibiotics
  • oral antibiotics
  • birth control pills

The most severe cases of acne may be treated with:

  • isotretinoin
  • laser therapy
  • chemical peels
  • drainage and extraction procedure

What you can do now

If your mother warned you that eating junk food causes acne, she knew what she was talking about. According to the AAD, eating a low-glycemic diet may reduce your acne risk. It’s thought that high-glycemic foods, such as sodas and highly processed carbs, increase insulin and hormone levels. This can cause acne. Dairy may also be a culprit.

Although more research is needed, it certainly won’t hurt to try a low-glycemic diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. Your skin may look better, and you may become healthier overall. You may consider keeping a food diary to track the foods that trigger your acne breakouts.

Try to keep your skin as clean as possible. Wash it after sweating with a nonabrasive, alcohol-free cleanser. Avoid touching your face throughout the day and, no matter how much you may want to, don’t pop those zits!

If your acne doesn’t respond to herbal remedies or over-the-counter treatments, see a dermatologist.

Keep reading: Can honey and cinnamon treat acne? »

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