Dealing with a bit of acne at some point in your life is incredibly common. And so’s searching for home remedies or emergency zit zappers when an unexpected flare-up strikes.
One of the professed at-home “miracle treatments” for cystic acne is dabbing Vicks VapoRub on pimples to reduce them overnight. But is it safe? Does Vicks VapoRub really work to reduce acne? You might want to read what our research uncovered before you resort to this questionable trick.
What the research says
Plenty of anecdotes say that dotting a cystic acne flare-up with a bit of Vicks and leaving it on overnight will shrink your zit by morning. Some of the ingredients in Vicks VapoRub are known pimple fighters, so this home remedy isn’t totally unfounded.
But other ingredients, specifically petroleum jelly, have actually been shown to make acne worse in the long run.
Dangers of petroleum jelly for acne
Dr. Mitchell Manway told Healthline that products containing petroleum jelly aren’t great for acne-prone areas. According to Manway, Vicks VapoRub “isn’t appropriate to be used on the face due to the thick, greasy vehicle that can easily clog pores and promote the cascade of further acne.” So, while using Vicks on a pimple likely isn’t dangerous to your health, it could actually backfire and cause more acne. This could happen by plugging your follicles with excess dead skin or causing unwanted inflammation.
Why Vicks VapoRub might seem to work
Why does there seem to be so much anecdotal evidence on acne message boards and beauty blogs saying that Vicks is a good acne treatment? Some of the ingredients in the Vicks VapoRub formula could work to reduce the redness and size of a pimple in the short term. But the other irritating ingredients will likely cause problems in the long term. Even though it’s not recommended to use Vicks on your breakouts, using some of the individual ingredients might actually help you fight pimples.
According to the Vicks website, camphor is used in their formula “as a cough suppressant,” and a “topical analgesic.” That means it’s a painkiller that’s applied directly to your skin. Camphor essential oil has a long history of medicinal use.
A 2017 review on the use of essential oils for skin complaints lists camphor as an effective treatment for acne. It’s also listed as an aid for other oily skin conditions. And the American Botanical Council also lists camphor as a known acne-fighting substance. Camphor can be toxic in large quantities, especially to children. But using a little bit as a spot treatment is considered safe.
The bioactive components of camphor and its relative, camphene, are also found in other known acne-fighting plant-based treatments, such as tea tree oil. In one blind, randomized clinical trial, patients with mild to moderate acne found significant improvement by using tea tree oil containing the camphor compound. That said, there’s much more evidence that tea tree oil works better as a first-line treatment for acne over pure camphor.
Although eucalyptus oil is listed as “a cough suppressant” in the Vicks formula, it’s also been shown to have a host of other skin-related uses. It’s been shown to help with wound healing and as an antibacterial agent. Both of these properties could theoretically help with the treatment of acne. Specifically, one promising study used rats to show that eucalyptus oil was effective in killing the bacteria P. acnes. This bug is a major cause of pimples.
However, the U.S. National Library of Medicine says that there’s “insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness” for its use as an acne treatment. And just like with camphor, too much can be toxic, especially for children. Although occasionally using a bit as an acne spot treatment likely poses no major health risks. Still, if you do choose to use eucalyptus oil on your skin, you should only use a diluted form.
Vicks VapoRub lists menthol in its formula as a “cough suppressant and topical analgesic.” But its potential to reduce swelling might be why some people feel like Vicks VapoRub works on pimples.
Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a board-certified dermatologist, says that the menthol in Vicks formula “feels tingly” on skin, “which might reduce pain temporarily and possibly reduce swelling.” However, she stresses that it can also “irritate sensitive acne- and rosacea-prone skin,” meaning menthol probably shouldn’t be your go-to acne fighter.
At-home acne treatments that work
Both Shainhouse and Manway agree that at-home spot treatments containing targeted acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, are a much better bet for your acne than Vicks VapoRub. Not only does the petroleum jelly in Vicks have the potential to backfire on you, clog your pores, and cause more acne, there are better options available at your local drugstore, maybe even in the same aisle as the VapoRub.
You can also use acne-fighting essential oils. Try mixing a drop or two of tea tree oil or camphor essential oil into a skin-friendly carrier oil like jojoba or almond as an overnight spot treatment. This is an inexpensive and low-risk option with real evidence behind it.
The bottom line
Using Vicks VapoRub on acne may be tempting in a pinch, but our sources say the risks outweigh the possible benefits. You’d likely be much better off buying an over-the-counter acne-specific product to keep in your medicine cabinet for flare-ups.