Are Essential Oils Effective Against Acne? Here’s What Studies Show

essential oils for acne
  • While using oil to combat acne may sound counter-intuitive, it actually isn’t — the skin does not become more oily.
  • Many essential oils are antibacterial, detoxifying, and contain natural anti-inflammatory ingredients.
  • Studies have shown that certain types of essential oils are more effective than others at treating acne.

As one of the more common dermatological ailments, acne is also one of the most difficult to address, with a bewildering array of professional and over-the-counter treatments available.

Essential oils for acne offer another alternative for acne sufferers. Applying essential oils topically is basically a form of oil cleansing that purifies the skin — much like any over-the-counter product. The difference lies in the natural ingredients contained within these applications.

Here we review several research studies on essential oils for acne, providing an evidence-based perspective on their effectiveness as an acne therapy.

What causes acne?

Acne vulgaris is a long-term skin disease that is a direct result of hair follicles becoming clogged with dead skin cells and oil. This creates prime conditions for bacteria to grow and infection to set in. Inflammation occurs in the form of pimples, bumps, pus-filled lumps, blackheads, and whiteheads.

Acne vulgaris can range from mild to severe and present not only on the face, but on the back, shoulders, and chest. For some individuals, this inflammation can lead to scarring.

What is the most common trigger of acne?

In short, puberty. At this life stage, hormonal changes activate an increased production of sebum (an oily substance) secreted from the sebaceous glands. Other acne causes include:

  • Stress
  • Hormone levels
  • Menstrual cycles
  • Genetics
  • Certain kinds of medication, such as antidepressants

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are produced from chemical compounds contained in plant leaves, stems, and flowers. These elements are extracted, crushed, and distilled, resulting in a highly concentrated reduction.

The final essential oil contains the plant’s essence combined with a carrier oil — such as vegetable, coconut, olive or grapeseed oil — to ensure it is comfortable on the skin once applied.

According to cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Robin Evans of Stamford, CT, essential oils may have properties that can help reduce the appearance of acne. “Essential oils may offer anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits which can help heal acne lesions, such as pimples, pustules, and small cysts,” Dr. Evans says.

Traditional acne treatments differ depending on their chemical makeup and intended results. Essential oils too can vary in this way.

The best essential oils to treat acne

Clinical studies involving essential oils are few and far between, but helpful all the same. The studies reviewed here include oils that show the most promise in terms of their ability to reduce acne scars and acne breakouts, and improve skin’s overall health.

Tea tree oil

Purported to be one of the best essential oils for treating acne, tea tree oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties; it can kill acne-causing bacteria while reducing inflammation.

In a clinical study, tea tree oil was shown to be an effective acne-fighter. The study examined the efficacy of 5% benzoyl peroxide lotion compared with 5% tea tree oil. Researchers concluded that topical 5% tea tree oil was as effective as the peroxide for treating mild to moderate acne, with patients experiencing fewer side effects.

However, in another published report after an in depth review of clinical trial data regarding topical applications for acne treatment, researchers concluded there was no compelling evidence indicating tea tree oil was a successful treatment for acne. However, they did note this essential oil did warrant additional investigation.

Jojoba oil

Jojoba oil is another essential oil promoted as an acne treatment. Its effectiveness is said to be due to its chemical makeup — it mimics the body’s sebum. When jojoba oil is applied, it’s sebum-like quality prompts skin to stop producing excess amounts of sebum.

A 2012 study published in the journal Forsch Komplementmed observed the effects of jojoba clay-based sheet mask treatments on acne and acne lesions. Study results showed jojoba’s effects produced a 54% reduction in total acne lesion count within that time.

Clary sage oil

Clary sage contains linalyl acetate, a compound that’s known to reduce inflammation and acne scarring. It’s also believed to help regulate oil production in the skin and may may have antibacterial properties.

This essential oil is said to reduce bacterial growth and eliminate existing bacteria — a definite acne reducing benefit.

Lavender oil

Lavender oil is said to have antioxidant and antimicrobial characteristics. Its antioxidant properties may also help reduce the appearance of scars and dark spots caused by acne.

Researchers at Songho College in Hoengseong County, South Korea conducted a study to observe the effects of combining over-the-counter, acne treatments with lavender essential oil and tea tree oil on acne pustules and acne lesions.

Results showed significant reductions in acne pustules and lesions, together with noticeable reductions in sebum secretion rates for the group that was treated with the tea tree and lavender concentration. The control group saw modest results in comparison.

It was concluded that lavender or tea tree oil combined with a conventional acne treatment can reduce acne and also stabilize sebum secretion rates.

Juniper berry oil

Juniper berry oil is said to have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties along with detoxifying agents to prevent acne.

A 2005 study on the effects of juniper oil on acne was published in the journal Pharmaceutical Development and Technology. Researchers set out to investigate this essential oil’s antibacterial activity by combining juniper berry oil with acne-based bacteria in fat particles and comparing them with particles that only had the bacteria.

The purpose of the study was to determine juniper berry’s effectiveness as a topical acne treatment. The results showed that juniper berry oil, when combined with a carrier oil, does display anti-acne properties.

A word of caution

Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey of Sebastopol, CA cautions against certain risks that come with using essential oils.

“Essential oils can be part of an antiacne skincare routine but care must be taken because they are common allergens,” Bailey says “Using an essential oil ‘neat’ — meaning full strength — risks inciting an allergic or irritant rash. Choosing a product with diluted essential oil formulated in a carrier oil would be best.”

As with any form of treatment, it’s always best to check with a doctor to see if essential oil for acne will work for you.

» To learn more about essential oils for acne, ask a dermatologist for advice or consult with our medical review team.

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