According to some internet claims, essential oils sound like a miracle cure for just about everything. But dabbing extremely strong botanicals on your skin can actually backfire when it comes to acne.
"It’s really important to recognize, when you apply them to your face, you do run the risk of an allergic reaction," says Rajani Katta, M.D., board-certified dermatologist in Houston, Texas. "Essential oils are really highly purified extracts of plants and even though they might be all-natural, we have a saying, 'Poison ivy is all-natural.'"
Initial research on the use of essential oils for acne looks promising, but it's still a long way from a standardized treatment, says Patricia Farris, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Metairie, Louisiana.
"They are complex formulations full of lots of different organic compounds, many of which are anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial," she explains. "But ready for primetime? Probably not yet."
Here’s what you need to know about using essential oils for acne - including pimples, blackheads, and acne scars - before you start applying them on your face.
Is it safe to apply essential oils to your face?
Because essential oils can cause an allergic reaction, you should never put them directly onto your face undiluted, Dr. Katta says. Mixing them into a comedogenic substance like coconut oil can also make acne worse. Plus, it's hard to replicate the formulations used in lab tests at home.
"Patients trying to remedy or doctor themselves with homemade brews is always potentially problematic because how much do you tell them to put in? What type of cream should you put it into?" Dr. Ferris says. "We don’t have specific recommendations and formulas that we can go by, like 2 drops of oil in 8 ounces of cream. We just don’t know the answer to that."
If you're tempted to try it, combining essential oils with a fragrance-free lotion or a carrier oil (like jojoba oil or rosehip oil) can reduce your risk of a potential allergic reaction, Dr. Katta says.
"Start with the tiniest amount possible," she advises. "Before you put anything on your face, you really would want to test it on your arm, then your jawline, just to be extra careful."
If you have broken or sensitive skin, you should definitely steer clear of essential oils. No matter what, never use citrus oils like lemon, orange, or lime on your face, even in a diluted form.
"Lime juice and other citrus juices and oils have those chemicals that make you sensitive to sunlight," Dr. Katta explains. When exposed to the sun's UV rays, those compounds can cause a reaction called phytophotodermatitis - or "margarita dermatitis" - which can result in a rash, swelling, and blisters. Beside the initial itchiness and pain, it can even leave behind skin discoloration.
What essential oils get rid of acne?
Initial research indicates that some essential oils could help with acne because they may have an anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effect. This could potentially stop pimples from forming.
"There’s a bacterium in acne called Propionibacterium acnes and that proliferates in the sebaceous oils of the hair follicle and that’s a key player in the pathogenesis of acne," Dr. Ferris explains. "That bacterium also causes inflammation. There’s inflammation all around the follicle, and that’s why it gets so red and so angry."
By reducing the growth of this bacterium and slowing inflammation, essential oils could help with acne, but it's still too early to make any official recommendations, especially as to which ones to use.
"People take research that has been done on essential oils and extrapolate it for human use, but most of the essential oils really haven’t been studied well in clinical trials," Dr. Katta says. "The only one that really has any research behind it to speak of - in people - is tea tree oil."
Basil and oregano essential oils may also have good inhibitory effects on P. acne growth, Dr. Ferris adds.
Does tea tree oil help with pimples?
"The research is not entirely clear on why tea tree oil has been helpful but we do know that it does seem to reduce the growth of the particular bacteria linked to acne," Dr. Katta says.
Since P. acne proliferation leads to papules and pustules - the red or pus-filled bumps most people call pimples - the antimicrobial properties of tea tree oil could help prevent them. However, the clinical trials done on tea tree oil indicate it may not work for everybody, which is why Dr. Katta advises seeking better-tested treatments instead of mixing up your own cream.
"Personally, I don’t recommend it for my own patients just because we have so much more research on over-the-counter ingredients that we know are effective and we know exactly what concentrations to recommend," she says.
Can you combine essential oils with other acne treatments?
More is not necessarily better. Using over-the-counter or prescription creams in conjunction with essential oils can run the risk of more side effects like redness and peeling - not exactly the desired outcome. If you're using an oral acne medication like Accutane, you would definitely want to check with your dermatologist before using any essential oils.
"Accutane can cause tiny little cracks in the skin and you do not want to use essential oils on skin that is cracked," Dr. Katta says.
Can essential oils help with blackheads?
"It really wouldn’t be that effective based on its mechanism of action," Dr. Katta says. "I’d really go for a different treatment."
She would instead recommend a prescription topical medication like tretinoin or retinoids because they'll take care of the current blackheads and prevent new ones from forming. You can also try an over-the counter face wash with salicylic acid.
Could essential oils help with acne scars?
"I have not seen convincing evidence that it could help with acne scars," Dr. Katta says.
If you're concerned about scars left over from acne - called hypopigmentation - ask your derm about retinoids, which could help them fade faster. Retinoids may also help with pitted scars by promoting collagen remodeling, but reach out to your doc about types of procedures that may reduce the appearance of bigger, permanent marks.
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