Essential oils for acne are frequently used by those seeking an alternative to over-the-counter and prescription acne medications.
Acne is a common skin condition, affecting up to 50 million Americans annually. Although it typically affects teens, it can occur at any stage of life and may continue into one’s 30s and 40s (1).
Essential oils are highly concentrated volatile essences extracted from the flowers, stem, leaves, seeds and roots of some plants. The benefits of essential oils are believed to come from their antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
While some research on the use of essential oils for acne looks promising, it is still a long way from standardized treatment. Clinical studies and trials supporting their efficacy are needed.
Medical professionals also stress that essential oils carry the risk of skin irritations, allergic reactions and photosensitivity (an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet rays resulting in an itchy, burning skin rash).
These oils are complex mixtures, often containing up to 60 different substances; these substances, along with the fragrance of oils can be irritating to the skin.
1 Essential oils may fight against the bacterium, Propionibacterium acnes. Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis are two of the major acne-causing bacteria. They are commonly found on the skin, in pores and hair follicles.
Sometimes the bacteria have a perfect environment for multiplying very quickly. With lots of bacteria inside, the pore becomes inflamed (red and swollen). If the inflammation goes deep into the skin, an acne cyst or nodule appears (2).
In 2010, researchers set out to test the antibacterial activity of 10 essential oils against Propionibacterium acnes.
Results revealed that thyme, cinnamon and rose essential oils were the most effective against Propionibacterium acnes; they killed the bacteria after 5 minutes (3).
Rosemary essential oil and Korean fir essential oil have also been effective against Propionibacterium acnes (4).
2 Essential oils may fight against the bacterium, Staphylococcus epidermidis. Although antibiotics are often prescribed in acne treatment, the development of antibiotic resistance is a major concern.
In their search for natural, safe and efficacious alternative treatments, researchers of one study assessed the potential anti-acne activity of seven essential oils against Staphylococcus epidermidis.
At the end of the study, they found that oregano essential oil exhibited the strongest antibacterial activity (5).
Korean fir essential oil also possesses excellent antibacterial activities against Staphylococcus epidermidis (6).
3 Essential oils may be as effective as benzoyl peroxide. Tea tree oil is considered one of the most effective essential oils in treating acne. Besides its well-known antimicrobial properties, tea tree oil displays anti-inflammatory activities.
Although retinoids and antimicrobials such as benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics are the mainstays of topical acne therapy, there is hope that the use of natural products can be as effective.
A three-month clinical trial involving 124 patients found that not only was tea tree oil as effective as benzoyl peroxide in helping reduce acne, fewer patients in the tea tree oil group reported skin discomfort (7).
4 Essential oils have anti-inflammatory activities. Inflammation in the skin surrounding the hair follicles is one of the main contributing factors in the development of acne lesions. Characteristics of inflammatory acne are pimples that have pus on the top and are red on the bottom of the lesion.
The anti-inflammatory properties of several essential oils, including oregano, bergamot, tea tree and Korean fir may be helpful.
While they have not been proven to specifically treat acne, their anti-inflammatory properties might help reduce swelling of lesions and shrink pimples.
5 Essential oils may help fade acne marks. Once acne lesions heal, they may leave behind dark spots on the skin. The spots that linger are caused by inflammation that has disrupted the skin’s natural healing process.
Licorice root extract is a common ingredient used in many skincare products to lighten skin discoloration. Dark spots, or hyperpigmentation, may be caused by sun damage or an injury or inflammation to the skin from acne, eczema or psoriasis.
Two of the active ingredients in licorice root — glabridin and liquirtin — can help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation.
Glabridin is believed to protect skin from darkening in the first place, while liquirtin can fade pigmentation and increase skin renewal.
6 Essential oils may help treat stubborn acne. Although multiple options are available to treat acne, for some, their condition can persist.
According to a 2016 case study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, cedarwood was an effective adjuvant therapy in controlling persistent acne (8).
The components found in cedarwood oil — cedrine, cedrol and thujopsene — offer antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, all of which are helpful in clearing up acne.
More research is needed to expand on this case study to determine if cedarwood is an effective adjunct to other treatments.
7 Essential oils may help prevent stress-related acne. Some scientific researchers have indicated that acne severity is correlated with an increase in stress level and stress has been listed as a factor attributed to acne flares (9).
According to Psychology Today, specific essential oils used in aromatherapy can help relieve stress, relax the body and promote better sleep (10). These include lavender, bergamot, ylang ylang, clary sage and jasmine.
When used in aromatherapy (by diluting them in water and diffusing them into the air or applying them to pressure points), these essential oils can help relieve stress, thereby helping to prevent acne flares.
More research is needed, however, as the connection between stress and acne has been debated by some studies.
8 Essential oils may reduce sebum production. The skin’s sebaceous glands (attached to hair follicles), secrete an oily substance called sebum that softens and lubricates the skin.
When sebaceous glands secrete excess sebum, the pores and hair follicles can become plugged with sebum, dead skin cells, bacteria and other debris. As a result, acne lesions form.
Researchers in India set out to find ways to control acne by decreasing the production of sebum from the sebaceous glands.
Using a rat model, they found that eucalyptus oil effectively decreased sebum production by reducing the size of sebaceous glands, thus controlling the spread of acne (11).
9 Essential oils may help treat blackheads. Blackheads are a form of acne that develop when dead skin cells, oil and Propionibacterium acnes bacteria get trapped in a pore. This material gets oxidized by the air and appears black, hence the name.
Tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil and lavender oil are topical antiseptic agents that have been shown to have a variety of antimicrobial activities. These properties may make them effective in killing bacteria and helping dissolve blackheads.
Further clinical studies are needed.
Some essential oils, when properly used, are typically safe for the treatment of acne.
The main concern with using essential oils is skin irritation or allergic reactions. Overuse and improper blending are common mistakes that may cause a reaction or irritation to the skin
One of the ways to help minimize irritation is to dilute the concentrated essential oils with a carrier oil so they can be applied to the skin without side effects.
Examples of carrier oils include jojoba oil, coconut oil, olive oil and grapeseed oil.
Allergic reactions typically occur in those with sensitive skin or those who have allergies to the essential oil.
According to The National Capital Poison Control Center, since essential oils generally are not regulated, it can be hard to know exactly what is in the essential oil bottle – what species of plant, what concentration of active ingredient, or whether there are any contaminants.
There could be also be interactions with other drugs, too (12).
1 Essential oils can cause contact dermatitis, characterized by a red, itchy rash that can be very uncomfortable. It is caused by direct contact with an ingredient in the essential oil or an allergic reaction to it.
2 Essential oils can cause other skin conditions, such as burning, discomfort or painful tingling
3 Photosensitive essential oils can cause burns to the skin. Certain types of essential oils, known as photosensitive or phototoxic essential oils, contain furocoumarins, which can cause severe burns, severe blistering and permanent loss of skin pigmentation when the skin is exposed to UV light or sunlight.
Examples of photosensitive essential oils include bergamot peel, lemon peel and grapefruit peel. Be alert to all of the ingredients used in essential oil products marketed for acne treatment.
4 Essential oils can cause breathing problems and swelling of the tongue or narrowing of the throat in those with a severe reaction to an essential oil.
5 Essential oils can cause prepubertal gynecomastia. Regular exposure to lavender or tea tree oil has been linked to abnormal breast growth in young boys — called prepubertal gynecomastia.
The results of study presented at the Endocrine Society annual meeting in March 2018 revealed that key chemicals in these common plant-derived oils act as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (13).
Adding 1 to 3 drops of essential oil in a carrier oil to dilute it and applying it to acne lesions is the general recommendation for use.
Due to the risk of skin reactions, irritations and other problematic skin side effects, it is best to speak to a medical professional for the proper usage.
What are essential oils? Essential oils are natural compounds extracted from various parts of plants via distillation or mechanical expression.
What essential oils are good for acne? This depends on the type of acne being treated. Studies show that topical 5 percent tea tree oil is an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne, while oregano, bergamot, tea tree and Korean fir may be helpful in treating inflamed acne.
Tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil and lavender oil may be beneficial for treating blackheads.
How is lavender oil used for acne? A few drops of lavender oil can be dispensed onto a damp cotton swab and applied directly to lesions. Adding a carrier oil is suggested for those with sensitive skin.
How is tea tree oil used for acne? Dispense a few drops of tea tree oil onto a damp cotton swap and apply it directly to trouble spots. Alternatively, you can mix 5 to 6 drops of tea tree oil into a lightweight facial moisturizer and apply it to your entire face.
What essential oils are good for acne scars? While licorice root extract has been shown to be effective in reducing the appearance of acne marks (dark spots left on the skin caused by inflammation that has disrupted the skin’s natural healing process), it is unclear if essential oils can effectively treat acne scars.
Long-lasting acne scars typically appear after a recurring bout with cystic acne — red, painful nodules that are filled with pus and bacteria, which cause inflammation.
Which is better for acne tea tree essential oil or carrot seed? While both have antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory properties, tea tree oil has more clinical evidence to back its efficacy.
How is chamomile essential oil good for acne? Some studies have found chamomile essential oil to be a beneficial antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. As a result, its use may help treat acne.
What essential oil is good for acne inflammation? Tea tree oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, making it a potential remedy for treating cystic acne — a type of acne caused by bacteria and inflammation.
It can decrease the number of acne-causing bacteria sitting on top of the skin and simultaneously reduce inflammation.
What essential oil is good for acne prone skin? There are several types available that can help prevent acne formation. One of the causes of blemishes is the excess secretion of sebum by the sebaceous glands, causing the pores to become plugged with sebum, dead skin cells, bacteria and other debris. As a result, acne lesions form.
Some studies show that eucalyptus oil effectively decreases sebum production by reducing the size of sebaceous glands, thus controlling the spread of acne.
Another cause of acne is Propionibacterium acnes — a major acne-causing bacteria. Tea tree oil’s natural antibacterial properties can help kill these bacteria.
Tea tree oil is one of the most common essential oils found in many face washes and acne treatments.
What essential oil is good for acne-prone, sensitive skin? People with sensitive skin should always be particularly careful about the products they put on their skin. While some essential oils such as chamomile and lavender are considered soothing, they still may be problematic for sensitive skin — even when properly diluted.
Are essential oils safe? Keep in mind that just because a product is natural, does not automatically make it safe. Not all essential oils are beneficial or safe. When used properly, some essential oils can be safe.
The most common side effects are skin irritations or allergic reactions.
Risks vary depending on several factors, including how the oils are used, whether or not they are properly diluted and personal body chemistry.
The best way to prevent a negative reaction is to dilute oils with a gentle carrier oil. Using undiluted essential oils on the skin can lead to reactions ranging from mild contact dermatitis to blistering rashes and burns.
It is also important to do a skin patch test first before applying to larger areas, and to discontinue use if any skin reactions or allergies occur.
Qualities of essential oils can vary widely based on brand and price and are not regulated by the FDA or any other government agency, so be sure to research the brand and check to make sure the oil is of therapeutic quality and purity.
When in doubt, always doublecheck with a medical expert.
What is photosensitivity? This is one of the most concerning side effects of essential oils. Some essential oils are photosensitive, which means they can cause a serious reaction if you apply them to the skin and then expose your skin to the sun’s UV rays.
Reactions include skin redness and discoloration, burning, itching and blistering burns.
Some photosensitive essential oils include bergamot, bitter orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, verbena, and several others.
If you choose to use a photosensitive essential oil, avoid exposing your skin to UV rays for at least 12 hours.
What essential oils are bad for the skin? While all essential oils carry the risk of being irritating to the skin, some are more problematic than others.
All of the citrus oils, including lemon, lime, tangerine, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot are a problem for all skin types as they can cause photosensitivity.
Mint oils such as peppermint, wintergreen, pennyroyal and balm mint are also problematic.
Can essential oils interact with prescription medications? Yes. Seek the advice of the prescribing physician or a pharmacist about potential interactions between any medication and essential oils.
There is concern that they have the ability to reduce the effectiveness of drugs, or enhance them. The degree of change depends on the amount of essential oil used, the percentage strength and the method of use.
What is a carrier oil? Essential oils are highly concentrated and should never be applied directly to the skin. Doing so can cause troublesome skin irritations, burns and other skin reactions.
Carrier oils are oils with little to no scent that are used to dilute essential oils prior to application. Examples of carrier oils include: jojoba oil, olive oil, sweet almond oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil and avocado oil.
As a general rule, you should keep concentration levels of essential oils below 5 percent.
How do you dilute essential oils? Dilution rates vary depending on the type of essential oil used. A general rule of thumb is to add at least 1 ounce of carrier oil to every 12 drops of essential oil.
How do you choose the best essential oil? Keep in mind that essential oils are not regulated by the FDA for medical treatment of skin.
Therefore, it is important to do your research and to carefully read labels, especially the list of ingredients. Is it a concentrate? Is it diluted? Look for high quality options that are free of additives and solvents, and buy organic whenever you can.
It is also important to learn whether or not the manufacturer regularly tests oils for purity and protects them from oxidation, which can change their composition and make them irritating to the skin.
If your doctor approves the use of essential oils to treat your acne, ask for specific recommendations on brands to purchase.
Where can essential oils for acne be bought? Essential oils are available at health food and natural food stores, vitamin shops and other stores.
Medical experts warn, however, that not all essential oil companies are created equal. Some companies do not test their oils for quality. Only purchase essential oils from reputable manufacturers.
How long do essential oils last? This varies, depending on the essential oil, temperature they are stored and their exposure to light and oxygen. In general, essential oils last 2 to 3 years.
Some of the telltale signs that an essential oil has gone bad are changes in color, scent and appearance.
How should you store essential oils? Essential oils are sensitive to heat and oxygen and can lose their potency if not properly cared for. When they are regularly exposed to oxygen, they can become oxidized, which means that they no longer have the potency that they once had.
They should be stored in a cool, dark place (ideally in the refrigerator) and in a dark glass bottle with a tight-fitting lid.
Also follow storage recommendations on the manufacturer’s label.
Essential oils for acne are frequently used by those who prefer using natural alternatives to treat their acne flares.
Although some essential oils have shown promise in their potential to treat acne — due to their antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties — there are few clinical studies on the effectiveness and safety of these oils in the treatment of acne.
In addition, these highly concentrated, essentia1l oils can cause negative side effects such as skin irritations, allergic reactions and photosensitivity (an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet rays resulting in an itchy, burning skin rash).
For this reason, dermatologists recommend using products with ingredients (such as benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and vitamin A derivatives known as retinoids) that have been clinically proven to be effective and safe.