- Essential oils have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can help to prevent acne formation
- Although research is limited, some oils have demonstrated efficacy as treatments for mild-to-moderate acne.
- Essential oils are unlikely to be as effective as over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatments.
- Essential oils are potentially irritating in their pure form, and should always be diluted before application.
Essential oils are concentrated solutions of chemical extracts from plants. They have traditionally been used for a variety of therapeutic applications. A recent interest in natural at-home remedies has led to the popular use of essential oils for acne treatment purposes.
Though not as well-researched as other acne treatment modalities, some essential oils demonstrate inflammation-soothing and antibacterial properties that can reduce acne formation and treat minor breakouts. Most are without serious side effects and are unlikely to cause irritation when used in a diluted form.
Are Essential Oils Good for Acne-Prone Skin?
Essential oils contain a wide variety of organic compounds with anti-inflammatory and bactericidal properties. When applied topically, they can kill or inhibit the formation of acne-causing bacteria, reduce the inflammation of acne lesions and accelerate healing.
With the exception of tea tree oil, few oils have yet undergone in-depth clinical trials. However, what studies have been conducted suggest that many of them are viable acne treatments with observable benefits for acne-prone skin.
The use of these oils in acne treatment is also backed by a wealth of anecdotal evidence. They are regarded as a gentler and similarly effective alternative to medicated acne creams, which often contain harsh ingredients that may cause irritation.
How fast do they work?
Little research has been done on how quickly essential oils may function in treating acne. However, one recent study found that applying tea tree oil twice daily significantly reduced the severity of mild to moderate acne after eight weeks of treatment. Results continued to improve throughout the following weeks, though at a decelerated pace.
Anecdotal reports suggest that the application of these oils can provide a mild but noticeable reduction in acne severity after as little as one week. Significantly more time is typically needed for more dramatic results to show.
Can essential oils treat acne scars?
The degree to which essential oils contribute to reducing acne scarring is unknown, and has not yet been studied in depth.
Many OTC topicals formulated to reduce the appearance of acne scars do contain oils such as tea tree, lavender and rosemary oil. However, these products also typically contain plant-based carrier oils that contribute to increased cell turnover and collagen production, and thus have more credible scar-reducing effects.
Best Essential Oils to Treat Acne
The most effective essential oils for acne treatment are those with pronounced antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects. Certain oils, such as clary sage oil, also have hormonal effects that may contribute to reducing the severity of breakouts.
|Essential Oil||How It Works||Reduces acne formation||Treats mild acne||Treats moderate acne|
|Clary sage oil||Kills acne-causing bacteria|
Balances sebum production
|Lemongrass oil||Kills acne-causing bacteria|
|Oregano oil||Kills acne-causing bacteria|
|Rosemary oil||Kills acne-causing bacteria|
|Tea tree oil||Kills acne-causing bacteria|
|Thyme oil||Kills acne-causing bacteria||Yes||No||No|
Clary sage oil
Clary sage oil is extracted from a medicinal herb related to culinary sage. This oil fights acne formation by way of its antimicrobial properties, and also works to balance sebum production.
Clary sage oil application also affects the body’s hormone levels in a manner conducive to improved mood and reduced anxiety. It increases serotonin levels and inhibits cortisol, the hormone responsible for psychological stress. Stress is known to play a major role in acne formation, so these effects can in turn lead to reduced breakouts.
Lemongrass oil has antibacterial and antioxidant properties, and is sometimes used as a spot treatment for mild acne. It can inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria, prevent inflammation and reduce the frequency of breakouts.
Oregano contains the natural compound carvacrol, a powerful antioxidant. It also contains a small amount of thymol, a bactericidal chemical that helps to prevent infection. Together, these ingredients resist acne inflammation and reduce the severity of breakouts.
Though oregano oil’s acne-fighting effects have not yet been formally tested on human subjects, in vitro tests have demonstrated its antibacterial effects. This oil has been shown to effectively kill the acne-causing bacteria Staphylococcus epidermidis.
This oil is extracted from the needle-like leaves rosemary plants. It has powerful antibacterial effects, and is known to suppress and kill the acne-causing bacteria Cutibacterium acnes.
Rosemary oil has furthermore been proven to reduce the inflammation associated with acne without causing skin irritation. As such, it can be an effective spot treatment for mild-to-moderate acne.
Tea tree oil
This oil is extracted from the needle-like leaves of the tea tree, a plant native to Australia with unique flowers that resemble clusters of white spikes. Tea tree oil has proven antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and stimulates activity in the immune system.
Tea tree oil can effectively treat mild-to-moderate forms of acne—including blackheads, whiteheads, papules and pustules—with minimal side effects. Reported side effects include skin dryness and minor peeling; these tend to resolve without additional treatment.
Thyme oil is rich in thymol, the same antibacterial compound found in oregano oil, and can thus inhibit the formation of acne-causing bacteria and reduce breakout severity. One study comparing ten different essential oils found thyme oil to inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria most effectively.
How to Use Essential Oils for Acne
You should never apply pure, undiluted essential oils to your skin. They are high in potency, and carry a risk of triggering severe irritation and allergic reactions. Before application, always dilute them with a plant-based carrier oil, such as olive, almond or grapeseed oil.
When treating acne, avoid blending essential oils with comedogenic substances like coconut oil. These can increase your risk of pore clogs, and may worsen your acne. Also avoid carrier oils with strong fragrances, as these may exacerbate inflammation. Jojoba and rose hip oil are both light, noncomedogenic and fragrance-free carrier oils ideal for blending.
Citrus oils like lemon oil have antibacterial properties that may aid in acne treatment, however they also increase skin photosensitivity. They may cause your skin to develop painful rashes and skin discoloration when it is exposed to UV radiation. As such, these oils are generally not recommended, and sun exposure should be avoided immediately after their use.
Spot treatment method
Target individual pimples with a simple spot treatment formulation. Diluted formulas are unlikely to cause irritation, but if they do, be sure to rinse them off immediately with lukewarm water.
- Blend one drop of tea tree or rosemary oil with 10 drops of a carrier oil of your choice
- Dip a Q-tip or cotton swab into the mixture and apply it to the treatment area
- Let dry; treated pimples should dry out after about 30 minutes
DIY face mask
Fight acne formation or treat wider areas with a face mask formulation. Stronger oils such as tea tree or rosemary oil are recommended when treating active breakouts.
- Blend 2–3 tablespoons of plain yogurt with 2–3 drops of an essential oil of your choice
- Apply a layer of the mixture to the treatment area with your fingers
- Leave on for 10 minutes; rinse off with lukewarm water
Other Skin Care Benefits of Essential Oils
The same antioxidant effects that help to reduce acne inflammation can make some oils suitable for other skin care purposes. These include preventing the development of signs of aging and hyperpigmentation.
Some essential oils can soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and prevent them from developing. The most effective oils for this purpose are those with antioxidant properties, which can protect the skin from free radical damage caused by sun exposure and air pollution.
Some essential oils used for acne treatment, like clary sage, oregano, rosemary and thyme oil, have antioxidant effects, and may also be used to prevent the development of signs of skin aging. Other oils with antioxidant properties include lemon, lavender and pomegranate oil.
Some essential oils may also soften wrinkles by increasing cell turnover, speeding up the rate at which layers of thin, damaged skin are shed and encouraging the growth of supple new skin. Oils with these effects include lemon, sandalwood and frankincense oil.
Removing dark spots
Some oils can contribute to reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation. Both sandalwood and evening primrose oil inhibit the activity of tyrosinase, the enzyme that drives melanin production. This gives them a skin lightening effect that can help to treat dark spots.
The antioxidant properties of some oils, such as pomegranate, carrot seed and lavender oil, can also help to prevent the development of dark spots. These oils protect the skin from free radical damage, which is a common trigger for hyperpigmentation.
Alternative Acne Treatments
Despite their benefits, essential oils are unlikely to provide the same acne treatment results as specially formulated medications and topicals.
Medicated OTC creams are effective spot treatments for mild-to-moderate acne. Benzoyl peroxide, one of the most common ingredients in acne creams, kills acne-causing bacteria and increases cell turnover, helping to prevent the buildup of dead skin which can lead to clogged pores. Retinoid creams can also treat acne by increasing cell turnover.
Severe acne that does not respond to at-home treatment or OTC products may be treated with prescription medications, such as higher potency retinoids and oral or topical antibiotics. These products can cause severe side effects for some, and their use should always be monitored by a doctor.
The anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects of certain essential oils makes them viable treatments for improving the condition of acne-prone skin. Some oils that are effective in this manner include tea tree, rosemary, clary sage, lemongrass, oregano and thyme oil.
What studies that have been conducted suggest that tea tree oil can significantly reduce acne severity after eight weeks of daily use. Anecdotal evidence suggests a varying but somewhat similar timeframe for other oils, with initial improvements becoming visible after one week.
Essential oils are unlikely to effectively treat acne scars, however they can reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmented areas.
To avoid causing irritation, essential oils should always be diluted in a noncomedogenic, fragrance-free carrier oil—such as almond, grapeseed, jojoba or rosehip oil—before being applied to the skin. They can also be blended into a face mask formula to treat wider areas.
- Ali, B., Al-Wabel, N. A., Shams, S., Ahamad, A., Khan, S. A., & Anwar, F. (2015). Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy: A Systemic Review. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 5(8), 601–11. doi:10.1016/j.apjtb.2015.05.007
- Bielfeldt, S., Blaak, J., Staib, P., Simon, I., Wohlfart, R., Manger, C., & Wilhelm, K. P. (2017). Observer-Blind Randomized Controlled Study of a Cosmetic Blend of Safflower, Olive and Other Plant Oils in the Improvement of Scar and Striae Appearance. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 40(1), 81–86. doi:10.1111/ics.12438
- de Groot, A. C., & Schmidt, E. (2016). Essential Oils, Part IV: Contact Allergy. Dermatitis, 27(4), 170–5. doi:10.1097/DER.0000000000000197
- Enshaieh, S., Jooya, A., Siadat, A. H., & Iraji, F. (2007). The Efficacy of 5% Topical Tea Tree Oil Gel in Mild to Moderate Acne Vulgaris: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study. Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, 73(1), 22–5. doi:10.4103/0378-6323.30646
- Fu, Y., Zu, Y., Chen, L., Efferth, T., Liang, H., Liu, Z., & Liu, W. (2007). Investigation of Antibacterial Activity of Rosemary Essential Oil Against Propionibacterium Acnes With Atomic Force Microscopy. Planta Medica, 73(12), 1275–80. doi:10.1055/s-2007-981614
- Jović, A., Marinović, B., Kostović, K., Čeović, R., Basta-Juzbašić, A., & Bukvić Mokos, Z. (2017). The Impact of Psychological Stress on Acne. Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica, 25(2):1133–41. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28871928
- Koo, J. H., Lee, I., Yun, S. K., Kim, H. U., Park, B. H., & Park, J. W. (2010). Saponified Evening Primrose Oil Reduces Melanogenesis in B16 Melanoma Cells and Reduces UV-Induced Skin Pigmentation in Humans. Lipids, 45(5), 401–7. doi:10.1007/s11745-010-3405-4
- Lee, K. B., Cho, E., & Kang, Y. S. (2014). Changes in 5-Hydroxytryptamine and Cortisol Plasma Levels in Menopausal Women After Inhalation of Clary Sage Oil. Phytotherapy Research, 28(11): 1599–605. doi:10.1002/ptr.5163
- Lu, M., Dai, T., Murray, C. K., & Wu, M. X. (2018). Bactericidal Property of Oregano Oil Against Multidrug-Resistant Clinical Isolates. Frontiers in microbiology, 9, 2329. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2018.02329
- Malhi, H. K., Tu, J., Riley, T. V., Kumarasinghe, S. P., & Hammer, K. A. (2017). Tea Tree Oil Gel for Mild to Moderate Acne; A 12 Week Uncontrolled, Open-Label Phase II Pilot Study. Australasian Journal of Dermatology, 58(3), 205–10. doi:10.1111/ajd.12465
- Misra, B. B., & Dey, S. (2013). TLC-Bioautographic Evaluation of in Vitro Anti-Tyrosinase and Anti-Cholinesterase Potentials of Sandalwood Oil. Natural Product Communications, 8(2), 253–6. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23513742
- Naganuma, M., Hirose, S., Nakayama, Y., Nakajima, K., & Someya, T. (1985). A Study of the Phototoxicity of Lemon Oil. Archives of Dermatological Research, 278(1), 31-6. doi:10.1007/bf00412492
- Tsai, T. H., Chuang, L. T., Lien, T. J., Liing, Y. R., Chen, W. Y., & Tsai, P. J. (2013). Rosmarinus officinalis extract suppresses Propionibacterium acnes-induced inflammatory responses. Journal of medicinal food, 16(4), 324–333. doi:10.1089/jmf.2012.2577
- Winkelman, W. J. (2018). Aromatherapy, Botanicals, and Essential Oils in Acne. Clinics in Dermatology, 36(3), 299–305. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2018.03.004
- Zarfeshany, A., Asgary, S., & Javanmard, S. H. (2014). Potent health effects of pomegranate. Advanced biomedical research, 3, 100. doi:10.4103/2277-9175.129371
- Zu, Y., Yu, H., Liang, L., Fu, Y., Efferth, T., Liu, X., & Wu, N. (2010). Activities of Ten Essential Oils Towards Propionibacterium Acnes and PC-3, A-549 and MCF-7 Cancer Cells. Molecules, 15(5), 3200–10. doi:10.3390/molecules15053200