- Essential oils for acne have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties to help treat and prevent breakouts
- Essential oils are not as effective as over-the-counter acne treatments
- These oils are not intended to be used in their pure form, and must always be diluted before application
Essential oils are concentrated extracts from specific plants that have traditionally been used for a variety of therapeutic applications. Essential oils for acne demonstrate inflammation-soothing and antibacterial properties that can treat minor breakouts and prevent future ones from developing.
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 undergone in-depth clinical trials. However, what studies have been conducted suggest that many of them are viable acne treatments with observable benefits.
The use of these oils in acne treatment is also backed by a wealth of anecdotal evidence. They are regarded as a more gentle, natural and comparable alternative to medicated acne creams, which often contain harsh ingredients that can cause further irritation.
When used properly, most are unlikely to cause irritation when used in a diluted form.
How fast do they work?
While there is little research on how quickly essential oils perform, in one recent 12-week study, tea tree oil applied twice daily significantly reduced the severity of mild-to-moderate acne after 8 weeks. Further improvements were seen in the last 4 weeks.
Anecdotal reports suggest the application of these oils can provide a mild but noticeable reduction in acne severity after as little as 1 week; significantly more time is typically needed for greater results.
Can essential oils treat acne scars?
The degree to which essential oils contribute to reducing acne scarring is unknown, as there is a paucity of clinical studies on the topic.
Many over-the-counter (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 other active ingredients such retinol or oleic and linoleic acids 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, can have a balancing effect on hormones which can aid in reducing the severity of breakouts.
|Essential Oil||Reduces Acne Formation||Treats Mild Acne||Treats Moderate Acne|
|Clary sage ||Yes||No||No|
|Tea tree ||Yes||Yes||Yes|
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.
This oil increases serotonin levels and inhibits cortisol, the hormone responsible for psychological stress. Stress is known to play a significant 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 prevent infection.
Together, these components fight acne inflammation and reduce the severity of breakouts.
This oil is extracted from the needle-like leaves of rosemary plants. It has powerful antibacterial effects, and is known to kill Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium acnes) bacteria.
Rosemary oil is also known to calm the inflammation associated with acne. 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. Tea tree oil has proven antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and stimulates activity in the immune system.
Thyme oil is rich in thymol, the same antibacterial compound found in oregano oil, and can inhibit the formation of acne-causing bacteria and reduce breakout severity.
One study comparing ten essential oils found this oil to be one of three of the most effective in inhibiting bacterial growth.
How to Use Essential Oils for Acne
As essential oils are highly potent, they must first be diluted with a carrier oil, such as olive, almond or grapeseed oil. If used in their pure form, there is a risk of triggering severe irritation and allergic reactions.
Perform a patch test first to determine if you have any sensitivities before applying to larger areas of skin.
When treating acne, avoid blending essential oils with comedogenic substances such as coconut oil as these can contribute to clogged pores. Also avoid carrier oils with strong fragrances, as these may exacerbate inflammation.
Citrus oils such as lemon (not to be confused with lemongrass) or orange can increase skin photosensitivity and cause rashes and discoloration when exposed to the sun’s UV rays.
Spot treatment method
If you do not have widespread acne, you can target individual pimples with a simple spot treatment.
- Blend 1 drop of tea tree or rosemary oil with 10 drops of carrier oil
- Dip a cotton swab into the mixture and apply to individual pimples
- Allow to rest; pimples should dry out after about 30 minutes
DIY face mask
A facemask is an ideal choice when you want to treat your entire face. Stronger oils such as tea tree or rosemary oil are recommended when treating active breakouts.
- Blend 2–3 tbsp of plain yogurt with 2–3 drops of essential oil
- Apply a thin layer of the mixture to your entire face; avoid the eye area
- Allow to rest for 10 minutes; rinse with lukewarm water
Other Skin Care Benefits of Essential Oils
The same antioxidant effects that help treat acne can make some oils suitable for other skin care purposes. These include targeting signs of aging and hyperpigmentation.
Reducing lines and wrinkles
Some essential oils can soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and help prevent new ones from forming. 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.
Clary sage, oregano, rosemary and thyme oil all have antioxidant effects and can all be used for this purpose. Other oils with antioxidant properties include lemon, lavender and pomegranate oil.
Some essential oils may also soften wrinkles by increasing cell turnover; these include lemon, sandalwood and frankincense oil.
Removing dark spots
Some oils can reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. Both sandalwood and evening primrose oil inhibit the activity of tyrosinase, the enzyme that drives melanin production. This provides a skin lightening effect that can help reduce dark spots, with time.
The antioxidant properties of some oils, such as pomegranate, carrot seed and lavender, can also work as a preventative; 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 topicals or prescription medications.
Medicated OTC creams are effective treatments for mild-to-moderate acne. Benzoyl peroxide, a staple 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 treatments or OTC products can 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 some essential oils can be effective for treating mild acne outbreaks. These include rosemary, clary sage, lemongrass, oregano and thyme. Tea tree oil has been proven effective for mild-to-moderate acne.
Essential oils are unlikely to reduce the appearance of acne scars, however they can reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmented areas.
To avoid irritation, always dilute essential oils in a noncomedogenic, fragrance-free carrier oil—such as almond, grapeseed, jojoba or rosehip—before applying to skin. Ensure you perform a spot-test first to identify any sensitivities.
- 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. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/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
- 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. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23513742/
- 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
- 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