I have suffered from some form of acne or another since I was a teenager, and it is a struggle that has persisted for much of my life. I have tried many of the commercially available products in the market, and although many helped to clear up my skin, one additional bother was the associated side effects. The irritation, extreme dryness, and peeling created another set of issues that I had to deal with. Essential oils have given me the peace of mind to treat acne without the side effects. I know I am not alone in my struggle with acne, and if you suffer from acne, neither are you.
Acne is one of the most common skin problems out there. It is estimated that 40 to 50 million people in the United States have some form of acne (Date, Naik, & Nagarsenker, 2005). Nearly 90% of all adolescents develop acne, and up to 80% of all adolescents and adults up to the age of 30 suffer from the condition (Gardiner, Coles, & Kemper, 2001; Sinha, Srivastava, Mishra, & Yadav, 2014). It also occurs in adults and persists into the 40’s and 50’s (Hoffman, 2003).
Why Do We Get Acne?
The proper term for acne is acne vulgaris, and it consists of open comedones commonly known as blackheads, closed comedones that either form papules or whiteheads, superficial pustules containing pus, or nodules with pus deep in the dermis or skin (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013).
Chemicals, emotional stress, excessive washing, hygiene, genetics, pollutants, repeated rubbing of the skin, and use of cosmetics and skin products can cause acne and/or leave the skin more susceptible to acne (Hoffman, 2003; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Acne is common in adolescents because it occurs when androgen or sex hormone stimulation causes pilosebaceous glands or hair follicles to increase in size and secrete more sebum. Sebum interacts with hormones, keratin, and bacteria to block follicular canals that lead to comedones, and eventually pustules, nodules, and cysts (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis are bacteria that cause acne, especially pus-forming acne (Chaudhary, Tariq, Zaman, & Imtiyas, 2013; Kumar, Baboota, Agarwal, Ali, & Ahuja, 2008).
Acne occurs most commonly in the face, back, chest, and shoulders, and because of its visibility, it can cause reduced confidence, depression, emotional distress, feelings of insecurity or inferiority, maladjustment, and low self-esteem (Sinha et al., 2014; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013).
Common Acne Treatments & Their Side Effects
Treatments for acne include use of gels, creams, or ointments containing benzoyl peroxide or similar ingredients, comedone extraction, exfoliation, laser treatments, and antibiotics. Accutane or isotretinoin causes “intracranial hypertension, depression, and suicidal ideation” (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013, p. 1160). Erythromicin, salicylic acid, and azelaic acid can cause dryness, redness, and peeling (Date et al., 2005). Use of antibiotics increases the body’s chance of developing increased resistance to antibiotics (Sinha et al., 2014). Comedone extraction and exfoliation, especially if not performed correctly, can leave the skin feeling sensitive and with redness.
Essential Oils Fight Acne-Causing Bacteria
Essential oils are effective treatments for acne because they have antibacterial activity against the bacteria associated with acne. They are also safer options that offer little to no side effects. All essential oils are not effective in treating acne, but over 30 essential oils can offer great treatment options.
An in vitro study on 10 essential oils looked at the antibacterial effect of mint, ginger, lemon, grapefruit, jasmine, lavender, chamomile, thyme, rose, and cinnamon essential oils against P. acnes bacteria. “In vitro” means “in a glass,” so in vitro studies are studies conducted in test tubes, petri-dishes, or other glass material outside of the normal environments of the organisms involved. In vitro studies are ideal to test how a substance reacts to viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms. In the essential oil study, the essential oils most effective against P. acnes were thyme, cinnamon, and rose (Zu et al., 2010). The other essential oils also had an effect against P. acnes, but it was not as strong.
In vitro, cinnamon, spearmint, and tea tree essential oils had antibacterial activity against P. acnes (Sinha et al., 2014). Tea tree also showed activity against S. epidermidis. Another in vitro study on cinnamon essential oil showed it had antibacterial action against P. acnes and S. epidermidis (Chaudhary et al., 2013).
Pazyar, Yaghoobi, Bagherani, & Kazeroumi (2013) reviewed 47 in vivo, in vitro, and clinical studies of the uses of tea tree essential oil (TTO) in dermatology, and found TTO was effective in treating acne vulgaris, seborrheic dermatitis, and chronic gingivitis. In vivo studies are conducted on full live organisms, including animals, plants, and humans. Clinical studies are only conducted on humans.
A randomized controlled trial with 124 patients showed that 5% TTO gel was best for mild to moderate acne vulgaris (Pazyar et al., 2013). A clinical assessment showed that 5% TTO was as effective as 5% benzoyl peroxide lotion in treating acne, yet was better tolerated (Kumar et al., 2008). A study on 60 patients suffering from mild to moderate acne, TTO reduced the count and severity of acne lesions (Sinha et al., 2014). A single-blind randomized controlled study on 124 teenagers with middle to moderate acne demonstrated that 5% TTO reduced open and closed comedones as effectively as 5% benzoyl peroxide (Gardiner et al., 2001). TTO took longer to work than benzoyl peroxide, but it produced “fewer side effects, such as dryness, irritation, stinging, burning, itching, and redness” (Gardiner et al., 2001, p. 103).
Thyme, cinnamon, rose, and tea tree have antibacterial action against the acne-causing bacteria, and can be considered as possible treatments for acne vulgaris. They are an alternative treatment to the antibiotic resistant strains of P. acnes and S. epidermidis. The essential oil of these herbs can be diluted in carrier oil and applied topically. I use tea tree essential oil, and blend 2-3 drops in a teaspoon of jojoba oil. It has worked wonders for me. Although it may take longer to act than other commonly available treatments for acne, it produces fewer side effects.
Chaudhary, S. S., Tariq, M., Zaman, R., & Imtiyaz, S. (2013). The in vitro anti-acne activity of two unani drugs. Ancient Science of Life, 33(1), 35-38. doi:10.4103/0257-7941.134594
Date, A. A., Naik, B., & Nagarsenker, M. S. (2005). Novel drug delivery systems: Potential in improving topical delivery of antiacne agents. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 19(1), 2-16. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/225270902?accountid=158302
Gardiner, P., Coles, D., & Kemper, K. J. (2001). The skinny on herbal remedies for dermatologic disorders. Contemporary Pediatrics, 18(7), 103. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/206114905?accountid=158302
Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical Herbalism, The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Kumar, A., Baboota, S., Agarwal, S. P., Ali, J., & Ahuja, A. (2008). Treatment of acne with special emphasis on herbal remedies. Expert Review of Dermatology, 3(1), 111-122. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1586/17469818.104.22.168
Pazyar, N., Yaghoobi, R., Bagherani, N., & Kazerouni, A. (2013). A review of applications of tea tree oil in dermatology. International Journal of Dermatology, 52(7), 784-790. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2012.05654.x.
Pizzorno, J. E. & Murray, M. T. (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine (4th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingstone.
Sinha, P., Srivastava, S., Mishra, N., & Yadav, N. P. (2014). New perspectives on antiacne plant drugs: Contribution to modern therapeutics. BioMed Research International. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/301304
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), 3200-3210. doi:10.3390/molecules15053200