Acne is a common skin disorder, affecting 85% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 years¹. It is caused by a buildup of dead skin cells, sebum (an oil secreted naturally to lubricate your skin and hair), and bacteria in skin pores or follicles.
Acne can vary in severity from mild to severe. If your acne is mild, you may want to try to manage it at home before visiting the doctor for prescription medication. Read on to find out when it’s safe to treat your acne yourself and which natural remedies are backed by scientific evidence.
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Acne can be broken down into grades of severity depending on the clinical picture and the extent of your acne. Take a look at the following table² to get an idea of whether your acne is mild, moderate, or severe.
If you only have mild acne, it should be safe to try to treat it with home remedies. If you have moderate or severe acne, it is better to see a doctor for a formal diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Moderate and severe acne that is not treated effectively can lead to scarring, which may result in permanent damage to your skin. If you have deep cysts, nodules, or sinuses, you should see your dermatologist as soon as you can to prevent scarring.
If your mild acne does not respond to your at-home remedies, you should make an appointment to see your doctor so that they can confirm that you actually have mild acne (and not something else such as rosacea) and also suggest a more effective treatment. Although mild acne doesn’t usually scar significantly, it can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety³ if left untreated.
1. Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil has been shown to have natural anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties⁴. Since part of the pathogenesis of acne is inflammation and secondary bacterial infection of blocked pores, tea tree oil has been postulated to be of benefit in the management of acne.
One study⁴ compared 5% tea tree oil to benzoyl peroxide for the treatment of mild acne. Benzoyl peroxide is a commonly used topical agent for the management of mild acne. The study found that both tea tree oil and benzoyl peroxide reduced the number of inflamed lesions. Benzoyl peroxide had a greater effect; however, it was also associated with more side effects.
Tea tree oil for acne is usually found in gel form and should only be applied topically. Tea tree oil is generally safe and well-tolerated when used on the skin, but should never be ingested as it can have serious side effects.
2. Jojoba oil
Jojoba oil has a high content of wax esters. It has traditionally been used in the treatment of facial and scalp sores and lesions for hundreds of years. Modern research⁵ has shown that jojoba oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.
Several small studies⁵ have shown the efficacy of jojoba oil in the treatment of mild acne. Another study⁶ assessing the effect of jojoba oil in a clay mask showed significant improvement in acne vulgaris in patients using the mask. However, it was uncertain to what extent the jojoba oil was responsible for the findings as opposed to the medical clay being responsible for the improvement.
3. Aloe vera
Aloe vera gel is extracted from the mucinous inner section of the aloe vera plant leaf and has been traditionally used medicinally and cosmetically.
Research⁷ has shown that aloe vera gel has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and wound-healing properties.
Topical tretinoin is a mainstay for the treatment of mild acne but can cause skin reddening, drying, and scaling. One study⁸ compared the use of topical tretinoin alone with a preparation of tretinoin and aloe vera gel in the treatment of mild acne. Significantly improved results were found in the group using the combination gel. The aloe vera gel acted directly on the acne lesions, but it also had soothing and calming effects that countered the usual side effects of the topical tretinoin.
4. Green tea
Green tea is made from the unfermented leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant and is purported to have many health benefits. Most of the health benefits that are recognized come from drinking green tea or taking the extract orally, but one study⁹ has suggested that green tea extract applied topically may have a beneficial effect on mild acne.
The study used a 3% ethanolic green tea extract in an emulsifier that was applied to the cheeks of study participants for eight weeks. Skin sebum levels were measured and were found to have decreased significantly after the course of treatment. Excess sebum production¹⁰ is known to cause acne so further research into the use of green tea extract in the treatment of acne is warranted.
5. Purified bee venom
Laboratory studies have shown purified bee venom to have anti-inflammatory properties.
A small study¹¹ assessed the therapeutic value of purified bee venom in the treatment of mild to moderate acne. Purified bee venom in serum form was applied to the face twice daily for six weeks. The visual appearance of the acne of all the volunteers improved after treatment with purified bee venom. The subjects showed improvement in the number of open comedones, closed comedones, papules, pustules, and nodules after three to six weeks of treatment with purified bee venom. There were no serious side effects. This study suggests there is potential for the use of purified bee venom in the treatment of acne, but further large-scale studies are needed to verify the effect.
Zinc¹² has been used in the treatment of all grades of acne for many years. Topical 5% zinc sulfate was shown to have a significantly more beneficial effect on mild acne when compared to a 2% tea lotion. Likewise, topical antibiotic creams containing zinc are more efficacious in the treatment of mild acne than topical antibiotics alone.
Oral zinc has been shown to be of benefit for acne, especially severe acne. However, the side effects at the doses necessary to treat acne make it poorly tolerated.
It is thought that zinc is beneficial for the treatment of acne because of its anti-inflammatory effects and its ability to reduce P. acnes counts.
There are some simple lifestyle changes that you can make that will help to keep your mild acne under control.
1. Avoid touching, picking, or squeezing your pimples
Picking at or squeezing your pimples can make your acne worse. Your fingers are not always clean and playing with your pimples can introduce infection. Squeezing your pimples can damage the skin and surrounding tissue and lead to worse scarring. It’s best to avoid touching your pimples unless it’s to wash your face.
2. Choose oil-free cosmetics and face products
Cosmetics and face products that are occlusive or that contain a high oil content can block pores and worsen acne. Choose face products that are non-comedogenic, oil-free, or non-acnegenic.
3. Follow a low glycemic diet and avoid chocolate and dairy
Some small studies¹⁰ have shown a link between increased chocolate intake and worsened acne. Dairy¹⁰ has also been shown to be linked to more severe acne. Decreasing or eliminating chocolate and dairy from your diet may help to improve your acne. A low glycemic diet² that limits processed and refined carbohydrates has been linked to improved acne outcomes.
4. Manage your stress
Stress has been shown to worsen acne¹³. It is likely that it causes increased inflammation as well as raises levels of androgens (hormones that increase sebum production). Learning to manage your stress through meditation, breathing exercises, mindfulness, and exercise may well improve your acne.
Acne is a common skin disorder, and you may want to try to manage your acne at home with natural remedies before visiting your doctor.
A few natural remedies have scientific evidence backing them. Tea tree oil, jojoba oil, aloe vera gel, green tea extract, purified bee venom, and zinc have all been shown to be beneficial in treating mild acne or to have potential in the treatment of acne.
As well as home remedies, some simple lifestyle changes can also improve your acne. Avoiding picking your pimples and using non-acnegenic cosmetics can help keep your acne under control. Following a low glycemic diet that limits chocolate and dairy could also be beneficial for your acne. Stress is a known trigger for acne flare-ups, so reducing your stress levels can improve your acne.
If your acne does not respond to home remedies or if it is severe, it's best to see a doctor to get appropriate and effective treatment.
Acne | MSD Manual Consumer Version
Acne can affect more than your skin | American Academy of Dermatology Association
Aloe vera: A short review (2008)
Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents | Acta Dermato-Venereologica
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