While herbs are certainly not the most powerful treatments available for acne, sometimes skin responds to gentler, more natural treatment. If you’re not dealing with severe acne, dermatologists mostly agree that herbal remedies are worth trying (if you’re willing to be patient).
“Herbs can treat both the root and branches of acne: hormones, stress, bacteria while drugs cannot without side effects. Herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years in cultural medicine like Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, along with other traditions across the world,” says Doctor of Chinese and Integrative Medicine Elizabeth Trattner.
From a dermatologist’s standpoint, herbal ingredients or products containing them are worth trying but with the caveat that they might not be potent enough for some. “Those with severe breakouts can use herbal products to treat acne but may need a more boosted treatment and a prescription from a dermatologist,” says New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur. Though data is not as abundant as it is for more conventional acne medications, “herbal remedies were used to clear up acne and other skin conditions well before modern treatments existed for hundreds of years,” says Los Angeles-based, board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban. “Despite the lack of research on many herbal solutions, anecdotal evidence is plentiful enough for dermatological recommendations,” she says.
AWhy Herbs Can Help with Acne—And Which to Look For
“When studied in a lab, many plants seem to have anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-sebum (anti-oil) properties,” says New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Tatyana Nektalova. “Considering that acne is a multi-factorial inflammatory skin condition caused by the overproduction of oil and overgrowth of cutibacterium acnes, a bacteria, some plants have the potential to offer a promising solution.”
“Some herbs have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties. These help reduce acne-causing bacteria and inflammation and heal blemishes,” Shamban says. Some of the best herbs for acne-prone skin contain tannins, which Trattner explains are “bitter compounds that are found in nature that have an anti-inflammatory and anti-acne effect on the skin.” (Tannins are found in witch hazel).
There is a multitude of herbs that are common in skincare—maybe even some you already use. These are some to look for:
Witch Hazel, Shamban notes, “is high in the antioxidant group tannins which help to constrict and absorb excess sebum. They actually compress proteins, mop the oils on the skin surface and minimize the appearance of pores.” Though tannins can be drying and sensitizing for some, most can use them. Witch Hazel is an inexpensive and easily accessible ingredient, too, found in products like Mario Badescu’s soothing, hydrating, and purifying Witch Hazel & Rosewater Toner.
“Lavender oil works well to kill bacteria, which can help prevent further acne breakouts,” explains Shamban. “It also unclogs pores and reduces inflammation, but is not best applied directly to skin without being diluted or applied using a carrier oil.” To skip the DIY, try the Kypris Clearing Serum, which uses lavender alongside other blemish-busting hero ingredients like zinc to keep acne at bay.
When you think of chamomile, you probably think of tea for a sore throat or an upset stomach. And those calming, anti-inflammatory properties are exactly why the herb can also benefit inflammatory acne: “It is commonly used for people with sensitive skin to reduce redness and may be useful in treating inflammatory acne,” New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Josh Zeichner explains. Find it in the simultaneously soothing and exfoliating Eminence Organics Calm Skin Chamomile Exfoliating Peel.
Tea tree can help kill acne-causing bacteria; however, Trattner warns, “it’s also one of the strongest and most sensitizing essential oils,” so she recommends always patch testing it and diluting it with a carrier oil. To simplify the process, you can try a product already formulated with it diluted, like the Biossance Squalane + Tea Tree Balancing Oil, an ultra-light oil that’s safe for acne-prone skin. (Or try our natural MM Balance Masks which contain Tea Tree Flakes to help combat acne while providing a deeply hydrating treatment)
Neem comes from an evergreen tree native to India and has a long history in Ayurvedic tradition. According to Shamban, it “has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiandrogenic abilities that may block hormone-causing flare-ups to help prevent as well as treat acne. It’s part of the formula in Ayurvedic brand Uma’s Deeply Clarifying Neem Charcoal Cleanser.
Spearmint has some real research backing its potential, when ingested, in fighting acne, thanks in part, Shamban explains, to its anti-inflammatory properties. In a 2015 American Academy of Dermatology study, two cups of spearmint tea a day were shown to reduce acne lesions by 25% after one month and 51% after three months. If you’re battling breakouts, there’s no harm in sipping two cups of something like Traditional Medicinals’ Spearmint Tea.
Topical skin care products containing herbs don’t pose any risk of irritation beyond potential sensitivity. As such, when introducing any new skincare product into your routine, it’s important to patch test. Ingesting herbs is a separate issue and should never be done without a prior conversation with a doctor. After all, “all plant medicines are weak forms of drugs,” Trattner says.
“If you stick to a regimen of gentle herbal products, you should expect to see a difference in your skin within a couple of months,” Marmur notes, adding that, “if your skin, however, becomes more irritated and breakouts continue, you should consult your dermatologist.”
The Final Takeaway
If you see a dermatologist to help with your acne concerns, they are far more likely to recommend more conventional,research-backed options (think: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide treatments, retinol, and even over-the-counter helpers like hydrocolloid patches). Still, if herbs and herbally-fortified products can help on the path to clearer skin, dermatologists agree that there’s no reason not to try them.