Researchers are continuing to discover that certain herbal essential oils can significantly treat acne. They do this by fighting the bacteria that cause acne.
Acne can be embarrassing. But it can also be dangerous if the bacteria that cause it grow out of control.
What really causes acne?
Acne is typically caused by bacteria that grow within hair follicles. As the follicle becomes infected, our immune system launches an inflammatory attack against the bacteria. It attempts to surround and encapsulate the bacteria to prevent them from infecting the rest of the body.
This is what causes the red bumps on our skin. These are called papules.
The immune system forms a sac to surround the bacteria in an attempt to quarantine and remove it. This is what whiteheads are – little white sacs – also called closed comedones.
In some cases, the comedones may be oxidized and mixed with dead cells. This forms what many call blackheads.
If the infection continues to grow, the comedones will eventually leave pock marks on the skin. These can last for years – if not for the rest of our lives. This is due to the bacteria damaging the follicles and neighboring epidermis cells.
To help prevent this eventuality, the bacteria should be brought under control quickly.
Bacteria that cause acne
Acne is typically the result of two kinds of bacteria. These include Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis.
For this reason, today many doctors will immediately prescribe antibiotics for a serious case of acne. As a result, we have a growing population of antibiotic-resistant strains of these two species of bacteria.
The antibiotics typically used to treat acne include Clindamycin and Erythromycin. However, since many strains of these bacteria have now become resistant to these and other antibiotics, Dalacin T and Stiemycin are often used today.
Besides encouraging antibiotic resistance, antibiotics like these can cause adverse side effects. They include diarrhea, stomach discomfort, nausea and vomiting. Other side effects sometimes seen as a result of these include fevers and liver problems.
Antibiotics can also permanently disturb our gut’s populations of probiotics – our microbiome.
What about natural alternatives? As we discuss below, several essential oils have been proven to deter and kill the bacteria that cause acne.
Oregano and Thyme
A 2018 study from the University of Cairo1 tested a number of herbal essential oils against the two primary acne bacteria: Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis. They found that two herbs from their testing had the most antimicrobial activity against these two bacteria. These were Oregano and Thyme.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) and Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) both inhibited the bacteria. But Oregano inhibited them the greatest. The researchers found that both of these essential oils achieved microbial inhibition of the bacteria due to their containing monoterpenoid phenols. They found a dynamic killing time of 12 hours and 8 hours against P. acnes and S. epidermidis, respectively.
They also tested Oregano essential oil against a popular antibiotic prescribed for acne. They found:
“The formulation showed superior healing and antimicrobial effects compared to the reference antibiotic.”
More importantly, they found that the Oregano essential oil was superior because it treated antibiotic-resistant forms of these bacteria. They stated:
“Collectively, our data suggested that oregano oil nanoemulsion is a potential natural and effective alternative for treating acne and overcoming the emerging antibiotic resistance.”
Tea tree oil treats acne
In a 2017 study, researchers from Australia’s St John of God Hospital in Perth tested 18 people with acne.2
They were given tea tree oil gel and a face wash twice a day for 12 weeks. The number of acne lesions steadily went down dramatically over the 12 week period. The average lesion count was 23.7 at the beginning of the study.
– Lesion counts went down to 17.2 after four weeks
– Lesion counts went down to 15.1 after eight weeks
– Lesion counts went down to 10.7 after 12 weeks
The researchers reported no serious side effects from the use of Tea tree oil. They concluded:
“This study shows that the use of the tea tree oil products significantly improved mild to moderate acne and that the products were well tolerated.”
Essential oil formula treats acne
Researchers from the School of Pharmacy at the UK’s De Montfort University studied the effects of a combination of three essential oils from herbs.3 The scientists worked with the UK’s Penny Price Academy of Aromatherapy to develop an essential oil formula to fight these two acne-causing bacteria.
The formulation tested was composed of three essential oils:
• Essential oil of rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) (0.53 mg/mL (milligrams per milliliter)
• Essential oil of clove bud (Syzygium aromaticum) (0.11 mg/mL)
• Essential oil of litsea (Litsea spp.) (0.11 mg/mL)
This would equate to about 5 parts rosewood oil to one part clove and one part litsea.
The essential oil formula was then tested against the two bacteria mentioned above, related to acne.
The application of the essential oil was then compared to the antibiotic activity of the antibiotics mentioned above – Dalacin T and Stiemycin.
The researchers found that the essential oil formulation significantly inhibited both bacteria. And the essential oils inhibited the Propionibacterium acnes bacteria the greatest.
The essential oils inhibited the two bacteria better than the antibiotics in one set of tests. And they were equal to the antibiotics in the other testing.
The researchers concluded:
“This formulation may serve as a valuable alternative for the control of acne vulgaris-associated bacteria.”
Myrtle oil inhibits P. acnes
Research has also confirmed that a medicinal herb called Myrtus communis inhibits acne bacteria. Its common name is Myrtle. Myrtle has shown in previous studies to be antibiotic towards P. acnes. Researchers from France’s University Paul Sabatier and the Pierre Fabre Research Institute tested an extract from Myrtle against the acne bacteria.
The doctors also tested some P. acnes strains that were partially resistant to antibiotics, and some strains of P. acnes that had yet to become resistant. The research confirmed that Myrtle oil significantly inhibits P. acnes.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria also inhibited
The first study above and this last one also tested the essential oils against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another study found that Tea tree oil killed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In all these studies, the researchers found that the essential oils also inhibited antibiotic-resistant strains of the two acne-causing bacteria.
This is a critical issue, because our antibiotics’ ability to continue to fight acne has a rather short life expectancy. A 2000 study from Japan4 found that nearly 30 percent of S. epidermidis bacteria were resistant to erythromycin, roxithromycin and clindamycin. This is nearly two decades ago.
A study 12 years later found that about 70 percent of S. epidermidis bacteria were resistant to one of the antibiotics.5 And about 37 percent of P. acnes bacteria were resistant to some antibiotics.
We can see from these two snapshots that more and more strains of these skin bacteria are quickly becoming resistant to our popular antibiotics.
In other words, we are quickly getting to a point where none of our antibiotics will work against these skin bacteria. Once the bacteria that cause acne figure out all our antibiotics, we will find that none of them will work.
Why do essential oils fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria?
The antibiotic ability of essential oils stems from the plants they come from. These aromatic plants are living organisms, and they produce natural antibiotics to respond to bacteria. This is why they are so effective.
Bacteria have a hard time becoming resistant to aromatic plants because the plants are always making adjustments to the antibiotic chemicals they produce. This is because the plants are faced with these bacteria in nature. Their survival is based upon their ability to fight off bacteria. If they didn’t, the plant species would die.
It is sort of like the old spy vs. spy comic: Once one of the spies makes a new weapon, the other spy creates a new antidote to that weapon.
This distinguishes from our pharmaceutical antibiotic strategy. Our antibiotic strategy is to find a chemical that inhibits bacteria and keep throwing the same chemical at the bacteria over and over. Soon the bacteria figure out how to resist that chemical.
In other words, nature is smart. Smarter than you think.
1. Taleb MH, Abdeltawab NF, Shamma RN, Abdelgayed SS, Mohamed SS, Farag MA, Ramadan MA. Origanum vulgare L. Essential Oil as a Potential Anti-Acne Topical Nanoemulsion-In Vitro and In Vivo Study. Molecules. 2018 Aug 28;23(9). pii: E2164. doi: 10.3390/molecules23092164.
2. Malhi HK, Tu J, Riley TV, Kumarasinghe SP, Hammer KA. Tea tree oil gel for mild to moderate acne; a 12 week uncontrolled, open-label phase II pilot study. Australas J Dermatol. 2017 Aug;58(3):205-210. doi: 10.1111/ajd.12465.
3. Owen L, Grootveld M, Arroo R, Ruiz-Rodado V, Price P, Laird K. A Multifactorial Comparison of Ternary Combinations of Essential Oils in Topical Preparations to Current Antibiotic Prescription Therapies for the Control of Acne Vulgaris-Associated Bacteria. Phytother Res. 2017 Mar;31(3):410-417.
4. Nishijima S, Kurokawa I, Katoh N, Watanabe K. The bacteriology of acne vulgaris and antimicrobial susceptibility of Propionibacterium acnes and Staphylococcus epidermidis isolated from acne lesions. J Dermatol. 2000 May;27(5):318-23.
5. Moon SH, Roh HS, Kim YH, Kim JE, Ko JY, Ro YS. Antibiotic resistance of microbial strains isolated from Korean acne patients. J Dermatol. 2012 Oct;39(10):833-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1346-8138.2012.01626.x.