Top 20 Natural Ingredients for Acne
by Heather Smith on Jun 26, 2022
Acne, blemishes, and scars can be a skin nightmare! Natural treatments for acne are not a new concept. Nature gives us many of the best ingredients for acne. Many of today's most used prescription and over-the-counter acne treatments come from traditional medicine and natural remedies – willow bark (high in salicin) is one example.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and conditions like maskne can behave entirely different than other types like hormonal acne. In severe cases, especially if your acne is cystic, seeing a board-certified dermatologist is critical to preventing awful, long-term damage.
For the rest of us, natural remedies for acne are an excellent first step to getting (and keeping) your skin under control. Always consult your physician if you're worried or if things are worsening. Regardless of your skin type, you should patch test all your new products properly.
The fundamental principles for treating acne are the same whether you're using natural products or not:
- Reduce inflammation
- Regulate oil levels
- Remove excess oil and dead skin cells
- Kill harmful bacteria/fungus
- Restore normal protective barriers: PH, good bacteria, skin barrier integrity
Let's take a deep dive and look at the top 20 natural ingredients and remedies for acne!
#1 Carrier Face Oils
Regarding face oils, there are two main reasons they help acne. The first is that they help regulate your sebum production. Some experts even believe that oil-free products may increase acne because the skin overcompensates and gets out of balance.
The second reason face oils may help acne is because they repair and strengthen your skin barrier. When you have a damaged skin barrier, the PH becomes abnormal, bacteria and fungus can easily penetrate, water loss and dehydration occur, and acne increases. Unfortunately, this can become a vicious cycle because people often try to 'cure' their acne with more acids, more washing, and more exfoliation – making the barrier damage worse and the breakouts worse.
If you're looking to try carrier oils as a natural treatment for acne, look for things like jojoba, squalane, and Abyssinian oil. Because of the effects GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) has on prostaglandins, special consideration might be given to evening primrose oil and borage oil for those with hormonal acne. Avoiding oils highest in oleic acid, like olive oil, is likely prudent.
#2 Neem (Azadirachta indica) Oil
Neem oil has been used for centuries to treat skin conditions like acne and has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine.
Neem has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-fungal properties. In fact (don't let this freak you out), neem oil works as a natural pesticide! It's not the most glamourous oil as the odour is pungent, and the colour can be quite brown. Still, many swear by its effectiveness for clearing acne and improving scars.
If you want to try neem oil, proper patch testing is important. Additionally, we suggest diluting it in your favourite carrier oil because it can be irritating if used full strength.
#3 Tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum) Oil
Extracted from the tamanu nut, pure tamanu oil has a thick, viscous consistency, brown-green colour, and a deep/earthy scent. Like neem, tamanu oil can be slightly off-putting when you first see it.
A 2018 study found that its antibacterial properties were particularly effective at killing both p. acnes and p.granulosum—the bacteria associated with acne. One of the active phytochemicals found in tamanu oil is calophyllolide, an anti-inflammatory known to have wound-healing effects.
It's best to avoid tamanu oil if you have tree nut allergies. Otherwise, standard patch testing is recommended. You should also dilute tamanu oil with a carrier.
#4 Tea Tree Essential Oil
Tea tree oil is well-known and commonly used. Unfortunately, it is associated with significant sensitization, even in long-term users. If this oil works for you, by all means, continue it. However, we feel there are many better and less-sensitizing natural treatments for acne.
A special mention here also about blue tansy essential oil. Many people love this ingredient, but we think the others on this list are way better. We've written about blue tansy and why we don't love it.
#5 Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) Essential Oil
This essential oil is extracted from the leaves of the Manuka plant in New Zealand (the same plant that produces the flowers used by bees that make Manuka honey). It has a long history of use in traditional healing by the Maori.
Like tamanu oil, Manuka has been shown to kill the bacteria that cause acne. It has an earthy scent with sweet notes. It shares many of the same effects as the more commonly known tea tree oil but hasn't been found to be as sensitizing.
Like all essential oils, dermal limits apply. Patch testing goes without saying. Dilution should be 1% or less – so mix 1ml or less into 100ml of carrier oil.
Bakuchiol is a chemical compound extracted directly from the Babchi seed using a technical process called monomolecular extraction. Clinical studies have shown comparable effects for both acne and anti-aging purposes. This means Bakuchiol users should expect a reduction in the appearance of blemishes, fine lines, wrinkles, brown spots, and hyperpigmentation. It can be used in the form of a bakuchiol serum or face oil and is a must-try for anyone looking for active, natural remedies for acne.
Check out our comprehensive Bakuchiol guide with everything you need to know about this natural, anti-acne active ingredient.
There are many types of clay used in natural skincare. The two most common are kaolin and bentonite. Clays are used in many cleansers and masks. The main effect of clay is to remove excess oil from your pores and face.
Clay masks should be used about 2x per week by people with oily skin.
Pass on this ingredient if you have dry skin.
Similar to clay (and often used together in the same masks), charcoal helps draw out/bind excess oil, bacteria, and dirt from your pores. In addition, carbon molecules are negatively charged, which can help attract other (unwanted) substances from your skin.
Charcoal can get a bit messy, so best to prep your space before using. Like clay, it is best suited for people with excessively oily skin.
Sulphur has powerful antibacterial properties and helps dry out excessively oily skin. It functions a bit like benzoyl peroxide but is more gentle. Still, it can be irritating and isn't the best for dry skin.
Sulphur is most effective on non-inflammatory acne (i.e., white and blackheads) and is a good spot treatment.
#10 White Willow (Salix alba) Bark Extract
Willow bark extract contains a chemical called salicin, which has been used for centuries as an anti-inflammatory, pain killer, and fever reducer. When used topically, it is a mild, natural exfoliant. Salicin is a precursor in the synthesis of salicylic acid (one of the most common acne treatments).
Compared to salicylic acid, willow bark extract is not as potent an exfoliant. However, for many consumers, that's a good thing. This gentler alternative still provides anti-acne effects. It will gently exfoliate, calm redness, reduce excess oil production, and refine pores.
#11 Witch (Hamamelis virginiana) Hazel Extract
Another helpful natural extract found in many toners is witch hazel. It works as a natural antiseptic, ridding the skin's surface of excess bacteria and oil and helping to bring the PH of the acid mantle back into the correct zone.
Witch hazel is not harsh or stripping unless used excessively. It is usually gentle and reduces inflammation. However, like all astringents, overuse can be drying, so start gradually and at a low concentration until you know how it affects your skin.
#12 Fruit Acids and Enzymes
Fruit acids and enzymes are natural chemical exfoliants. With use, dead cells are loosened and removed over time. Like any chemical exfoliant, patch testing is essential. Also, start with less frequent use and build up as tolerated. These compounds will be gentler than more concentrated acids but are still capable of stripping your skin and causing barrier damage.
Good enzymes to look for are pineapple, papaya, and pumpkin. For acids, look for Bilberry extract (lactic acid), orange/lemon extract (citric acid), sugar cane extract (glycolic acid), sugar maple extract (malic and tartaric acids), apple extract (malic acid) and bitter almond extract (mandelic acid). These alpha-hydroxy acids leave the skin with a smooth and radiant appearance.
Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) like gluconolactone and lactobionic acid also have natural origins. However, their large-scale production for skincare products often involves chemical synthesis or biofermentation to ensure consistency and purity in the final product.
#13 Apple Cider Vinegar
These days, apple cider vinegar seems to be labelled as a cure for everything. As a natural treatment for acne, it contains several alpha hydroxy acids. It's been noted to kill bacteria like P. acnes.
Vinegar needs significant dilution before you attempt to use it because it can cause burns and skin barrier damage. It's recommended to start with 10ml vinegar to 90ml distilled water, and be sure to do proper patch testing. Best to avoid trying this if you have sensitive skin or open wounds.
Fruit acids and enzymes can be too irritating for some people. In that case, it's best to go with gentle mechanical exfoliation. You can cleanse your face using a konjac sponge, 2-3x per week. Once wet, these sponges are very soft but help remove dead cell buildup. Konjac is a plant, and sponges made from it are 100% biodegradable, which makes them an amazing addition to a zero waste beauty routine. These vegetable fibre sponges are earth-friendly and sustainable.
#15 Raw Honey
Raw honey has been used for centuries to help with wound healing. Medical-grade honey exists and is used in hospitals for some types of chronic wounds. Honey has antibacterial properties. It's also a humectant that will improve hydration.
If you are trying to create an at-home DIY remedy, use honey sparingly. At around a 5% concentration (5ml in 100ml mix), it will likely exert its beneficial effects without creating a sticky mess that's difficult to remove
Cautions with honey include if you have bee or pollen allergies. Also, all honey except medical-grade (irradiated) could contain botulism spores - so do not use in open wounds or on infants. If you're worried, best to discuss with your doctor.
#16 Green Tea (Camellia sinensis) Extract
Green tea extract is packed full of polyphenols and catechins. In particular, it contains an anti-acne active botanical called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which has been shown to improve acne and oily skin.
Green tea extract is also thought to target hormonal acne by having an inhibitory effect on androgens (sex hormone) which then reduces oil production. Green tea is an anti-inflammatory with antibacterial properties, an excellent all-around ingredient to add to your natural skincare routine.
#17 Aloe Vera
Soothing and possibly one of the best all-around natural extracts, aloe vera has something to offer those who suffer from acne. Prized for its calming properties that soothe and heal, aloe also has antibacterial properties. It is very unlikely to cause reactions or irritations.
Probiotics are tricky because commercially prepared products for topical use also contain preservatives. This usually deactivates the live culture. Some people have success with taking oral supplements because that helps adjust the whole microbiome of your body. Other people swear by homemade masks that contain yogurt. We suggest using oral probiotic capsules to help improve the health of your entire microbiome. You can also use products with prebiotics which will also improve skin microbiome health, without having to worry about preserving live cultures.
#19 Mastic Gum (Pistacia lentiscus)
Also called 'tears of Chios,' mastic gum is a form of tree sap, a dried resin, from the Greek island of Ikaria. This makes it an especially romantic, but expensive, natural ingredient for acne.
The resin is harvested in small pellet-sized pieces. It can be dissolved in oil after being ground into an ultra-fine powder. Historically it was used for gastrointestinal issues and as a dental cure-all.
In skincare, mastic gum helps tone the skin, tighten pores, reduce oil production, kill bacteria, and reduce blackheads/comedones.
Niacinamide may be helpful for severe acne, especially inflammatory forms like papules and pustules. Vitamin B3 is naturally derived from nicotinic acid, found in brewer's yeast and many cereal grains. This essential natural skincare ingredient will get its own article, so stay tuned!
So, where to start?
When it comes to natural treatments for acne, we think the term treatment is a misnomer that implies a medical effect. We prefer to think in terms of optimizing skin health. Users need to organize their skincare regimen around their skin type and these ingredients are all well-suited for acne prone skin. Using them will help with overall skin health and hopefully improve your complexion over time.
If you've got sensitive skin, start with natural acne remedies that include things like: carrier oils, bakuchiol, honey, aloe, green tea, witch hazel, probiotics, konjac sponge, and niacinamide.
If you've got oily skin, start with natural treatments for acne that include: bakuchiol, charcoal/clay, white willow bark extract, and fruit acids/enzymes.
If you love the exotic, try products containing something like tamanu, Manuka, or mastic gum.
Do not to attempt to treat inflammatory acne at home without first seeing your primary care provider or a dermatologist. Deep, cystic, inflamed, and severe acne is a medical condition that requires medical assessment and treatment. It can be very scaring and disfiguring if left unchecked. Many of the ingredients mentioned above are a good adjunct to soothe and maintain the health of acne prone or oily skin, but they really shouldn't be the first thing you try to treat a serious medical concern.
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