Rose water is 10-50% rose oil by weight, but that oil itself contains many active compounds such as geraniol. The dominant compound in rose water is phenylethyl alcohol, which provides the rose taste and fragrance. Supposedly, it takes 50,000 rose flowers to make just a single ounce of pure rose oil, which sounds like a terrible business idea, but nevertheless this product is popular worldwide.
Traditionally rose water is used to flavour candies like Turkish delight, dairy and dishes like nougat and baklava in the Middle East, India and Pakistan. Rose water has ceremonial usage too since Muslims on the Indian subcontinent spray open graves with rose water before burying their dead. Rose water is often sprinkled in Indian weddings to welcome the guests.
Rose water also has quite a reputation as a topical treatment for skin conditions like acne. Rose water is popular both among Middle Eastern dermatologists and in East Asia where it’s a standard treatment for dermatitis, an inflammatory skin disease similar to acne.
This topical treatment might look lovely and pink and colourful but will rose water make your acne look great too? Or is rose water just a deceptively pretty waste of time? Read on and find out.
Rose water lowers inflammation via a unique mechanism
If you wish to change your skin for the better, if you want to prevent acne from showing up in the first place, and if you want to get radiant and glowing skin that’s the envy of the world, then you have one all-important strategy: lowering inflammation.
All those red, angry, swollen pimples that make your face look like a mess are the result of an insane immune system that pumps out far too many inflammatory chemicals. It’s not just your teenage hormones, it’s not entirely stress, and it’s not your genetics, no generic concepts like that. Your acne has a specific cause. Inflammation is the number one cause of acne, and that’s what every acne patient should be tackling.
That’s why rose water is such a fantastic topical treatment. Rose water can inhibit inflammatory chemicals on your skin when applied topically to acne, but also does so through an especially useful mechanism.
In our first positive study, scientists tested the anti-inflammatory properties of Algerian rose oil, also known as geranium oil. Firstly the scientists gathered 5 groups of rats and inflamed their paws using carrageenan, a substance that scientists commonly use to induce inflammation.
Next they tested the essential oil of rose geranium essential oil (RGEO) through several different pathways – some groups of rats drank the oil in three different doses, and some groups of rats had the rose oil topically applied. To determine the effect of rose oil on the inflamed paws, the scientists simply analysed the reduction in the rate of swelling after application.
The results were very promising for acne. Rose oil, which is the main active component of rose water, was able to significantly reduce the paw swelling. In fact, rose oil’s anti-inflammatory powers were comparable to diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Oral administration of rose oil in concentrations of 100mg, 200mg, and 400mg caused a drop in the inflammatory paw swelling of 30%, 38% and 73% respectively.
That shows that rose oil has broader anti-inflammatory powers but what we’re interested in is topical application and once again there’s excellent news: applying rose oil to the inflamed swelling directly was even more potent. The scientists also inflamed the mice’s ears with croton oil and found that after applying a dose of 5ul and 10ul of rose oil per ear swelling fell by 73 and 88% respectively.
Actual analysis of the pro-inflammatory chemicals confirmed that rose oil directly inhibited inflammatory responses in the skin. Why’s that great for acne? Simple – localised inflammatory responses, the release of inflammatory chemicals, is what inflames and swells your tissues and turns them into acne. The scientists concluded that “our results indicate that rose geranium essential oil may have significant potential for the development of novel anti-inflammatory drugs”.
So that’s very strong evidence that rose oil and by extension rose water can inhibit inflammation, and do so superbly. When translated to your acne, 73% and 88% are very strong reductions.
Similarly outstanding results were shown in this 2004 study, but this time there’s an extra acne clearing twist. Again, scientists were testing the effect of geranium oil, AKA poor man’s rose oil from Algeria, which has a different composition of active chemicals but still contains the powerful ones like geraniol. Several groups of mice were injected with casein to produce an inflammatory response in the skin. The scientists then tested four essential oils – geranium oil (rose oil), tea tree oil, spearmint oil, and lemongrass oil. As per normal, many inflammatory chemicals were measured.
Once again, the rose oil had an overall anti-inflammatory effect. Furthermore, it specifically reduced immune system chemicals called neutrophils. That’s fantastic news for all acne patients for two reasons.
Firstly, neutrophils act as a recruitment officer for other inflammatory chemicals; they trigger leukocyte recruitment to the site of any infection of the skin, including our foe acne. Ending that process can work wonders itself. Scientists commented that rose oil lowered leukocyte recruitment triggered by neutrophils to 70.2% of the levels observed in control patients. Rose oil was far more potent than tea tree oil, which didn’t inhibit neutrophils at all.
Secondly and most importantly, one of the neutrophil’s main jobs is also to churn out free radicals, chiefly to break down damaged tissues so they can be rebuilt as healthy ones …
…but when your immune system pumps out too many neutrophils, and they in turn pump out too many free radicals, the healthy tissues of your skin are weakened too.
Furthermore, the free radicals can spread everywhere, especially when unaccompanied by anti-inflammatory chemicals. Excessive exposure to free radicals, whether from cigarette smoke, air pollution or a crappy modern diet, is a hidden menace behind acne. Free radicals oxidise a component of sebum called squalene and turn it into squalene peroxide.
As we discussed in this article, scientists can create acne simply by applying squalene peroxide to a rabbit’s ear. Squalene peroxide triggers a localised increase in sebum production and dead skin cell proliferation. Squalene peroxide is the most comedogenic (pore blocking) substance on the planet.
Basically, free radicals are a massively important cause of blocked pores and acne. The main job of neutrophils is to churn out free radicals, and the chief component of rose water is terrific at inhibiting those neutrophils. Go figure!
The evidence for rose water never seems to end:
- This study also found that rose water can inhibit neutrophil activity. Furthermore, it achieved this by inhibiting tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a), another vicious pro-inflammatory chemical which is causing acne worldwide. Geranium (rose) oil was easily the best essential oil tested, easily beating tea tree oil and lavender oil. Tea tree oil is known for its general anti-inflammatory effect (see this article on tea tree oil), but the power to inhibit neutrophils and free radicals seems specific to rose water.
- This study found that rose oil could suppress both acute (temporary) inflammation and chronic (never-ending) inflammation in mice when applied to their paws. Again, the effect of rose oil on swollen and inflammatory paws was tested. Rose oil reigned supreme, beating several other essential oils:
Despite being almost ignored by mainstream acne gurus, rose water is clearly an anti-inflammatory goldmine.
Rose water kills acne bacteria with few side effects
Killing p.acnes bacteria is held up to be the central tenant of any mainstream acne strategy; hence why dermatologists say that benzoyl peroxide is the ultimate acne treatment. Well, BP isn’t the ultimate acne treatment since it actually worsens your acne in the long run. Raw honey and blue light devices are superior. P.acnes isn’t the only cause of acne anyway, since you have to soothe the inflammatory response against that p.acnes. But nevertheless, killing p.acnes bacteria is a terrific secondary strategy…
…and that’s exactly what rose water can do. One study published in the International Journal of Food and Science Technology found that rose essential oil was effective against a huge variety of bacterial strains. They included: Aeromonas hydrophila, B. cereus, Enterobacter aerogenes, Enterococcus feacalis, E. coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Mycobacterium smegmatis, Proteus vulgaris, Ps. aeruginosa, Ps. fluorescens, Salmonella enteritidis, Salmonella typhimurium, Staph. aureus, and Yersinia enterocolitica. 14 out of 15 bacteria on that list were killed by rose oil; the only bacteria that was resistant was e.coli.
In this 2002 study, rose oil was found to effectively kill Staphylococcus aureus, a secondary strain of bacteria that causes inflammation in the skin and is linked to eczema and dermatitis. Its powers were comparable to lavender oil and peppermint oil.
Then there’s this study where several varieties of rose oil were examined alone. Scientists tested the antimicrobial properties of Rose Absolute, rose essential oil, and hydrosol extracted from rose oil. This time rose oil did kill E.coli, and a whole lot more: Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, B. subtilis, Staph. aureus, Chromobacterium violaceum and Erwinia carotovora bacterial strains were all inhibited.
Does rose water kill p.acnes bacteria specifically? I cannot say for sure, but the evidence is nearly overwhelming considering the large variety of bacteria inhibited. The study above found that rose water could inhibit bacteria from both the gram positive and gram negative classes as well, so the potential is huge.
One thing is for sure: the anecdotal evidence that rose water kills p.acnes bacteria continues to pile up.
What about side effects then, such as the type of burns and irritation often observed with essential oils like tea tree and thyme oil? The good news is that rose water doesn’t seem to have any. Stories of burns and rashes, for instance, are uncommon.
There is one suspicious fact: the main active component, geraniol, is known to be a “severe eye irritant”. But on the other hand, Ayurvedic Medicine has recommended that Indians use rose water as cleansing eye drops for hundreds of years, so a healthy compound must be counteracting the harm. Indians have also used rose water as a facial cleaner for centuries.
The only scientific evidence that rose water may worsen acne lies in an oft-referenced British study conducted 40 years ago. Apparently, the researchers found that applying rose water to acne-prone skin increased sebum production. That would be a nightmare, since sebum is the oil that clogs your pores.
But that finding has never been repeated. Nor is there any anecdotal evidence. I cannot even confirm whether the study is real. It’s likely that the patients had very dry skin already and the rose water simply normalised the skin barrier, since the British researchers were apparently testing rose water’s power to hydrate the skin.
Some websites also suggest that rose water can increase production of keratin, the protein that glues dead skin cells together and helps them block your pores. But again, the evidence is flimsy, and in fact, rose water might encourage normal keratinocyte differentiation. It pales in the face of all the great studies demonstrating the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial powers of rose water.
The verdict on rose water for acne
The verdict is that rose water has not been directly tested on acne patients or p.acnes bacteria, but that this topical treatment has massive potential. There are very few stories on the internet of acne patients trying rose water, so you could be the first to discover a miracle. As I said earlier, East Asians have used rose water for treating dermatitis for eons, and that disease has inflammatory roots very similarly to acne.
If you want to give rose water a shot then a top notch product is this PURE Moroccan Rose Water.
This is organic and it’s got no additives, or chemicals mixed in which dilute the product and its effectiveness. It’s also free from inflammatory BPA. This is rose water in its purest form. Another good option is this Elma and Sana 100% Pure Moroccan Rose Water.
As for its usage, there are few reasons to restrict yourself since it doesn’t have the side effects of tea tree oil when applied liberally. You can potentially try rose water as a cleanser for your whole face or as a targeted treatment for an inflamed individual piece of acne. Since rose water is relatively undocumented among acne patients, it’s possible that you will react badly to a specific compound or develop an allergic reaction, but such an effect would only ever be temporary.
There’s also one aspect we haven’t discussed – the use of rose water as a tasty flavouring in food. Rose water’s culinary history is very extensive.
In Iran rose water is added to tea, ice cream, cookies and other sweet treats in small quantities. In the Arab world, India and Pakistan, rose water is used to flavour milk and dairy based dishes including rice pudding. The common candy Turkish delight traditionally uses rose water as a main flavouring.
In the British Premier league, Muslim footballers who don’t want to drink champagne during celebrations are often given rose water instead. Rose water is also used as a Halal substitute for red wine and other alcohol in Muslim cooking.
American and European bakers everywhere once relied on rose water as their default ingredient, until vanilla took over in the mid-19th century. Rose water is used broadly in Middle Eastern and Persian cuisine, in foods like nougat, gumdrops, baklava, and raahat. In Malaysia and Singapore, sweet red tinted rose water is mixed with milk which then turns pink to form a sweet drink called Bandung. Rose water is even added to lemonade in parts of the Middle East.
As for rose water’s effects on health, East Asians use rose water for treating intestinal inflammation. The study on inflamed rat paws found that consuming rose water lowered inflammatory chemicals nearly as much as much as applying it topically. Rose water is also believed to combat the effects of depression. I’ve read that the scent of rose may actually stimulate happiness hormones like serotonin, which could be why the rose flower is the symbol of love.
As we’ve discussed hundreds of times on this website, trying to cure acne with face washes and cleansers alone is a fool’s errand.
You absolutely must eat a healthy diet, and tackle lifestyle factors such as your vitamin D levels, stress levels, sleep quality and exercise. You have to treat the root causes of acne rather than simply treating the problem itself.
That said, topical treatments are a great secondary strategy for those acne clearing fanatics who want to push things to the limit….
Thanks for reading!