When I first started researching natural topical treatments for acne, as opposed to traditional pharmaceutical ones like benzoyl peroxide, I believed that there was only a handful of viable options. I thought that they were limited to the likes of aloe vera with its anti-inflammatory properties and raw honey with its endless antibacterial peptides produced by bees…
…but I’m happy to say that thousands of hours of research later, I couldn’t have been more wrong. There’s dozens if not hundreds of plants growing all over planet earth that have secret powers to reduce the symptoms of acne when applied topically.
…and today we’re going to discuss another commonplace acne treatment that nobody usually bats an eyelid about: green tea.
That’s right, the green tea which you may drink on a regular basis has potent acne-clearing properties when applied to the skin. Green tea has a very high content of unique antioxidants, the most notable ones being epicatechin (EC), epigallocatechin (EGC), epicatechin gallate (ECG) and the best researched one of all, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). In addition, green tea leaves contain quercetin, myricetin, and kaempferol.
Hence, regular drinkers of green tea have been shown to enjoy a wide variety of health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, lower risk of breast cancer, lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and even modestly increased weight loss due to green tea stoking the fires of the metabolism.
But what we’re interested in today is the practise of applying green tea-based creams and formulas to the skin, which is slowly gaining popularity. In short, green tea is one of the greatest topical treatments an acne-clearing enthusiast could use. Here’s why:
The studies – green tea clears acne by 50%
Unlike some topical treatments such as raw honey, which are still excellent themselves, green tea has repeatedly been tested in studies directly on acne. According to the research, all the benefits for acne you get from drinking green tea translate superbly to your face.
First on the list we have this fantastic Iraqi study from 2006, where scientists compared a 2% lotion formulation of green tea to distilled water. The scientists, who were from Baghdad, gathered 60 patients, namely 35 females and 25 males. Notably, they were in the prime time of their lives for acne; all subjects were aged between 14 and 22 years.
Group A was instructed to use the 2% green tea lotion twice daily whereas group B used the control solution. Before any results were observed, scientists clearly had to have measurements to judge them against, so they graded each patient’s acne as either moderate or mild judging by the number of pustules and papules. They also carried out a detailed computer analysis on the patients’ acne levels.
In the end, once two months had passed, 49 patients completed the study. In group B, which consisted of 24 patients, the improvement in acne was non-existent. There was no reduction in total papule or pustule counts…
…but in group A, the twenty-five patient strong green tea group, total acne lesion counts fell strongly and by ever increasing amounts as time rolled on.
The scientists measured the acne counts of all patients again after 4 weeks and 8 weeks. For pustules, which are whitehead style pimples that can be burst, the average reduction in acne after four and eight weeks was 24% and 57% respectively. For papules, the scientific term for harder red pimples, the reduction was 9% and 32.5%.
Meanwhile the group given distilled water fared terribly, as you would expect.
Apparently the acne lesions showed “no significant reduction after two months”. The response of patients to the treatment was good in 20.8%, moderate in 45.8%, and non-existent in 33.4%.
Because the study was single-blind, meaning that neither group A nor B knew which topical treatment they had received, this allowed the scientists to conduct a questionnaire on their experiences without it being tainted in any way. The results were again superb. In the green tea group, 12% of patients were unsatisfied, 24% patients were partially satisfied, and 64% patients were fully satisfied.
In group B the results were reversed; 4.2% were fully satisfied, 12.5% were partially satisfied, and 83.3% were not satisfied at all.
All in all these results are stellar for acne, and there were no side effects whatsoever. But two years later the same team from Iraq performed another single-blind study on green tea, released in 2008, which was even better. Their methods were slightly different; they again used a 2% topical green tea lotion but this time compared it to a 5% zinc sulphate lotion. Zinc is a top mineral for acne which reduces inflammation. Two groups consisting of 47 acne patients aged 13-27 were ordered to apply the formulations twice daily, and to do so for two months.
Clearly the Iraqi scientists were impressed enough by their first study to press ahead with more research, and the results were not disappointing. The green tea lotion was easily the superior out of the two for acne; it caused a reduction in pustule counts of 51% after eight weeks and a reduction of 48.5% in papule counts. The reduction in papules was significantly better than the first study.
The zinc sulphate formulation meanwhile, was moderately beneficial, as you would expect from zinc, but the reduction in acne lesions was not strong enough to reach the statistically significant levels.
35% of the acne patients showed no response to zinc sulphate, 50% showed a moderate response, and 15% showed a good response. That’s decent enough, but compare it to green tea. 60% of all acne patients had a good response, with 25% being moderate and just 15% reporting no effects.
Once again, green tea created no side effects whatsoever, leading the scientists to hail it as “a good alternative remedy to be used in the treatment of acne vulgaris”.
The mechanism – green tea inhibits androgen activity
So what acne powers does basic green tea possess then? Its first line of attack is the stacks of antioxidants it contains, particularly the epicatechin class.
It’s believed that epigallocatechin gallate, the signature antioxidant of green tea, is 25 to 100 times more potent than vitamin C and vitamin E. One cup of green tea provides more antioxidants than broccoli, spinach or strawberries. One study estimated that polyphenolic antioxidants form 30% of the weight of green tea leaves. By applying green tea to your face, your skin can absorb all these antioxidants like a sponge, where they prevent the free radical damage that causes blocked pores and acne.
Raw green tea leaves contain various trace vitamins and minerals as well, many of which end up in the final topical cream. These nutrients include vitamins A, C, E, zinc, magnesium and selenium.
Green tea also has decent antibacterial property against p.acnes bacteria. One study compared green tea extract to two formulations derived from pomegranate and applied them to p.acnes bacteria cells. Both pomegranate and green tea killed p.acnes but green tea was far more potent; it took 200ug for pomegranate to work but 25ug for green tea.
Then there’s a study conducted on human skin, which found that after eight weeks of regular application, ECGC from green tea substantially decreased the viability of p.acnes bacteria.
All three of those powers are great for acne themselves, but what I believe really separates topical green tea from the pack is its ability to inhibit the activity of androgenic hormones.
If you’re currently unaware of the role hormones play in acne, then androgens such as DHT and testosterone are some of the main players in oily skin. They’re the main reason why pimples and acne first show up in the teenage years.
Both hormones bind to the sebocytes or sebaceous glands in your skin and stimulate them to pump out more oil (sebum). The result is blocked pores and acne. However, a key point is that DHT is actually far more potent at this than testosterone, possibly ten times more potent.
All DHT in the human body is manufactured from testosterone through conversion by the 5-alpha reductase enzyme, so it’s a smart idea for some acne patients to halt the activity of this enzyme, and thus cut the head of the oil-producing snake…
…and that’s exactly what green tea can do. Green tea, more specifically epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC), has a well-established power to inhibit 5-alpha reductase and lower DHT levels. It’s frequently discussed in hair loss prevention communities for that reason, and it’s been analysed for its effect on prostate cancer numerous times (DHT is believed to cause both).
One excellent review discussed the effect of ECGC extract from green tea on DHT levels on the skin directly. They concluded that it could inhibit the 5-alpha reductase enzyme and even that this made green tea highly promising for “androgen-mediated skin disorders such as androgenetic alopecia, hirsuitism, and possibly acne”. Another discussed a wide range of polyphenolic antioxidants, and singled out ECGC. The anti-androgen effect was strong enough that the scientists were worried about male sexual performance (no need to worry, topical application is safe).
Studies on ECGC inside the body have been promising as well; this study observed that two catechins in green tea could inhibit type 1 5-alpha- reductase, concluding that certain compounds from tea could inhibit androgen related disease. This study found that ECGC from green tea could inhibit prostate cancer in rats by blunting the receptiveness of androgen receptors, the type of receptors also found in sebaceous glands. This is good because you’d expect that direct application to an organ like the skin would be doubly potent.
Generally, I don’t recommend focussing on your levels of testosterone and DHT too much. Both are vital for health, especially in men where they are critical for a healthy brain, sex drive, muscle mass, and a happy mood. Low testosterone is linked to depression. The “problems” of high androgens can be overcome with other lifestyle choices…
…but inhibiting androgen activity on the skin is a great idea. Doing so targets the sebum production behind acne without impacting on your health. Topical application of green tea will prevent DHT activity on the skin and the skin alone.
The result – green tea cures oily skin
The end result of all those benefits is that green tea is one of the greatest topical treatments in existence for curtailing sebum production.
There’s the inhibition of DHT outlined above, and furthermore, green tea is known for directly reducing the size and activity of sebocytes, the sebum producing cells in the skin:
STUDY ONE – the same study above which found that ECGC can kill p.acnes bacteria also found that ECGC could curtail sebum production.
Two mechanisms were given. Firstly, ECGC had substantial cytotoxic or cell-destroying powers against sebocytes. Secondly, ECGC could reduce the activity of the AMPK-SREBP-1 signalling pathway, which triggers sebum production.
STUDY TWO – this study found that ECGC could lower sebum production by inhibiting the growth of sebocytes, rather than killing them. It also decreased the sensitivity of sebum-producing cells to IGF-1, a big acne-causing androgen found in milk and produced in humans as an offshoot of insulin.
It’s unclear whether this power is completely down to DHT or whether green tea has extra powers itself. But it really doesn’t matter. The following studies show that topical green tea is so fantastic for tackling oily skin that the specific mechanism is irrelevant.
The best study on sebum production of all showed a staggering 60% reduction after 8 weeks usage. 10 volunteers aged between 25 and 40 years were gathered, and none were told about the contents of the formulation they received, which contained a 3% concentration of green tea extract. The subjects applied green tea extract to their skin daily and reported in for a sebum production analysis after one week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, six weeks, and finally, eight weeks.
The results? Here’s a graph that shows the percentage fall in sebum production, week by week:
Just like with the studies directly on acne, green tea is superb at reducing oily skin, and the effect only intensifies the longer you keep using it. After just four weeks sebum production had fallen by 35%; after eight weeks it had fallen by 60%. The continuous improvement may be explained by two factors: 1) the delayed time it takes for pre-existing acne to fade away, and 2) the slow but steady destruction of excessive sebocyte build up.
Bear in mind that unlike with acne lesions, you don’t need to bring sebum production down by 100% because sebum is required for delivering nutrients and forming the acid mantle, a firewall against infectious bacteria. A reduction in 60% may be enough to correct the skin’s oiliness down to normal levels.
Last but not least, we have a very similar experiment. This 2013 study was designed to assess the potency of green tea in reducing sebum production in human patients. Hence two groups were given either a green tea extract or a green tea extract plus lotus.
For both groups a “steady and statistically significant reduction in sebum secretion” was observed. The green tea plus lotus group performed better, but that’s irrelevant; the only green tea group performed excellently too. The scientists concluded that green tea could be an effective treatment for skin disorders caused by elevated sebum production (acne, in other words).
So what we have overall is clear evidence that topical application of green tea can 1) reduce sebum production significantly, and 2) slash acne dramatically.
None of various herbal compounds and essential oils discussed on this website so far specialise in reducing sebum production, so that makes green tea unique. Honey is strongly antibacterial, rose water is anti-inflammatory, and royal jelly can aid collagen production, but few reduce sebum production so well.
Green tea has its own niche, in other words; it’s great if you have a genetic predisposition to oily skin.
The risk of side effects is tiny
Are there any downsides to green tea? The answer is potentially yes. Green tea is known to be one of foodstuffs highest in sodium fluoride, a highly inflammatory waste product that the human body has no usage for.
Levels of fluoride in green tea often exceed the daily safe intake; this study and this study detailed two cases of women who drank lots green tea and ended up with skeletal fluorosis, a form of fluoride toxicity. Fluoride is especially high in tea leaves because the tea plant has a tendency to pull it out the soil.
Theoretically, topical application of green tea could thus inflame the skin and drain its antioxidants. However, the fact of the matter is that the studies above showed a 50% reduction after eight weeks. You cannot argue with that. In addition, not all green teas contain massive fluoride levels; only the bargain basement products are seriously contaminated due to them using older, poorer quality tea leaves.
Either the type and quantity of fluoride in green tea is safe for your skin, or green tea is so healthy for acne in other ways that the benefits outweigh it.
Even better, none of the studies above showed any side effects whatsoever. The scientists in the first study said: “this is a new natural plant extract, which lacks any side effects”. Of course they could have been bribed by a green tea company, but it seems that they weren’t.
Green tea does not contain any known irritating plant chemicals such as the 8-cineol found in tea tree oil, nor does it have a record of allergies that products from the bee kingdom (raw honey and royal jelly) tend to.
Does brewed green tea work?
Instead of buying a dedicated topical treatment cream, you might be tempted to simply brew some tea and splash it over your face.
A green tea lotion will contain the exact same profile of phytonutrients that the brewed tea does. However there’s a big problem: the shelf life of antioxidants in brewed green tea is poor. Catechins, the main one being ECGC, degrade very fast when exposed to water, due to various impurities and oxygen.
Once brewed in water, levels of epigallocatechin gallate in green tea fall by 50-60% in 5-6 hours. Adding vitamin C, which is a potent water soluble antioxidant, can extend the viability to 8-9 hours, but there’s little practical difference, because you can barely store it overnight.
The obvious solution to that is to apply the green tea to your face the minute it is brewed, but that’s highly inconvenient. You’d have to brew a fresh cup every day. Storing green tea in the fridge does not preserve the ECGC any better.
There’s enough ECGC left to benefit from drinking it, but not for topical application. For example, the average 2% or 3% green tea formulation cream will supply you with approximately 20-30mg of ECGC, since the recommended application is typically 1 gram. ECGC forms about 60% of the green tea extracts used in topical solutions.
Meanwhile, an entire cup of green tea contains 180mg of ECGC according to a USDA report. Hence, the amount of brewed green tea required to apply the same amount of ECGC to your face as from a supplement is roughly four whole teaspoons. Doing that and letting the ECGC absorb would be nearly impossible.
Some acne patients are concerned about whether the ECGC is absorbed at all when applied topically. Well it clearly is, because the studies above all observed benefits. The law of 500 Dalton states that no molecule heavier than 500 Daltons can penetrate human skin pores, and ECGC has a Dalton weight of 458.
The ECGC in brewed green tea will be absorbed just the same as from a formulation. The problem is that there’s too little of it to obtain benefits unless you are highly dedicated to splashing your face with green tea every day, and lying flat on your back to let it soak in.
That’s why if you do decide to use green tea for topical purposes, it’s much smarter to use a dedicated topical treatment.
Best product and usage guide
The only real problem with green tea compared to more historically-used topical treatments is that there’s not much of a market for it yet. The ancient remedy crew hasn’t jumped on it yet like with rose water or witch hazel and the great studies only came out during the last decade.
Hence, good products are very hard to come by; almost every one combines the green tea with tons of other ingredients, additives, and harsh acne-causing chemicals, or other plants like aloe vera. Compared to tea tree oil, where’s there’s plenty of organic products and essential oils, the product range for green tea is very limited.
However, I did track down this pure essential oil type distillation, called Nature’s Answer Alcohol-Free Green Tea.
This product is very pure so it’s free from harsh chemicals such as benzoyl peroxide, which may acne patients react strongly to. The only other ingredients are vegetable glycerine and purified water. You get exactly what you pay for – a green tea based topical treatment, with no extras that you’re not specifically interested in.
As for the usage, you can apply it to any individual piece of acne, but it’s best to spread the liquid across your entire face. That’s what the formula is designed for, and you can achieve this with a cotton puff. It’s best to leave the formulation on overnight, applying it just before bed, as you are lying on your back and the absorption will be more efficient.
Finally, remember to use your green cream consistently! As you can see, the studies above did not show an instantaneous effect. The train of benefits slowly gathered steam for weeks and weeks, with the truly fantastic results kicking in after eight weeks.
Green tea takes longer to work than some topical treatments, but the benefits should be worth it when they arrive. So be patient. If you see any side effects, which is highly unlikely, then stop using it right away.
That leads us to the only problem with the product above – it’s quite expensive given how frequently you have to apply it. You’d have to use a couple of products per month.
Hence, if you’re running low on cash, it’s smarter to start with a big bulk tub of Raw Honey, which is highly antibacterial.
I’m personally hoping that over the next few years these excellent studies spread, the topical acne industry detects the big opportunity for profit, and the number of top-notch green tea skincare products explodes.
Green tea is easily one of the best topical treatments for acne in existence.
It works principally by slashing sebum production, and has a plethora of other benefits such as killing p.acnes bacteria and providing antioxidants.
The lowered sebum production works through its ability to inhibit androgens on the skin. Therefore if you’re an athlete, a bodybuilder, or anyone who desires high levels of testosterone but wants to keep acne at bay, green tea is particularly excellent.
Stay tuned as in the future we will discuss the potential benefits for acne from drinking green tea.
Thanks for reading!