Olive leaf extract is an herbal remedy which is exactly what it sounds like: a supplement derived from the leaf of the same olive plant which bears the olive fruit used to make olive oil.
Most herbal acne remedies are sourced from India or China, but this one grows in countries surrounding the Mediterranean, like Morocco, Italy and Egypt. What’s interesting about olive leaf extract is the massive variety of powers it has, or more specifically, potentially has.
With rhodiola rosea, you have stress-reducing adaptogenic properties. With burdock root you have anti-inflammatory powers, while ashwagandha is another adaptogen, with added lipid peroxide-reducing properties.
Olive leaf extract, meanwhile, has at least five potential powers for acne when taken as a supplement. The real question is whether any are powerful enough to create a visible difference in your skin, rather than exist purely in the realm of theory.
The key compound in olive leaf extract
The olive plant is so all-conquering that we’ll never know when modern humans or earlier primitive humans first grabbed and applied the olive leaf, perhaps as a last ditch remedy for a wound.
However, the Ancient Egyptians called it a symbol of heavenly power, and interestingly, the Bible said this about olives: “the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine”. The first officially documented usage of the extract was in 1854. Olive leaf was recommended by British doctors for treating malaria; the goal was to boil down a handful of leaves into a tea, administering it to the patient in a wine glass every 4 hours.
This recipe then spread to British colonies in tropical climates such as Jamaica. 19th century doctors believed that a bitter compound in the olive leaves was responsible, and later they were proven to be absolutely correct, with the discovery of oleuropein.
Thus we arrive at the key difference between olive leaf extract and olive oil. Oleuropein is a polyphenol antioxidant which provides the bitterness, tanginess and pungent flavor of true extra virgin olive oils. In nature, the olive is a highly resistant plant and oleuropein is why, partly through the bitter flavour which even insects can’t stand to eat, and also because of antimicrobial and antioxidant properties which allow it to withstand the elements.
Most importantly, oleuropein is easily the main active medicinal compound in olive leaf extract. It’s the most important compound for health and hidden acne benefits.
Oleuropein occurs naturally in both the leaves and fruit of the olive plant. That means that olive oil contrarians small quantities too, but olive leaf extract is a massively richer source. A standardised extract contains 50mg of oleuropein (remember this figure); to obtain the same quantity from olive oil you would have to drink 7 litres a day. As a food, olive oil is excellent for acne, but its benefits come from vitamin E, oleic acid, and an antioxidant compound for which the oil wins, oleocanthal.
Modern processing techniques now allow for a standardised olive leaf extract with guaranteed medicinal levels of oleuropein, conquering the variation seen in nature. Also important is that in humans, oleuropein and its metabolites are confirmed to make it to the bloodstream in high levels when taken in olive leaf extract (study), so the main active compound is bioavailable. However, olive leaf contains other medicinal compounds as well: hydroxytyrosol, vabascoside, luteolin-7-glucoside, and apigenin-7-glucoside.
Now let’s move on to what olive leaf extract accomplishes for acne…
The inflammation connection
For health, olive leaf extract’s main reputation is as an immune system enhancer. For acne, the precise result could be happy or miserable: a strengthened response by the immune system to acne bacteria in skin pores, resulting in redness, swelling and acne. Or, a more controlled and targeted immune system, which would be excellent.
It looks like olive leaf extract has at least some anti-inflammatory powers:
STUDY ONE – oleuropein itself has powerful anti-inflammatory properties; this giant review analysed numerous different studies and found that oleuropein could 1) inhibit the release of superoxide anion free radicals from immune system neutrophils, 2) decrease levels of the pro-inflammatory chemical interleukin 6, a chemical which is dispatched to the skin during the early stages of pimple formation, and 3) inhibit the COX-2 regulator which is targeted by painkillers, but also creates red and painful acne. Olive leaf extract is the richest source of oleuropein.
STUDY TWO – we have a study from just two months ago, where olive leaf extract was tested on the digestive systems of mice, with reductions in acne-related pro-inflammatory chemicals like TNF-a and IL-6. This has a bonus benefit: a specific reduction in digestive inflammation. Gut health is strongly linked to acne, and what’s more, olive leaf extract even improved the integrity of the gut lining, which can improve the absorption of acne nutrients in food and filter out inflammatory molecules. Essentially, OLE can combat the feared leaky gut syndrome.
STUDY THREE – a blood pressure experiment on 9 men and 9 women found that olive leaf extract supplementation decreased levels of interleukin-8, a pro-inflammatory chemical which is strongly linked to acne.
STUDY FOUR – a group of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy were fed olive leaf extract, and they enjoyed reduced levels of two of the kings of inflammation, TNF-a and IL-1beta (study).
STUDY FIVE – the worst study. This study was conducted on human diabetes patients. The goal was to test the effects on insulin and blood glucose, but TNF-a, IL-8 and c-reactive protein, the main biomarker used to assess inflammation levels, were also tested. After taking olive leaf extract containing 51.1mg of oleuropein per day, there was no change in any of them.
There’s many more studies out there. The evidence is strong that olive leaf extract has some anti-inflammatory properties, but highly inconsistent.
Perhaps olive leaf extract only works in certain circumstances, like inflammation caused by a faulty digestive system. Even if they are consistent, another question is how strong they are. They’re at least moderately strong, but do they match supplements like ginseng or zinc?
Reducing inflammation levels in the body is your number one goal for acne, tied with increasing antioxidant supplies…
Antioxidants – also very murky
…and that’s another power which olive leaf extract might have:
STUDY ONE – oleuropein itself has monstrous antioxidant properties (study), being used to protect the olive leaf from free radicals in nature. It’s strong enough that it can prevent LDL cholesterol oxidation and lower the risk of heart disease, and protect neurons from destruction, but who cares about those trivial things – clear skin is our goal. The other polyphenols are also strong antioxidants.
STUDY TWO – another interesting question is whether olive leaf extract enhances your body’s own antioxidant generation. This rat study detected positive effects on two homemade antioxidants, superoxide dismutase and catalase. The rats were drunk for the whole experiment. Why? Ethanol was used to decrease antioxidants in the first place. Therefore, olive leaf extract might protect against acne from beer and wine. Later, round 2 was conducted, and olive leaf extract increased SOD and catalase once more.
STUDY THREE – yet another study found that olive leaf extract increased superoxide dismutase and catalase production, this time in an experiment on mice with breast cancer. Ordinarily, superoxide dismutase is manufactured by the body using baseline ingredients like manganese and zinc. However, certain antioxidants from foods have random, unexplained powers to increase SOD formation. An example is resveratrol from red wine and the antioxidants from basil, and olive leaf extract’s polyphenols might do the same.
STUDY FOUR – but this study was contradictory. Rats were fed very high doses of olive leaf extract, 500mg per 1kg of bodyweight. There was no change in superoxide dismutase, catalase and a small increase in glutathione levels. However, there was an overall increase in blood antioxidant levels.
This was thus summarised in an interesting conclusion: “OLE seems to be useful for decreasing oxidative stress in examined tissues by acting as an anti-oxidant itself without affecting the anti-oxidant system”. Essentially, the polyphenols within olive leaf were deemed to be more valuable than the indirect benefits it has for your own antioxidant factories.
The evidence for increasing superoxide dismutase formation is decent but derailed by the last study, whereas the evidence for glutathione exists but is weaker. The studies were also conducted on animals, and using very high doses.
Once more, the evidence is inconsistent. What we definitely know is that olive leaf extract has its own supply of antioxidants for acne.
The best power – a natural sunlight armour
Extra virgin olive oil is a topical treatment to avoid, due to destabilising the skin barrier, but it was redeemed slightly by one topical study where it decreased the sensitivity to UV radiation in mice. The flaws are two fold. Firstly, olive oil has a very different composition to olive leaf, and secondly, olive leaf extract is a supplement, not a topical treatment…
…but this power was finally confirmed, in this highly promising study that tested olive leaf extract itself, orally. Groups of mice were supplemented with either isolated oleuropein or a whole olive leaf extract while being blasted with UV radiation. Both treatments decreased all symptoms of UV radiation exposure strongly compared to the placebo. By the end of the 30 week study, the amount of fresh tumours was 88% lower. Numerous biomarkers of sunlight damage fell. Olive leaf extract even prevented reductions in skin elasticity.
Both isolated oleuropein and olive leaf extract were effective, showing that oleuropein was the main factor, and the same was true for this second study. They both inhibited tumour formation and skin elasticity decreases from sunlight, in an oral test. Most pertinently for acne, this study observed a reduction in free radical activity triggered by sunlight.
Oleuropein probably migrates to your face, accumulate in cells, and provides direct antioxidant defences there. That’s how many antioxidants act like natural sunscreens, but only some of them; other examples are lycopene from watermelons and flavanoids in dark chocolate. It’s possible that there’s bonus effects too, if oleuropein turns out to be extra potent.
The benefits for your skin are numerous: stronger skin in sunny weather, less inflamed acne from sunlight, and more tolerance for getting vitamin D, nitric oxide in the skin, and blue light. If your skin is weak, sunlight can set your acne back weeks. If it’s strong, sunlight can be the final key to glowing and vibrant skin.
Natural sun protection is the most interesting acne power of olive leaf extract. We lack human studies, but a near identical result was repeated twice.
Olive leaf extract for stress
Reducing stress, getting a calmer and happier mind, and reducing the symptoms of stress is another popular usage for olive leaf extract, but the evidence is weak.
It started with this 2013 oleuropein study. 15 rats were fed 10.3mg of oleuropein, AKA an easily obtainable standardised extract dosage. After 4 weeks, many hormonal effects were observed; a 250% increase in testosterone, and best for acne, a big decrease in corticosterone, the precursor to the stress hormone cortisol.
The flipside was an earlier study conducted on the whole olive leaf extract. The three doses were equivalent to 20, 50, and 100mg of oleuropein. 14 days of supplementation led to a significant increase in the amount of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol in the bloodstream. ACTH is a hormone signaller released by the adrenal glands which promotes the release of cortisol. Cortisol itself is the main stress hormone, responsible for both the anxiety and racing thoughts and the physical symptoms like acne.
The two studies completely contradict each other. The most likely possibility is that the calmness of oleuropein was outweighed by the anxiety of another compound in olive leaves. The insane testosterone increase also suggests that the first study was a freak occurrence. For stress and acne, olive leaf extract is interesting, but I cannot recommend it.
Insulin, glucose and oily skin
Even if they’re completely false, it’s always interesting to see what uses the countless villages, communities and cultures around the world invent for popular plants and herbs. In Moroccan medicine, for example, olive leaf is widely prescribed in tea form for stabilising blood sugar and controlling type 2 diabetes…
…and they discovered through observation what was later confirmed through science: olive leaf extract reduces insulin, the single worst hormone for oily skin.
Many studies have analysed olive leaf’s connection to insulin and blood sugar. A consistent picture hasn’t coalesced yet but firstly, this study found that supplementation with two compounds from olive leaf, oleuropein and olearonic acid, reduced insulin levels by 47% in mice. It was a similar story for blood sugar, which fell by 40%.
In 2012, another great study found that whole olive leaf extract decreased fasting insulin levels, AKA the insulin levels and oily skin stimulation you have for most of the day. This was performed on humans.
As for the mechanisms, two are currently known, the first of which is decelerated carbohydrate digestion. Olive leaf extract can slow down the breakdown of starch in the small intestine, and its absorption into the bloodstream, with the result being a smaller spike in insulin and blood glucose. You still obtain the full quantity of carbohydrates from the meal, just more slowly, so there’s no sudden spike in oily skin.
However, this doesn’t explain the improvement in fasting insulin and glucose, and thus our second benefit is increased uptake of glucose into energy stores (study). The compound which is responsible is oleuropein.
As a bonus, olive leaf extract protects against the damage of high blood sugar; OLE protects skin tissues against advanced glycation end products (AGEs), free radicals which form when elevated blood glucose levels react with proteins and run wild.
The exact powers of olive leaf extract for insulin are not fully uncovered, but we have a few promising glimmers. The biggest flaw is that for each power (insulin reduction, starch digestion, glucose uptake), there’s no more than two studies, but that doesn’t disprove anything. A weird contradiction is that in the 2012 study, there was no difference in postprandial (post meal) insulin levels, despite the slowing of starch digestion demonstrated elsewhere.
That’s the kind of reason why we need more studies. Insulin and glucose are a very intricate topic. Olive leaf extract remains murkier than ginger, where every study repeats itself, saying that eating ginger can increase glucose uptake into energy stores.
We can say this though: there’s so many studies around that olive leaf extract simply has to have some power for insulin, and hence oily skin. The judgement – keep an eye on this power.
Gut bacteria – the fears are overblown
You might be wondering whether olive leaf extract has any side effects, like other powerful herbal supplements. Well, there’s one which natural health hunters speculate about constantly without any progress, and that is its supposed ability to kill healthy bacteria in your gut lining.
Olive leaf extract is known for its strong antimicrobial properties against bad bacteria, but if it’s a broad antibiotic which doesn’t discriminate, eating it would be disaster for acne. Healthy bacterial strains like bifidobacterium and butyrate-generating bacteria are vital for reducing inflammation, digesting nutrients, preventing acne from FODMAPs in garlic, and more.
The truth? It looks promising, because this study added olive leaf extract to natural biolive yogurt, to determine how the polyphenols affects the probiotic count. The strains in natural yoghurt are obviously healthy, and in this particular yogurt they were lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium bifidum. B. bifidum can protect the gut lining among many other powers, while l. acidophilus can prevent gut inflammation linked to acne after taking up residence inside you.
Adding olive leaf extract resulted in denser yogurt, and more biolive yogurt. The bacteria was not killed, and clear evidence was that lactic acid levels and PH were increased, a sign of higher amounts of bacteria consuming lactose in the milk than usual.
It was deemed that the polyphenols in olive leaves were actually feeding the healthy bacteria. This is actually a very interesting study in itself, but for today, it proves that olive leaf does not wipe out all bacteria in its path after all. The scientists also concluded that the polyphenols in olive leaf extract “might have the same effect on desirable components of the intestinal microflora” as they did in yogurt.
As for evil microorganisms in the gut, this study tested olive leaf extract against food born pathogens, and many were inhibited. One example was candida albans, or simply candida, an ordinarily harmless yeast which can overgrow in the gut and increase inflammation and acne, while crowding out healthy strains of bacteria.
Two compounds did the killing – oleuropein once more, but also vabascoside, which was the most antimicrobial. They were shown to destroy the microorganisms’ flagella, a whip-like coil which microorganisms use to move through liquid, and the mobility of the strains was slashed too.
The smartest move is to never overdose – always take the standardised amount, a pill containing approximately 50mg of oleuropein, or even the good bacteria might be vulnerable.
The verdict on olive leaf extract
This herbal supplement is clearly very powerful, and its potential for acne is massive, but most of its powers remain highly mysterious.
What can we confirm? Only the antioxidant properties of oleuropein and other polyphenols, the UV radiation protection, and some effect on insulin. I would definitely not recommend olive leaf extract just to obtain antioxidants, when equally concentrated sources are everywhere: ginger, oregano, dark chocolate, olive oil, pomegranate. The natural sunscreen properties, however, are olive leaf’s best confirmed power, because they’re rare among herbal supplements.
The anti-inflammatory properties are too unstable to recommend, and the stress reduction is a failure. The picture from the acne underground is equally clouded: some report improvements, a tiny minority get worse, probably due to natural fluctuation, while many experience nothing.
What will olive leaf extract do to you as an everyday acne patient? Your acne might clear slightly from the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, but only slightly. Olive leaf extract will never become a near universally effective acne remedy like zinc or vitamin E.
However, the sunscreen properties are pretty excellent, particularly with free radicals being inhibited. If you combine them with dark chocolate, vitamin A, and other weapons, your skin might become much more immune to blazing sunlight. The gut bacteria and insulin reduction also have potential, and hidden within the inflammation studies were the benefits for leaky gut syndrome.
For those reasons, olive leaf extract might have a future as a highly targeted acne weapon.
Thanks for reading!