Olive leaf extract is exactly what it sounds like: a concentrated supplement derived from the leaf of the olive plant.
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 is the massive variety of powers olive leaf extract has, or more specifically, potentially has.
Olive leaf extract, meanwhile, has at least five potential powers. The question is whether any are powerful enough to visibly improve your acne, 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 primitive humans first grabbed and applied the 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 was in 1854. Olive leaf was recommended by British doctors for treating malaria patients; a handful of leaves were boiled down into a tea and administered in a wine glass every 4 hours. 19th century doctors believed that a bitter compound was responsible, and were proven to be 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, both through the bitter flavour which even insects can’t stand to eat, and 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, both for health and hidden acne benefits.
Oleuropein occurs naturally in the olive fruit, meaning that olive oil contains small quantities, but the leaf is a massively richer source. A standardised extract contains 50mg (remember this figure); to obtain that from olive oil you would have to drink 7 litres. Olive oil is an excellent food for acne, but its benefits come from vitamin E, oleic acid, and an antioxidant compound for which the oil wins, oleocanthal.
Most olive leaf extracts are now standardised, with guaranteed medicinal levels of oleuropein, conquering the variation seen in nature. Also important is that oleuropein metabolites are confirmed to reach the bloodstream in high levels when taken in olive leaf extract (study). Olive leaf also contains some other medicinal compounds: 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
Olive leaf extract’s classic power is enhancing the immune system, but for acne, the result could be happy or miserable. Your immune system could attack bacteria harder and cause more inflammation, or your immune system might be constrained and controlled.
Olive leaf extract has at least some anti-inflammatory powers:
STUDY ONE – oleuropein itself has powerful anti-inflammatory properties; this giant review found that oleuropein could 1) prevent immune system neutrophils form pumping out free radicals, 2) decrease the pro-inflammatory chemical interleukin 6, which causes inflammation 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.
STUDY TWO – olive leaf extract was tested on the digestive systems of mice and significantly reduced pro-inflammatory chemicals like TNF-a and IL-6. This has a bonus benefit, as digestive inflamation is strongly linked to acne. What’s more, olive leaf extract improved the integrity of the gut lining, which can improve the absorption of acne nutrients and filter out inflammatory molecules from food. 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 – cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy were fed olive leaf extract, and enjoyed reduced levels of two kings of inflammation, TNF-a and IL-1beta (study).
STUDY FIVE – the worst study, conducted on human diabetes patients. The experiment tested 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 each day, none of the chemicals changed.
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. Another unaswered question is how strong the anti-inflammatory effects are – do they match supplements like ginseng or zinc?
Reducing bodily inflammation levels 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 may have:
STUDY ONE – oleuropein itself has monstrous antioxidant properties (study), protecting olive leaves from free radicals in nature. It’s strong enough to 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 – olive leaf extract might also enhance 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 the antioxidants, and 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 – another study found that olive leaf extract increased superoxide dismutase and catalase production, this time in mice with breast cancer. Ordinarily, superoxide dismutase is manufactured using baseline ingredients like manganese and zinc. However, certain antioxidants have unexplained powers to increase SOD formation. An example is 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 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 more valuable than its effect on your own antioxidant factories.
The studies here were conducted on animals, and used high doses. Once more, the evidence is inconsistent, particularly for your own antioxidants. What is confirmed is olive leaf extract’s supply of its own antioxidants.
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 power isn’t guaranteed to appear in olive leaf extract, as they’re so nutritionally different, but this highly promising study says that it does.
Mice were supplemented with either isolated oleuropein or a whole olive leaf extract, while being blasted with UV radiation. Both treatments strongly decreased all symptoms of UV radiation exposure. After 30 weeks, the amount of fresh tumours was 88% lower, and olive leaf extract even protected skin elasticity.
Since both were effective, oleuropein was clearly a huge factor, and the same was true for this second study. 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 some other antioxidants act like natural sunscreens; other examples are lycopene from watermelons and flavanoids in dark chocolate. Oleuropein could possibly have bonus effects too, like stimulating other defences indirectly.
The benefits for acne are numerous: less inflammation, a longer day at the beach without an explosion of acne, and more tolerance for getting vitamin D and blue light. If your skin is weak, sunlight can set your acne back weeks. If 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, a 250% increase in testosterone occurred, and best for acne, a big decrease in corticosterone, the precursor to the stress hormone cortisol.
The flipside was an earlier study on three doses of olive leaf extract equivalent to 20, 50, and 100mg of oleuropein. 14 days of supplementation significant increased 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 calmness of oleuropein was mostly likely 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.
A consistent picture hasn’t coalesced yet but firstly, this study found that two compounds from olive leaf, oleuropein and olearonic acid, reduced insulin levels by 47% in mice. Blood sugar fell by a similar 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 18 hours daily.
Two mechanisms are currently known, the first being decelerated carbohydrate digestion. Olive leaf extract can slow down the breakdown of starch in the small intestine, and its absorption into the bloodstream, resulting in a smaller spike in insulin, glucose and oil. You still obtain the full quantity of carbohydrates from the meal, just more slowly.
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 – 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 mysterious, 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 disproves nothing. 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 exactly why we need more studies. Insulin and glucose are a very intricate topic. Olive leaf extract remains murkier than ginger, which consistently increases glucose uptake into energy stores in studies. The judgement – keep an eye on this power.
Gut bacteria – the fears are overblown
If you’re wondering about side effects, there’s one which natural health hunters speculate about constantly – olve leaf extract’s ability to kill healthy gut bacteria.
Olive leaf extract has confirmed antimicrobial properties against bad bacteria, but if it’s a broad antibiotic which doesn’t discriminate, taking it would be disastrous for acne. Healthy bacterial strains are vital for reducing inflammation, digesting acne nutrients, preventing acne from FODMAPs in garlic, and more.
The truth? The opposite might be true, 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 yogurt they were lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium bifidum. Both strains can prevent gut inflammation and protect the gut lining 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 consumption of the milk’s lactose than usual.
It was deemed that polyphenols in olive leaves were feeding the healthy bacteria. This is actually an interesting study itself, but for today, it proves that olive leaf isn’t an indiscriminate monster after all. The scientists even concluded that olive leaf extract “might have the same effect on desirable components of the intestinal microflora” as it 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 overgrows in the gut and increases 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 successfully destroyed the microorganisms’ flagella, a whip-like coil which microorganisms use to move through liquid, and the mobility of the strains was slashed accordingly.
The smartest move is to never overdose – always take the standardised pill containing approximately 50mg of oleuropein, or even the good bacteria might be vulnerable.
The verdict on olive leaf extract
This herbal supplement’s potential for acne is massive, but most of its powers remain highly mysterious.
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. Olive leaf extract will never become a near universally effective acne remedy like zinc or vitamin E.
What can we confirm? The antioxidant properties of oleuropein and other polyphenols, the UV radiation protection, and some effect on insulin. I would not recommend olive leaf extract just to obtain antioxidants, when equally concentrated sources are everywhere: ginger, oregano, dark chocolate, olive oil, pomegranate.
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 develop an iron armour against blazing sunlight. The gut bacteria enhancement also has potential.
Olive leaf extract might have a future as a highly targeted acne weapon.
Thanks for reading!