It’s completely true, diet and lifestyle should be your main focuses for curing acne permanently.
However, what if you’re not a fanatical purist who’ll never use topical treatments as long you live? What if you don’t care about dedicating five minutes of your day to meticulously applying a cream, juice or oil? In that case, topical treatments are a great bonus weapon for giving your acne no quarter at all, as long as you use dietary strategies to wipe out at least 75%.
The natural topical treatments which I recommend are divided into 4 main, sometimes overlapping styles. Firstly, there’s antibacterial plants and compounds, the best of which are raw honey, royal jelly, and tea tree oil. The goal here is to kill p.acnes and remove the stimulation for the inflammatory response which kicks off the pimple formation process in the first place.
Next we have directly anti-inflammatory topical treatments, for reducing pro-inflammatory chemicals like IL-6, IL-8 and neutrophils on the surface of your skin. The best treatments here are aloe vera, rose water, and witch hazel.
Category three is the topical treatments which provide a dose of topical antioxidants, mostly including minor plant phytonutrients and vitamins like vitamin E and vitamin A. The goal is to prevent clogged pores by preventing squalene peroxide formation, and the best treatments include witch hazel, grapeseed oil, and raw honey.
Finally, we have the plants, herbs, and compounds which lower sebum production. The mechanism here isn’t hard to understand – no sebum equals no clogged pores full stop (unless your keratin production is at insane levels).
By far the most famous sebum-slasher is green tea, since it’s rich in the well-researched antioxidant epigallocatechin 3-gallate which binds to and inhibits sebaceous gland receptors with monstrous effect. A topical turmeric paste also lowered sebum production by 25% in one study…
…and now we have a new contender in this category. We have sea buckthorn oil, which has slowly gained popularity in the 21st century before accelerating massively since 2010 when Dr Oz recommended it for acne on his famous TV show.
Sea buckthorn oil improves oily skin by 45%
The powers of sea buckthorn oil have since moved from the realm of wild speculation into hard fact, thanks to this promising 2010 study.
A team of Pakistani scientists wanted to analyse the effect of H. rhamnoides (sea buckthorn) extract on sebum production in acne patients. They started by gathering 500 grams of sea buckthorn berry in a finely ground powdered form.
Then they prepared two preparations. Firstly, they had a mixture of paraffin oil, water, ABIL EM 90, (an emulsifier) and drops of lemon oil to add a pleasant scent. The second formulation was exactly the same, except with an added 1% concentration of sea buckthorn extract. This was the only difference between the formulations, so the comparison was clear. The other ingredients weren’t designed to affect acne themselves, they were simply used as a vehicle base, a method for delivering the substance they were testing.
Next they needed some humans, so they recruited 10 healthy males aged 20-35. The experiment was blind with a split-face study design; every patient was told to apply the first extract to one side of their face, and the sea buckthorn-containing extract to the other. They carefully maintained this regimen for 8 weeks, with check-ups and an extensive analysis of their faces performed at one, two, three, four, six and eight weeks.
Neither formulation led to any skin irritation or inflammation. The sea buckthorn version led to increased softness and shine of the skin, which was due to the added fatty acid content according to the scientists…
…but the most interesting result was a huge decline in sebum production, which started at 17% after one week. The reduction only intensified as time went on. By week two the reduction was 18%, by week three it was 23%, by week four, 27%, and by week six 37%.
After the full eight weeks had elapsed, the side of the acne patients’ faces where they applied the sea buckthorn extract had a 45% lower rate of sebum production compared to the placebo side.
With the placebo the story was completely different; sebum production increased slightly. The increase wasn’t statistically significant, but sebum production was nevertheless 15% higher than baseline after three weeks. The placebo continued along a plateau of oiliness, staying 13% higher after 4 weeks and 12% higher after 6 weeks. This could have been down to natural variation in the volunteers’ skin, or the paraffin oil base used could have increased their skin oiliness.
Also interesting was the scientists’ explanation, which was that sea buckthorn oil can regulate sebum production by controlling 5-alpha reductase. That’s the enzyme which converts testosterone into its more potent form, DHT, an expert at stimulating your sebaceous glands.
These benefits all came with zero side effects. The PH of the placebo and the sea buckthorn formulations were 5.61 and 5.18 respectively, making the sea buckthorn extract extremely close to the ideal human skin PH of 4-4.5. The scientists themselves commented that the PH was within a healthy range.
What’s more, each volunteer was asked to observe their irritation and itching from each formulation and assign them a score on a scale of 0 to 3. Outstandingly, every single score was a zero.
There were no side effects from the sea buckthorn oil whatsoever. 10 was a fairly small sample size. Get a group of 50 and you might see an allergic reaction. However we can safely say that sea buckthorn oil is a low risk treatment for humans. Meanwhile it’s a high risk treatment for our arch enemy, pimples, and they don’t get a choice in the matter.
What is sea buckthorn oil?
Despite the name, the main place where sea buckthorn grows near the sea is Western Europe. It mainly grows in abundance in mountainous areas of Asia, particularly China, Russia, Canada, and Northern Europe. In fact, it was believed to have originated in the Himalaya.
Nepali locals from villages along the long trek to the Mount Everest base camp are apparently hustling money from the passing mountaineers by selling them smoothies made of sea buckthorn. The berries are also sold to tourist bars down in Kathmandu to make a unique cocktail, bringing in some nice revenue for the villages.
Raw, the berries are said to taste disgusting, being sour, bitter and astringent. However, when you press them to expel the juice and add that to food products, the result tastes like a mixture of citrus and peach.
Overall, the berry is a well-equipped species for life in the mountains, able to survive well in thin soils and cold climates. Why? Because the berry is bursting with strengthening antioxidants, phytonutrients, and vitamins.
Sea buckthorn has a long medicinal history. It grows widely in Mongolia, and Genghis Khan must have eaten it at one point; he was said to recommend sea buckthorn berry in the 13th century for keeping an army strong and savage, and giving them mighty endurance. It was once widely fed to horses for keeping their hair shiny, smooth and glossy, and curing blindness. The Chinese consider it to be a holy food.
What matters for us, however, is the berry’s oil. The production process goes like this: the berry is pressed of its juice and you end up with three layers. The bottom layer is the sediment and tasty juice used for food, but the upper two layers are rich and creamy and filled with fats.
When separated, these fats are used to make sea buckthorn berry oil. There are two types of sea buckthorn oils widely discussed on acne forums and widely available on the market: the berry oil and the seed oil.
The seed oil is extracted from the seeds the plant uses to propagate itself. Sea buckthorn berry oil is extracted from the content of the rest of the fruit. You can tell the difference between the two instantly; seed oil is an egg yolk shade of orange, while the berry oil is a far more intense shade of red.
However, the visuals aren’t the only difference. The vitamins, minerals, and fatty acid content are significantly different between the two. For example, the seed oil is comprised of 34% linoleic acid (omega 6), while the berry oil is comprised of 12.4%.
Which version are we interested in for acne? The answer is the berry oil, because a whole berry extract is what the excellent study above used.
Why sea buckthorn oil reduces sebum production
The scientists in the study above attributed the sea buckthorn plant’s greatness to inhibition of 5a-reductase. However, there’s evidence staring us in the face that there’s another major cause: vitamin A.
Sea buckthorn is extremely rich in this old acne-fighting nutrient. Vitamin A is the number one nutrient for lowering sebum production. It directly binds to receptors, lowering both sebum production and the differentiation of sebocytes, sebum-producing skin cells. Widely prescribed topical retinoids like tretinoin or retinoic acid work in the same way.
It’s the same story as with acne more widely: addressing a vitamin A deficiency internally is the most important strategy, but topical vitamin A is an excellent bonus.
The relevance for sea buckthorn? This is one of richest berries in vitamin A in the known world – 100 grams of the berry oil contains 300-870 mg (RDA is 900mg). Some report the berry as having 4 times more vitamin A than carrots.
It contains dramatically more than the seed oil, with 30-250mg. Sea buckthorn beats any commercial berry with ease, since strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries contain only negligible amounts.
Just look at its colour – the orange is a sign of abundant carotenoids, the plant-based form of vitamin A. Then look at the oil, the berry derived form is much darker.
The vitamin A-producing carotenoid is beta-carotene, but there’s also other ones with health benefits such as lycopene (found in tomatoes and watermelon) and zeaxanthin. The carotenoid content in sea buckthorn extract is almost certainly partially responsible for the reduction in sebum.
As for other acne oils, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, and olive oil all contain no vitamin A. Rosehip seed oil is one of the best alternatives, but sea buckthorn oil is the richest source.
Vitamin A has other benefits as well; it gets absorbed into skin cells of the epidermis with a gravitational pull-like force, building their defences against sunlight. However, its greatest power is easily reducing oily skin.
Beta-sitosterol and stigmasterol are promising
This compound is roughly 57-83% of sea-buckthorn’s total plant sterols and a good chunk of its total bioactive compounds in total. Beta-sitosterol is a phytosterol, or plant sterol, which is structurally similar to cholesterol. It’s so effective at reducing 5-alpha reductase activity that acne patients using it as a supplement (bad idea) are complaining about a crippled sex drive.
Topically, it’s far safer, and studies have confirmed its powers. This one analysed the effect of saw palmetto and beta-sitosterol on males aged 23 to 64 experiencing AGA, a form of androgen related hair loss where the androgen-sensitive hair follicles shrink and become inactive.
Both compounds were able to inhibit 5a-reductase and hence the transformation of testosterone into DHT. 60% of patients taking beta-sitosterol were judged to have improved. The same was true for only 10% of the control patients.
Next there’s a study on benign prostatic hyperplasia, another condition which results from a DHT imbalance. Compared to the placebo group, 100 patients fed 30mg of beta sitosterol 3 times a day for 6 months ended up with lower prostate symptom scores. According to the scientists, that shows “the effectiveness of beta-sitosterol in the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia”.
There’s also a similar study on hamsters. A pure form of beta-sitosterol had very strong effects; it was shown to inhibit DHT 20% as effectively as the pharmaceutical hair loss drug finasteride. Interestingly, the scientists observed that beta-sitosterol had no binding effect on androgen receptors. That suggests that the compound targets 5a-reductase directly.
The conclusion from all of this? Beta-sitosterol can inhibit the DHT responsible for acne and oily skin excellently, and it’s found in sea buckthorn oil.
Beta-sitosterol is gathering enough steam as a 5-ar inhibitor that hair loss forums everywhere are discussing it fervently. The connection is that both hair loss and acne can be caused by poor ratio of testosterone to DHT. Note that you need DHT for sex drive and vitality, which is why I recommend topical usage, which has no systematic effects. It seems to work for that purpose, since beta-sitosterol was also believed to be responsible for the power of turmeric to reduce oily skin.
Beta-sitosterol is a key player in the monstrous anti-androgenic power of the saw palmetto berry, and the sea buckthorn berry is also rich in it. It also ends up in the oil, and this times it’s the sea buckthorn seed oil which contains more. The seed oil contains 746mg of b-sitosterol, while the berry oil contains 522 to 576 grams. However, the vitamin A still makes the whole berry version superior for acne.
The berry oil also contains another active sterol compound which the seed oil lacks, stigmasterol, again said to inhibit the DHT conversion. Sea buckthorn berry oil contains 6 to 10 mg of stigmasterol per 100 grams of oil.
On top of tackling oily skin, both stigmasterol and beta-sitosterol have strong anti-inflammatory properties as well. They’re said to soothe reddened and inflamed acne as effectively as the pharmaceutical drug cortisone.
While there are no studies analysing the effect of sea buckthorn oil on 5a-reductase directly, we have almost certainly identified the culprits – beta sitosterol and stigmasterol.
Bonus benefit – palmitoleic acid
As far as oily skin goes, we’ve covered our main three saviours already, vitamin A and the two plant phytosterols. But the story doesn’t end there, because sea buckthorn oil is the number one source of one of the rarest fatty acids in existence – palmitoleic acid.
Palmitoleic acid is a monounsaturated fat which is found in low levels in a variety of foods, but high levels in extremely few. It’s not an oil which gets much attention from fitness masterminds nor from skincare gurus, but it has a wide variety of roles in human skin.
Firstly, it’s said to be the most antimicrobial of all the fatty acids. It was confirmed in one study to be at least the most antimicrobial of all mono-unsaturated fats, and as a result is used as a preservative in skincare and cosmetics manufacturing.
Palmitoleic acid also has some interesting protective effects against sunlight. This study found that it dose-dependently decreased the activity of the melanogenic enzymes MITF and TRP-2, which increase dark pigments in skin cells in response to UV radiation. The scientists concluded that “this study suggests that palmitoleic acid is a candidate anti-melanogenic agent, and it might be effective in hyperpigmentation disorders”. Palmitoleic acid also had no cytotoxic effects when they tested it to establish its safety for future use in cosmetics.
The most interesting study, however, was the one on p.acnes bacteria. Palmitoleic acid was tested against a variety of bacterial strains, including e-coli, on human skin. It was found to exert a “synergistic bactericidal activity against gram-negative pathogenic bacteria, including propionibacterium acnes”. It also blocked the growth of candida, one of the worst pathogenic yeasts.
Palmitoleic has very little research conducted on it at all, but it’s currently the most interesting fatty acid for acne alongside linoleic acid.
This fat is also known as omega 7, but compared with the omega 3 of fish and the omega 6 of nuts and seeds, good sources are hard to come by. Many skincare websites will tell you that the increasingly popular macadamia nut oil is the greatest source…
…but they’re wrong, it’s second best, and second to sea buckthorn oil. Sea buckthorn berry oil contains 36.3% of its total fats as palmitoleic acid, while macadamia oil contains 19%.
After those two it’s a wasteland. The top 8 sources are as follows: sea buckthorn berry oil (35,000mg/100 grams), macadamia nuts (15,000mg), whale blubber (6800mg), anglerfish liver (3900mg), lard (2300mg), baker’s yeast (1700mg), eel (1400mg), butter (1200mg), and Pacific herring (1000mg). Way down the list you have avocado, olive oil, cheddar cheese, parmesan cheese, blue cheese and breast milk, all in mere hundreds of milligrams or less.
Once again the berry oil beats the seed oil, which contains negligible amounts. For reference, here are the fatty acid contents of both oils:
Berry oil – 35.5% palmitic acid (C16), 36.3% palmitoleic acid (C16:1), 1.1% stearic acid (C18), 10% oleic acid (C18:1), 12.4% linoleic acid (C18:2), 1.2% linolenic acid (C18:3), 0.9% nervonic acid (C24:1).
Seed oil – 37% linoleic acid (C18:3), 35% linolenic acid (C18:2), 13% oleic acid (C18:1), 7.2% palmitic acid (C16), 2.4% stearic acid (C18).
Seed oil contains no palmitoleic acid. You might also observe, however, that it’s not completely useless. It has a high percentage of linoleic acid, the standout fatty acid of grapeseed oil which feeds the ceramide proteins in your skin which keep inflammation down.
Then there’s the beta-sitosterol, and the fact that the seed oil contains slightly more vitamin E, with 207mg per 100 grams to the berry oil’s 171mg. Both oils are likely to be effective treatments.
Speaking of which, the vitamin E is yet another bonus for the berry oil. Vitamin E is the most potent fat-soluble antioxidant and can prevent the formation of squalene peroxide, which stimulates both a localised increase in sebum production and an overgrowth of keratin. Keratin is the adhesive protein which glues dead skin cells together into pore-clogging clumps.
The sea buckthorn berry is such a hardy and nutritious plant that it has countless other bonus compounds. Phytonutrients include zeaxanthin, lycopene, tocotrienols, tocopherols, phenols, terpenes, and glucosides.
The berry itself contains 600mg of vitamin C per 100 grams, although vitamin C is water-soluble and won’t be retained in the oil. If you’re trekking to Everest base camp and the local villagers start harassing you with berry juice then say yes!
Overall, sea buckthorn oil has the potential to be a pretty monstrous acne treatment.
Any risk of side effects?
The initial study on oily skin revealed no irritation, no potentially damaging PH. Again, it’s possible that you could have an allergy to one of the many natural compounds in the sea buckthorn berry, but that’s an automatic risk with everything.
Another potential threat is the oleic acid. Sea buckthorn berry oil contains 10% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat which makes up 70% of olive oil. Oleic acid has strong antibacterial activity, but is still one of deadliest fatty acids around. Why? It strongly damages the human skin barrier, resulting in increased sensitivity to ultraviolet light and increased rates of TEWL, trans-epidermal water loss.
That translates to dry, cracking and inflamed skin. That’s why I recommend against topical olive oil, despite it being a “superfood” when eaten…
…but the good news is that a 10% concentration is far too low to have a damaging effect. 10% doesn’t compare to 70% in olive oil, which has been shown to cause rashes when used as an oil in massage parlours.
Topically, sea buckthorn oil seems to have no risk of side effects at all. Just don’t eat it! As I said earlier, it’s rich in potent anti-androgenic plant sterols. That’s great for reducing oily skin, but also effective at ruining your sex drive, giving you brain fog, stealing your energy, and removing your determination.
You’d probably get away with it with the berry itself, since the fat portion containing the beta-sitosterol is in a far lower proportion. However, the same isn’t true with the oil, neither the seed nor berry oil.
Remember that excellent topical treatments aren’t automatically acne-clearing miracles when eaten.
Conclusion – the verdict on sea buckthorn oil
The verdict is that sea buckthorn oil is one of greatest natural topical treatments for oily skin. It has added benefits like reducing inflammation and delivering vitamin E but if you have high sebum production then this is the treatment for you.
Who can benefit from sea buckthorn oil? Both men and women can benefit. Men are more likely to have high levels of DHT, but women are ten times more sensitive to DHT. Only a moderate imbalance can turn female skin into an oil slick, so both sexes can have elevated sebum production due to androgens.
If you cannot organise a diet with enough animal derived vitamin A, perhaps because you’re a vegan, then the benefits will be big. If you want an alternative to Accutane without the hair loss and pregnancy disruption then sea buckthorn oil is a great topical treatment.
Sea buckthorn oil won’t be as effective if you’ve already jumped on the green tea bandwagon, since that’s another topical DHT slasher. It won’t work if your skin isn’t that oily and you mostly suffer from numerous, tiny inflamed pimples.
You also won’t notice shockingly clear skin instantaneously. The sebum study showed that the 45% reduction was achieved after 8 weeks. After 1 week the reduction was just 17%. In fact, that’s an interesting feature of sebum-reducing treatments; they tend to take several weeks to exert their full effects.
Scientifically, you would expect the benefits to show up quickly. Binding to sebaceous gland receptors and inhibiting 5-alpha reductase and DHT should occur fast, even if pores take weeks to unclog. But no, topical turmeric, sea buckthorn oil, and green tea all take consistent application to fully work.
If you use sea buckthorn oil, apply it to your entire face every day for at least two weeks before you give up. It’s not a treatment for eliminating an individual target; it’s a preventative treatment like grapeseed oil.
Sea buckthorn berry oil is the ultimate choice, since the sebum study tested the entire fruit extract. However, sea buckthorn seed oil also has plenty of vitamin E, phytosterols, and linoleic acid, so future studies may reveal astonishing benefits for that as well.
If you want to try sea buckthorn berry oil then a cleanly produced and affordable product is this BEAUTYOILS 100% Pure Sea Buckthorn Berry Oil. Warning: watch out for the dark red colour.
Sea buckthorn oil first became popular when it was recommended for killing acne on the Dr Oz show. Since then some hype merchants have labelled it as “a complete health food store in a bottle”.
It sounds like marketing claptrap, but for once, this is a topical treatment which lives up to the hype.
Thanks for reading!