Originally, there were 3 species of emu, but two were hunted to extinction. Clearly, the remaining emu subspecies smartened up, because in 1932 the state of Australia launched the great “emu war”, intended to curb the population. The war was a miserable failure. The operation had the full weight of the Royal Australian Artillery behind it, but the birds still couldn’t be beaten. The emus were as invulnerable as a tank in the face of machine gun fire, as they simply dodged everything the army threw at them.
Mounting machine guns on trucks also failed, as the emus simply outran them; the emu can run at 30mph when threatened. Another strategy was to round them up like a herd of sheep, and massacre them, but the emus were smart enough to constantly scatter themselves.
A few hundred emus were killed, but this was barely a dent in the mass of 20,000 that moved into the mainland every breeding season. The overall population didn’t change at all, and they continued to wreak havoc by feasting on local crops.
It’s lucky that the emus were so intelligent, as we now have access to the joys of emu oil, a moderately popular acne remedy. The emu’s body contains 3 gallons of oil; the aboriginals began the tradition of extracting it, but now the skincare industry has moved in on the act.
Is emu oil useful as a natural acne remedy, for escaping the clutches of unnatural pharmaceutical remedies? The answer is probably yes, even though its main power isn’t directly connected to acne.
Increases the power of all topical treatments?
One of the main theories is that the oil lurking inside this bird is one of the best penetration-enhancing substances in nature. The glorious implications for acne would include improved antibacterial properties in tea tree oil, a greater reduction in oily skin from green tea, and so on. Any skincare compound which isn’t found in a carrier oil already would be massively enhanced.
Sadly, the evidence is fairly weak. The main theory is that emu oil is lacking in phosphor-lipids compared to plant based oils. The less of these phosphorous molecules an oil has, the easier it penetrates through layers of human skin. Human skin is reportedly programmed to keep phosphor-lipids out. Emu oil is also said to improve penetration by having a near 100% identical fat profile to human skin.
The problem is that there’s very little evidence for these theories. In fact, if you research this topic, you’ll find that most articles and studies revolve around emu oil itself; there’s no original source for the phosphor-lipid idea.
Emu oil could still be effective; for example, this study on emu oil’s moisturising properties found that it had “superb skin penetration properties“. But this study derailed the idea completely. 7 different skincare oils were tested for their ability to enhance the penetration of flurbiprofen into the skin’s layers. Flurbiprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Contrary to it’s supposed brilliance, emu oil was actually the weakest among all oils.
Grapeseed oil, a widely used oil which is one of the best natural topical treatments for acne, was easily superior. Olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil were all superior. Most importantly, they are PLANT-based oils; this contradicts the theory of animal oils being excellent by lacking phosphor-lipids. Crocodile oil was also superior, so if you’re Botswanan or South African, you can just walk down to the local river and get some (no liability if you take that advice seriously). It could be that the flurbiprofen tested in this study behaves very differently to natural plant based topical treatments, with honey or aloe vera performing better with emu oil, but this study cannot be ignored.
For a moment, the penetration powers looked very interesting, but they eventually unravelled into nothing. However, there are some far superior studies on curcumin, the powerful antioxidant found in turmeric. In this study, scientists were applying curcumin to rat skin to observe the anti-inflammatory properties; emu oil increased penetration by 1.84 fold compared to corn oil, and 4.25 fold compared to water. Emu oil is thus superior to some oils if not all of them. This study similarly found that emu oil enhanced the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin.
Given how many natural topical treatments are highly complex and interact in unexpected ways, you should always seize the opportunity if you have direct confirmation that a combo like this works. Therefore, if you want to use turmeric topically for lowering inflammation, which is curcumin’s main power, choose emu oil as a carrier oil.
Based on the fact that emu oil was inferior to numerous other skincare oils, we can safely say that the main theory is false and that emu oil is generally nothing special at all.
Confirmed as a natural moisturiser
However, emu oil does have another standout power, a real one this time: natural moisturising powers.
70 breastfeeding women were told to apply emu oil, shortly after giving birth. By the end of the study, their nipples were much more moisturised. Clearly this is a good thing; it should translate to your face as well. Here are the details: stratum corneum hydration went up, with no detrimental effect on skin PH, temperature, or elasticity. The improvement was most pronounced among women in the lowest quartile of hydration at the beginning of the study.
Improvements in hydration varied from 14.6% to 43.2%. These glorious effects took place in just 24 hours, which is extremely fast for a moisturiser. It’s almost guaranteed that the skin on the face would behave slightly differently, but the greatness of these results cannot be denied.
If you happen to be a breastfeeding mother then you know what to do; if your face is riddled with acne, your way forward is also clear. The other strong study on emu oil examined 11 people, who were specifically selected for their lack of acne. Emu oil’s emollient (the technical name for moisturising) properties were compared to a mineral oil formulation. In a questionnaire, all 11 participants preferred the emu oil to the mineral oil, for its texture and moisturising properties. Emu oil was also dramatically superior in the scientific analysis in those areas.
The only thing we lack is evidence comparing emu oil to other natural oils, such as grapeseed oil or argan oil. We know that it works but not whether it’s exceptionally effective. However, with almost all natural oils being recommended left, right and centre nowadays, it’s excellent to add another to the roster of moisturisers which are actually confirmed to work.
Does emu oil build skin thickness?
Then there’s the evidence that emu oil can thicken your skin, which would be a godsend for skin strength or appearance if your skin is thinning with age. In fact, one of the studies was on 8 elderly men and women, with an average age of 72. One woman aged 38 was thrown in; excluding this woman the average age would have been 77.
After applying emu oil nightly for six weeks, the increase in skin thickness ranged from 9.9% to 10.6%. The only man whose skin didn’t thicken was a 84 year old with what the author called “ham hands”. His skin was said to be so thick that he was incapable of wearing gloves. In another study, emu oil thickened the skin by an average of 14% and up to 33% in specific cases. Lurking in the depths of scientific research, there’s also several 5 day studies on mice where emu oil thickened the skin’s epidermis once again.
This is a fairly unique power, one which you might denounce as a hoax, but it seems to be legitimate since it was repeated in multiple studies. The question is whether it only works on extremely old people, or whether emu oil will replenish young skin as well. The only downside here is that you might wake up looking like Treebeard one morning.
What about for acne?
For acne, emu oil has some promise but is significantly weaker than argan oil or grapeseed oil. We have a few studies which hint at greatness, but fail to conclusively confirm it.
We begin with a study on the common skin condition seborrheic dermatitis, characterised by red, scaly patches of skin. No studies on acne exist but SD is a good proxy, since both conditions are caused by chronic inflammation. After one month of daily application, emu oil reduced all symptoms of SD “significantly”. However, it was also significantly inferior to the standard medications of hydrocortisone and clotrimazole. Emu oil is effective but not miraculous, although we can say that it’s a decent natural alternative.
Several studies on rats have tested the wider anti-inflammatory powers of emu oil. In this one, emu oil was equally as effective as ibuprofen in calming arthritis, which is often caused by inflammatory assaults on the joints. The emu oil was applied transdermally, so it was able to reduce internal inflammation via absorption through the skin. This study and this study concluded that emu oil could reduce inflammation from burns when applied topically to rats.
All in all, there’s plenty of evidence to say that emu oil can reduce inflammation, but whether it’s strong enough to clear your skin substantially is another question.
This study also detected huge variability in the anti-inflammatory properties of different emu oils, and that the common fatty acid linoleic acid wasn’t the beneficial compound. So until we identify exactly which compound is responsible, any anti-inflammatory properties are down to luck.
The other area where emu oil has some potential is wound healing and therefore dead and dying pimple healing, but it’s a similar story. One study was very strong as ten males were made to apply either emu oil or a placebo to wound sites over the course of six months. The areas treated with emu oil healed far more efficiently.
This study was a failure; an emu lotion proved to be excellent for countless wound healing factors such as wound contraction, epithelialization, and infiltration of organised granulation tissue. But this lotion was a combination of emu oil, a botanical oil and vitamin E, and pure emu oil had no effect on wound healing at all. This study was positive, as applying emu oil to rat wounds increased the rate of collagen formation substantially. It was also reported in a London journal way back in 1860 that early Australian settlers were using emu oil for wound healing, a centuries-old trick which they learn from the native Aboriginals.
The evidence is interesting overall, but nothing incredible. The likes of tamanu oil or aloe vera are far superior for wound healing.
The oil profile
For the bread and butter oil properties, emu oil performs very well. It’s comedogenic score is just 1 out of 5, equal to argan oil and much lower than the pore-clogging coconut oil at 4.
The fatty acid profile isn’t excellent but there’s little risk: 47.5% oleic acid, 15.2% linoleic acid, 9.6% stearic acid, and 22% palmitic acid, with minor fatty acids comprising the rest. The oleic acid is only high enough to cause side effects if your skin barrier is weak, while the beneficial linoleic acid is only concentrated enough to improve your acne if your skin is extremely deficient in it.
All in all, the profile is neutral. Elsewhere, there are no compounds which are confirmed to be irritating or deadly and in one study where the patients were asked to note any contact dermatitis if it occurred, none did. Anything is possible with a natural oil like this – maybe the emu species has been preparing for this day – but in studies emu oil performs extremely well. For example, in the moisturising study comparing emu oil to mineral oil, none of the patients reported any adverse side effects.
Therefore, even if emu oil seems to be a mediocre acne treatment from the evidence, testing it as an experiment is safe, unlike for example, coconut oil.
For acne itself, emu oil is highly overrated. It might be natural, but natural doesn’t automatically guarantee success. You have to stay alert even after you’ve rejected the pharmacies. Emu oil’s best confirmed power is as a natural moisturiser, joining the likes of shea butter.
However, these conclusions are based on the evidence we currently have. The evidence is very thin right now; there’s very few studies compared to other oils. With the anti-inflammatory and wound healing studies we do have, emu oil is promising enough to keep on the acne radar until any greatness is finally confirmed. There’s also a long-standing theory that emu oil can prevent hair loss, and stimulate hair renewal. This isn’t proven either, but this study on mice detected increased levels of hair follicles after emu oil application, in addition to more mature and active follicles.
It’s safe to experiment with, as emu oil won’t clog your pores and set you back weeks or even months, like coconut oil has done to countless people. If it fails, it fails. if you succeed, then you’ve discovered something that scientists currently haven’t.
If you’ve already experimented with emu oil and finally escaped the realm of acne forever, or the opposite, then leave a comment and we will finally unravel this mystery.
Thanks for reading!